Nearly a century later Twitter is the telegraph in the press box. Reporters watch the New York Giants play the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1913 World Series. Image from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

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Red Smith: He Made Words Dance
- Jonathan Seitz
In the spring of 2010 Frank Deford, a senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, author, and commentator on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” delivered the Red Smith Lecture in Journalism at the University of Notre Dame. He called his talk “Sportswriter Is One Word” (PDF), an at times humorous, always insightful rendering of “the carnival I hitched a ride onto in 1962.” For close to half a century he has written stories about athletes and the games they play, and now, as he assesses the technological changes in how sportswriters do their job, he provocatively states that “The end of journalism as we know it is only the beginning of better things for sports journalism. With two caveats.” An excerpt follows:

It says something that alone in the canon, sportswriter is one word, as if we press box inhabitants cannot be separated from that which we professionally embrace. Everybody else in the business is two words, modifier and noun, discreetly separated: editorial writers, foreign correspondents, movie critics, beat reporters, and even—yes—sports editors.

But sportswriters: one word. The assumption, I suppose, is that we do not stand apart and clinically observe so well as our more respected brethren who better keep their distance from their subjects and are properly, clinically objective. …

In fact, to be a sportswriter today isn’t nearly as engaging. The revolution is over. There are just more teams, more standings, more players, more numbers, more agate type. There’s even more soccer.

Still, while it’s not just nostalgia and the sappy memories of an old man to say that sports was a better canvas to paint on then, nonetheless, when talking about the changes in sports journalism, it’s so hard to distill it from the rest of the discipline. That world I stumbled into in 1962 was already on the cusp of being manhandled by technology.

The late Neil Postman, who was a brilliant social observer, once suggested: Education as we know it began with the printing press and ended with television.

So now, I suppose, we could say: Journalism, as we knew it, began with the printing press. It ended with the Internet. …

But now, of course, people in this century are growing up with a predilection only to read about what already interests them. Actually, I’m ahead of this curve, because I discovered this luxury years ago when researching novels. You only have to cherry-pick precisely what you need for your novel. You come across something you don’t understand, well, you just skip it and say, “No need to put that in the novel.” Because, you’re making it up! It’s great.

But novels are one thing, a vocational bagatelle, and being an informed citizen is quite another.

Unfortunately, you can’t make up the prevailing news menu. If you avoid reading about the bad news, it’s still out there, looming. You can’t escape global warming and Afghanistan simply by turning over to “Access Hollywood” or “SportsCenter.” Not surprisingly, every study and every bit of common sense tells you that if you give people a choice between watching news or entertainment, an awful lot of them are going to choose the fun. But, guess what? This is wonderful for my crowd. This is absolutely terrific for sports journalism. We’re the winners. Because people do like sports—and in fact, especially as more and more women get involved in sports, more and more people of all stripes are going to want to read about sports, and this link of sports leads to that link and on and on and on, and soon we know more and more and more about draft prospects and recruits and possible trades and schedules and point spreads and polls and more polls and statistics and statistics and more statistics. Who cares that it’s bush? It’s fun.

The end of journalism as we know it is only the beginning of better things for sports journalism.

With two caveats. First, who’s gonna pay for it? Nobody’s yet figured that little niggling detail out. … And number two, what’s good for sports journalism is not necessarily good for sportswriting.

The Internet—or, to be kind, the influence of the Internet—is reducing the amount of storytelling in sports journalism. The increased interest in reading and hearing about sports is all too often about minutiae: the statistics, expertise, Xs and Os, the skinny.

The feature story—the “takeout” as it is known in newspaper parlance—is being taken out of newspapers. Not enough space. Too expensive to take all that time to research and write it. People don’t have the attention span to actually read paragraphs anymore. Alas, that’s pretty much an article of faith now. Pitchers can suddenly only go six innings, and readers can only go six paragraphs.

The story, which was always the best of sportswriting, what sports gave so sweetly to us writers—the sports story is the victim. Sportswriting remains so popular—one word. Sports stories—two words, are disappearing.

So while we may properly bemoan the loss of newspapers and magazines, have no fear, sports fans. There will be no dearth of easy access to box scores and statistics and dugout gossip. Or celebrities walking down the red carpet or getting caught in bed with the wrong people. And now, of course, that includes sports celebrities getting caught in bed with the wrong people.

No, no need to worry, fans: All that stuff will continue to be well covered. It is the good stories, and, even worse, the good investigative journalism, that we will lose.

It was only a few years ago that two reporters on the San Francisco Chronicle, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, worked for more than a year on the story—BALCO—that essentially fully exposed steroids in baseball and other sports. Phil Bronstein, who was editor of the Chronicle during that investigation, told me not long ago that today the paper surely couldn’t even begin to consider such a risky expenditure of time and human resource. …

Lost is the weight of the written word. Instead, the images that flicker before us are so ephemeral, it’s hard for us to grasp much of anything—and because there are no movies of the distant past, soon there is no past. Sometimes I think that all that remains of history that anybody cares about anymore are home-run records.

So, if we have not actually regressed to illiteracy in these digital times, we are, increasingly what may be fairly called a nonliterate society. We risk becoming optionally illiterate.

Those of us in journalism love to quote … and quote and quote again … Thomas Jefferson’s famous remark: “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Hooray for our team. Thank you, Mr. Jefferson.

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