Photographers, bloggers and beat reporters feed an insatiable appetite for sports news. Here, the media swarm around John Henry, the new owner of the Liverpool Football Club, at a press conference in October. Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe.
When New York Yankees third base coach Rob Thomson walks from the clubhouse toward his team’s dugout, he carries a small sheet of paper with which he teases the beat reporters. It’s the lineup card for that night’s game. It carries the names, positions and the batting order for the Yankees.
Routine stuff, that card. It’s always posted on the team’s dugout wall and has been since Connie Mack was Cornelius McGillicuddy catching without a mask. Yet the assembled literati snap to attention as Thomson waves the card. They fall in line and follow the coach to the dugout. That way they’re present the second he tapes the card up.
“Then, thumbs start flying,” says Wally Matthews, a veteran sports reporter who is new to the baseball beat.
The reporters race against one another to thumb the night’s lineup into their handheld devices. They know that if they don’t get the lineup into the ether immediately they will start to hear lamentations from their Twitter followers, their Facebook friends, and that crowd of fanatics who want the lineup now and know they can get it now and won’t be happy until the reporters satisfy, if only momentarily, their lust for information.
“Hours before the game,” Matthews says, “I’m getting tweets asking, ‘Where’s the lineup?’ It’s crazy. The beat guys, it matters if we get the lineup posted first by 45 seconds. We go around saying, ‘Look at the time code, I had the lineup way before you.’ It’s now a world of flying thumbs. It’s like those video games I used to get on my 12-year-old son for playing—I’m 53 and now I’m doing it.”
A reporter takes a cell phone photo of his screen after learning through the @realpatriots Twitter feed that the New England Patriots traded the 23rd pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Photo by Stew Milne/The Associated Press.
Witnessing a Revolution
Matthews is a veteran New York newspaperman, long a boxing reporter and columnist, who in 2010 became a baseball beat reporter for the first time. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. One conclusion to draw from his experience is that the work on a sports beat today is more than an evolutionary step in the news business. It is revolutionary—with reporting routines that never existed before becoming fixtures overnight.
Maybe this revolution is a brave, necessary and visionary leap forward into a 21st century golden age of journalism. To some dinosaurs still roaming the ink-stained earth, it feels borderline suicidal. It reminds me of a hapless husband at the wheel of the family car telling his wife, “I have no idea where we are, where we’re going, or how we’ll get there. But we’re making good time.”
I wanted to be a baseball writer until I met one. I saw him do pre-game notes. Then during games he wrote a running account of the action, inning by inning at best, at worst hitter by hitter. Afterward, he hurried to the clubhouses for quotes. Back in his press box seat, he wrote a new story. All that work, done at speed, was counterproductive to good reporting, let alone keen observation of a game that rewarded such attention. As for writing anything of a quality much higher than a ransom note, the workload made that impossible.
That’s what I thought way back in the 20th century. Now, as we hurtle through the 21st, baseball beat reporters would love to live at that leisurely pace. “From the time I get to the ballpark, four hours before a game, until I’m done two hours or so after, I’m writing constantly,” Matthews says.
Everything he hears in the clubhouse and dugout is fodder for Twitter and his live-blogging. He records every word, transcribes the interviews, and rereads it all so if he happened to miss a “news” item while thumbing/writing, he can drop it into his next tweet. He says, “I tell my wife, after 3:30, don’t call me unless it’s an emergency because I don’t have time to talk.”
Lisa Olson, a columnist for AOL Fanhouse, has seen live-blogging in action. The process is essentially an awkward, truncated boys-at-the-bar conversation between a reporter and an audience of anonymous users. Generally, the writer offers random thoughts and answers questions. For reporters whose skills have been shaped by years of newsgathering, this work must be as much fun as playing Scrabble with a poodle.
“The running blogs are such a waste of energy,” Olson says. “Wally Matthews is a great example. He’s a wonderful writer, but the games I’ve sat near him, he’s typing furious running blogs (play-by-play), then scrambling to write a completely different story on deadline. What a waste of talent.”
The best baseball beat reporters have always been perpetual motion machines. But even for them, there are physical and mental limits beyond which they lose effectiveness. Olson believes those limits have been reached. “Most newspapers and some sites,” she says, “are running their beat reporters into the ground way too early.”
Beat reporters are not alone in typing without rest stops. In Atlanta this fall, as I went to the Braves clubhouse, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley hustled ahead of me, head down, notebook in hand. “Been writing constantly for six hours,” he said. That day he had been the paper’s live-blogger. Back in the press box at 10:30, he would then do his morning column.
Can this be good? For the paper or the website? For the reporter? For readers and users? For journalism?
To my fundamental question—“Is all this good or bad for reporting?”—Matthews responds, “Well,” before he pauses. “It’s certainly thorough,” he concludes.
It’s thorough in a way that journalists know is deadly to their work. It’s thorough in that it records everything with little regard for context, perspective or narrative. It’s thorough in the way a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is thorough; it’s all there, the consumer just has to put the pieces together.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It is. The paradoxical truth, however, is that such thoroughness is the beating heart of the revolution that is necessary in the journalism business. Warren Buffett, who knows about making money, once said that no one ever built an audience without making money from that audience. So journalists know what they must do. Build the brand. Drive traffic. Draw an audience. And hope that someone figures out how to make the money that makes it possible to again do real journalism.
“It’s crazy,” Matthews says. Then he sighs. “But it’s the world we’re in.”
Dave Kindred is the author of “Morning Miracle: Inside The Washington Post, A Great Newspaper Fights for Its Life.” He has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 40 years and received the Red Smith Award for his work as a sports columnist.