thursday, may 01, 2008

The Paradigm Shift in American Sportswriting

Earlier this week, Will Lietch, the man behind the fantastically popular sports blog, Deadspin, decided to take part in a panel on Bob Costas's HBO show, CostasNow. Also taking part was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, who has made a name as an author of books on various sports themes.

The discourse died the second Bissinger told Lietch "You're full of shit."

Now, I might not possess a Pulitzer Prize but years ago, when I was setting out to get a degree in Philosophy, I learned the hard way that the hallmark of a losing argument was when you became incensed. Cursing means you have graduated to simply showing your ass.

Undaunted, Bissinger went on to excoriate Lietch as an exemplar of all the excesses attributable to those who write under the aegis of bloggers. In one sense, Lietch is a valid target due to the sheer dominance his site has over its niche. But the vitrol this lauded writer spewed out obliterated any possibility of discourse.

The object of his affection and his prickliness about it certainly isn't unique. He spoke for many writers in what has become to be known as "the mainstream media" - newspapers, magazines and even talk radio - when he pointed an accusing finger at Lietch and said, "This guy, whether we like it or not, is the future. The future in the hands of guys like you is really going to dumb us down to a degree that I don't think we can recover from."

Despite it's pervasiveness, the point not only misjudges the state of sportswriting as a whole but reeks of an unctuous elitism that has served to drive me away from mainstream sportswirting in the first place. And if Bissinger isn't alone I certainly am not either.

Yes, the democratic aspect of the internet makes it prey to the curse of the lowest common denominator but that's not to say there aren't examples of excellence either. There's a lot of shitty books writ each year but that's not a good reason to reject the one's Bissinger has penned.

"You can't say anything about "blogs," any more than you can say anything about any medium," wrote Michael Schur (AKA: Ken Tremendous) over at Fire Joe Morgan "There are good blogs and bad blogs. There are blogs that cover the personal lives of athletes, ones that cover only the games, ones that offer opinions, and even a few that quixotically and foolishly attempt to metacriticize the media as a whole."

Case in point the glorious Every Day Should Be Saturday penned by one Spencer Hall under the pseudonym Orson Swindle. I'm a fan of this blog not because I've got an interest in it's primary subject, college football, but because it offers such great writing on the subject with awe-inspiring regularity.

In the wake of Bissinger's attack Hall offered his own Apologia pro Vita Sua that ably counters the inevitable ad hominem arguments against bloggers levied by their mainstream counterparts. EDSBS is great not because he chides sports figures when they do stupid stuff but because he celebrates the sport he devotedly loves. The latter comes through in every post - even the most comically cynical - and that's what the best sportswriters are supposed to do, I my humble opinion, of course.

One of the best newspaper editors I ever worked for insisted the key to writing well was reading good writing with regularity. I find it on Hall's blog and other places on the internet, not in newspapers or other 'traditional' media. And while the democracy of the internet means there's a metric boatload of shit to wade through, it also ensures some fantastic work is out there as well.

Turns out most people who invest the time an effort involved required to keep a blog working tend to be motivated by their love of the subject they are writing about it in and of itself. Most of the chafe doesn't last long because it either never collects an audience or the writer loses interest.

To make it a profit-producing enterprise, as Lietch has pointed out, takes time, dedication and effort - just like building a normal journalism career in the mainstream media. Almost to a man (or woman) bloggers tend to be are dumfounded when they reach the point they are actually rewarded financially for their efforts.

I am in complete agree with 100 percent of all this because. . . well, obviously, I am a blogger.

I blog and it is certainly not an enterprise I undertake for personal fame or financial gain. I've got a stat counter that's cruelly unapologetic about the rarity of visitors to this site. It's practical purpose is that My mom knows I'm busy and a handful of folks that like what I have to say and that's about it.

Would that I could make enough from this enterprise that could underwrite it. That would be a degree of success that would thrill me beyond measure. It would also not change what I do here in the slightest.

During his tirade, Bissinger specifically singled out a writer for Deadspin who uses the pseudonym, Big Daddy Drew, for criticism. Which is ironic since he is also the author of one of the most clearly postulated pieces examining the difference between blog and regular media sportswriting.

Drew's point is that regular sportswriting is forced to cater to the subject it covers to an extent that it cuts off its ability to connect with its readership. Worse, sensing the divide, regular sportswriters lash out at the medium which has now filled that role. Which is disappointing since readers tend to differentiate between the two quite well.
    "[Sports blogs] are talking about sports WITH me, rather than trying to lecture me about whatever unique, enlightened perspective they discovered watching from their privileged viewing platform. Sometimes I need the latter. Other times, I don't. The whole reason people like sports blogs is because it's regular fans shooting the breeze with other regular fans. It's a viewpoint some columnist with unlimited clubhouse access can't share, and often looks down upon, as [sports columnist Rick] Reilly does, because it's "uninformed."
Of course, Drew evoked particular criticism in Bissinger's rant due to his more sarcastic and off-color writing which he does at length on the hilarious Kissing Suzie Kolber. And, as one would expect, a rebuttal was presented on that site as well. And there is a lesson here as well.

