At Grantland, Bryan Curtis writes about the slow decline of The New York Times’ Sports of the Times column. But more than one column in one newspaper, Curtis is really writing about a broader shift in what content is valuable in an online age.
First, [Times sports editor Jason] Stallman surveyed his own stable of feature writers. “John Branch wrote a column when he was in Fresno,” he said. “Jeré Longman has written commentary and could be dynamite. But these are guys we have fallen in love with doing distinctive enterprise stories and other investigative types of work. We’re disinclined to put them in a box of just commentary.”
It shows how the MVP of the section is no longer the columnist but the longform writer. In olden times, Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Snow Fall” would probably have been assigned at 1,200 words. “I don’t believe the hierarchy of the New York Times values sports,” said Roberts. “Or I don’t think they value it on a regular basis. I think they value the big, vigorous investigative approach to sports. But the everyday is an afterthought.” It was as if those elephantine features were a way to get the paper’s top editors to finally pay attention.
It really is remarkable, for those of us who grew up reading sports columnists in our local daily, how much the institution turned out to be an artifact of a temporary news ecosystem. The broad journalistic conceit of objectivity — which made the owner of forceful opinions stand out that much more. The general demotion of regular reporters’ individuality — which turned columnists, whether sports or metro or editorial, into stars. The ways in which newspapers’ organization around geography, particularly metro areas, pushed college and pro sports teams to the fore as subjects of coverage.
And, of course, the near monopoly that most U.S. newspapers had on opinionated voices in their cities — which made even the hackiest of sports columnists into giant personalities.
The rise of sports radio helped push back on that monopoly, but the Internet finished the job. I don’t believe there is a class of reporter that has seen its value fall in the past 10 years as much as the hack print sports columnist, who (at least in the major pro and college ranks) faces more competition than ever. (Rick Reilly used to be a god.) Grantland’s been running parodies of hack newspaper sports columns lately, and they’re uncomfortably dead on.
Stallman says there’s nothing wrong with a good column, obviously, but that investigative reporting, aggressive beat reporting, and long-form features are where the action’s at.
“Maybe through the Lance Armstrong saga, we’d like to have had a columnist laying in properly. But I look at it that we have Juliet Macur completely setting the agenda on the story, so I’d much rather have that than a columnist.”
One other line worth noting:
Stallman doesn’t believe “Sports of the Times” is anachronistic. Even with a paltry word limit in a web ocean of “longform”; even with its early print deadline while the rest of us work through the night.
Think about that: “a web ocean of ‘longform.’” Remember that whenever someone says that the web is all about short and quick and 140 characters. Who’d have thought five years ago that “there’s too much longform” would even be conceived of as a competitive factor for journalism online? (It’s noteworthy that Grantland was started within ESPN by Bill Simmons, whose shaggy 12,000-word epics are as responsible as any for shifting the center of what writing about sports looks like.)
— Joshua Benton