Here was a moment that explained why a sports fan in New England would reach for The Boston Globe each morning. The excitement of a New England Patriots victory had become overshadowed by speculation that Randy Moss, the gifted and controversial wide receiver, was about to be traded to the Minnesota Vikings. The combustible mix had become a national story during the previous evening. In the morning, when I opened up my Globe, this is what I read:
The Patriots and Vikings have been in trade talks for a while, and as of last night were close to a deal if Moss and the Vikings can agree on a contract extension, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports said on WEEI’s “Planet Mikey Show” last night.
That is what we are left with in the fragmented tick-tick-tick of the 21st century, a daily sprint toward the latest slice of relevant information that can transform a long-held standard—as in “the Globe has learned”—into reliance upon a source from another planet.
The story inspired a conversation in a sports writing class I teach at Penn State University. I confess there are times—arriving more and more often—when “tightrope walking” seems a more apt title for this class. The technology of our time and all of the ways to make use of it have acceleratedthe process of newsgathering to such an extent that those who graduated five years ago tell me how out of step they can sometimes feel.
So how do we prepare the next generation? When addressing prospective members of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism several years ago, I spoke about thrills I’ve experienced as a reporter covering a memorable event. Kirk Gibson’s ninth-inning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series came to mind, the one that sent the Los Angeles Dodgers on their way to a five-game victory over the Oakland Athletics. I’d just finished describing the wonder of clinging to a railing behind the last row of the press box at Dodger Stadium as I watched the ball clear the right field fence, when Jamey Perry, an assistant dean in Penn State’s College of Communications, leaned in my direction and did me a favor.
“They weren’t born yet,” he whispered.
I have an artificial Christmas tree that is older than my students. Freshmen in this past fall’s class might not have been alive when Christian Laettner of Duke made the last-second shot that beat Kentucky in a game for the ages and sent the Blue Devils to the 1992 Final Four. To them, Bob Knight and Lou Holtz are not coaches as much as talking heads. Need any reminders of the ephemeral nature of sports? Look no further than the blank stares in press boxes when once famous names go unrecognized.
Yet, there is so much that matters that we should be passing along to a generation that faces big journalistic challenges. The lucky ones—those students who can parlay their eagerness into something resembling a job—are being asked to produce more content and do so more quickly than any generation to precede them. They blog, they tweet, and then they blog and tweet some more, and yes, eventually they file a story, squeezing in time to watch the game. Even then, many are expected to provide instant context in real-time, bite-sized pieces—while also interacting with fans who are tweeting and blogging, too. When is there time to exhale?
It’s true that they have been raised with digital technology—and thus arrive at the starting gate as digital natives. We see this in their expectation that replays will reveal every possible angle. Why watch the game, when what’s important gets replayed? You can miss it and head to YouTube.
Today’s sports beat reporting seems more about producing fragments of information than in shining a light on core issues of our time. That said, it’s been all but impossible for any sportswriter (or fan) in recent months to avoid a few topics—Tiger Woods, steroid use, and concussions. But it’s worth remembering that behind at least the last two of these topics was the investigative work of a few dogged reporters who refused to stop digging.
Those hours spent on digital media—from computers to smartphones—are contributing to two deficiencies among the beat reporters today: a lack of discernment and a reluctance to engage. And each deficiency can prevent sports reporters from finding out information that their readers and viewers deserve to know.
Red Smith wrote his columns on a portable typewriter. Technology doesn’t change them. There is an expectation of precision and careful preparation, and the importance of arriving early and staying late. There is the payoff that results from that extra phone call—or even in making that first phone call rather than relying on texting. (I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that value still resides in the exchange of conversation.) Then there is the art of assessing a complex situation, of choosing the topic worthy of a question, and framing that question to gain insight as well as information. Still, there remains the essential need to develop relationships as a way of earning trust and the reliance on those relationships to gain access to a sensitive or controversial truth.A few givens about sports writing remain as true today as when
Here is what has changed—just about everything else.
When the notebook in the back pocket or the purse was replaced by who-knows-how-many toys, there was no warning label attached. Competitive pressures are rewriting the rules. Tweeting was barely in a reporter’s vocabulary several years ago; now the process can border on the obsessive. A story, once read by two, three, four editors, is now a blog post read by how many? One? Maybe?
Under the old model, if a source passed along sensitive information to a reporter at noon, the reporter would have an entire day to digest the information, determine its context, contact others, and return to the original source to confirm additional information before it was time to write a story. The entire process could take four, six, eight hours. Now this process might be compressed into minutes.
This is why the advice is simple: Don’t look down from that tightrope; your safety net is gone, likely forever.
What happens when the newsroom boss is more interested in being first with the new—eager to have the publication’s logo gain a spot on the scroll across the bottom of the television screen—rather than making sure that the story is accurate and fair? This is the point when I tell students about a contentious conversation from a long time ago in which I resisted an editor’s preference that I rely upon a source that I neither knew nor trusted. When I asked if this was the policy of the department and whether this is something I was being instructed to do, the editor replied: “I think that makes for good reading.”
As more opportunities for entry-level reporters develop in digital media, I’m concerned that they will be unprepared for that type of conversation. At the start of the semester, I write these words on a whiteboard: It’s Your Name. I am not saying that their reporting should be timid, not at all. I am suggesting that in a real-time environment, when facts can—and do—shift by the hour, there are times when they should be aggressive and others that require restraint.
They don’t have to listen to me. All the students have to do is sit back and watch. How many times did we read or hear reports last summer declaring that the Big 12 conference was dead, a victim of a seismic shift in the affiliations of athletically ambitious colleges and universities? That is not what happened. How often are reports on a high-profile coaching search in error? Too many to count.
This generation has been told that an accuracy rate of 80 percent suffices—and sometimes it seems even that number is high. Perhaps 80 percent is considered good when Shaquille O’Neal stands at the foul line—sorry, Shaq—but not for a reporter when he or she clicks “send.” Students need to know that.
And there is one other thing. During the first class of the semester, I posed a question. “Who can tell me what newspapers Red Smith wrote for?” No one raised a hand.
They need to know that, too.
Malcolm Moran is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University and directs the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. Before assuming this position, he was a sportswriter at USA Today, The New York Times, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune.