Monday, December 24, 2007

ESPN and the Trickle-Down Effect

The New York Times published the following article on Christmas Eve:

Titled, "The Top Player in This League? It May Be the Sports Reporter," the article details efforts by ESPN and Yahoo Sports to sign the top newspaper and magazine sports reporters.

For sports journalism, this article is a great Christmas gift for several reasons:

1) Note that these are content-related hires. These are journalists who built their reputations by providing good reporting. These are not loud talking heads who can piece together multi-syllabic adjectives and adverbs, but whose information is basically recycled.

In today's online sports information culture, the premium is on information, not opinion. Whether the consumer is a fantasy league team owner seeking an edge, or a hyper-fan thirsting for the latest developments related to their team or sport, what keeps them at a Web site is information, not gimmicks.

Granted, sports broadcasting in general and ESPN in particular have been at the forefront of the gimmickry. Whether hiring high-profile names of dubious journalistic skills, or foisting hype-driven features such as "Who's Now?", ESPN and its mimics have stressed style and sizzle.

But subtance-and-steak journalists like Selena Roberts of the New York Times and Mark Fainura-Wada of the San Francisco Chronicle did not build their reputations by practicing yelling at a camera. They are known more for producing sound journalism:

2) Note that these hires are not fawning celebrity sports journalists. The steroid scandal shined a spotlight on the sports journalists who covered baseball, and almost across the board, the verdict was clear: Baseball journalists looked the other way.

For sports journalists who let celebrity adulation create conflicts of interest, their content will suffer. But Roberts, Fainura-Wada, and even Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated maintain an objectivity that allowed them to criticize athletes when necessary. (I still cringe when I think about Reilly's column about Barry Bonds as Bonds approached the home run record.) The athletes themselves might not be too happy at such journalists having a higher profile, but that would itself be an endorsement of the journalists' objectivity.

As a former sportswriter and now a college professor who teaches sports journalism at Auburn, I have been concerned by young journalists who find it hard to set aside their sports loyalties and function as professional journalists. At least now we have examples of positive journalism role models who are succeeding.

3) Note that these sports journalists left openings at their publications. The editors interviewed by the New York Times might decry this as a brain drain, but instead, it's an opportunity for young sports journalists -- and they're out there -- to continue to hone their game. I'm excited to see who will be stepping into these positions and showing themselves equal to the challenge.

For those young journalists who were hoping to land the next opening on "Pardon the Interruption" or "Around the Horn" or its next version ... well, there are always local high school football broadcasts looking for high volume and multi-syllables, I suppose.


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