Just because someone writes about a subject doesn't mean that's the subject of their writing. "Kissing Suzie Kolber" is not meant as an analysis of sport, it's about humor - gleeful off color humor. And locking horns with a skilled comic writer is to court disaster. You might find yourself accused of having equine conjugal relations or something similarly absurd.

Because this kind of perverse prose starts at funny in an snickering off-color way and then raises it to sublime by doing so with a dead on parody of writer in question. It's not for everyone but that doesn't take away from its brilliance.

Of course, I'm not particularly upset over all this because I'm concerned about the standing of American sportswriting. What concerns me is what this conflict between the mainstream media and electronic media bodes for journalism as a whole.

The problem with this debate isn't that the style of writing is changing it that the medium is changing. And to confuse those two facts is to commit a critical error. What has changed isn't a style of writing, what has changed is the way of publishing those writings.

Mark Twain once famously noted the power represented in the ability to publish a newspaper when he quipped: "Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel."

The point, obviously, is that the man who prints the newspaper has the luxury of holding the audience's attention not to mention the fact he'll always enjoy getting the last word.

The internet has changed this though. Ink and newsprint are costly commodities today as we are invariably reminded each and every time there is a new round of layoffs at some famed or not-so-famed periodical. So while the economic bottom line is cutting the legs out from under the newsroom at a fantastic pace, the premium on pixels remains remarkably low. You can get a website up and running for free. It'll cost you and just a few hundred dollars if you want to make it all fancy and all.

There is glorious democracy to the blogosphere which is as fantastically wonderful and horrible at the same time. You can find some of the most amazing examples of whatever style writing you can think of out there, but be prepared to wade through swamps of swill to get there.

Writers for mainstream media are vetted by their publication and, assumedly, rewarded financially for that. But the masthead of the Los Angeles Times certainly doesn't make Bill Plaschke's prose any less tortured or execrable, it just gives him a bigger soapbox to air his half-baked views from and a comfortable enough lifestyle to keep penning it.

The steadily downsizing of newspaper staffs has led to an erosion on the sports side as well. A few cranky old timers continue to crank out their columns but, for the most part, the new blood has been turned out on the street with the rest of the hopeful up and comers in the biz. Talented or not the bleeding has to take its toll.

But if going through the horseshit and indignities of a regular sports (or news) writing gig is lacking the eventual promise of a quality role covering the subject they love - what's the point. Eventually they follow their own muse and find someone who will publish their work - themselves.

A key change the internet has brought about is the cutting of the umbilical cord of information newspapers once represented to the reading public. If you wanted to know the standings of the league fifteen years ago, you had to go to the box scores in the back of the sports section. Once you picked it up you might as well read the analysis as well.

Today, that same information is available anywhere on the internet and with innumerable pundits out there holding forth on whatever topic one might choose you certainly aren't obligated to read the stable of writers under any single publisher's keep.

This isn't all just complete wankery and it certainly isn't confined to sports writing. The ongoing collapse of traditional newspapers in the face of the rising popularity of the internet isn't a myth. It's real and the outcome isn't simply a matter of preference or interest - it raises serious questions about the foundation of our society as a whole.

In his summation of the incident Lietch was blunt about what he though the true message of the outburst meant: "The future is obvious to anyone even slightly interested in looking. We just stand aside, as he, as they, watch the light shrink, then fade, then vanish."

I can't say I see that happening. Mainstream journalism has a place and a role, what seems to disturb them is the uncertainty this change is forcing on them and, instead of grappling with the problem the have taken to lash out the manner it has been manifested.

Jon Weisman over at Dodger Thoughts summed that aspect of the argument pretty well:
    "The fact is, even as the consumption of information migrates online, even as the economics of the business are forever altered, a quorum of readers and writers are still interested in truth. Journalism is not dying. It may be evolving, but it's not dying. It's living and breathing - breathing fire at times, just like it always has. (Or was Charles Foster Kane modeled on a blogger?) What decay there is isn't the bloggers' fault, it's the business model's, as well as that of some of the leadership."
And to believe that there is something involate about either journalism in general or sportswriting in general is ludicrous.

In his landmark 1951 essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," the American philosopher W.V.O. Quine pointed out that all scientific statements are intrinsically interconnected. This meant that the process of verification brings the entire field of science into play and not just single statements. Every scientific tenet, no matter how established and foundational, is subject to change.

To put is simply, Science, for the most part, is what we say it is. The particular system that has emerged is completely malleable. Which isn't to say it's random or relativistic. There is an element of pragmatism at work - the array that best accommodates the way the world actual operates is the one that will hold the greatest sway at any given point.

If it seems possible that something as concrete as a scientific truth can be subject to the vagaries of change is it so absurd to propose an aesthetic pursuit could be subject to the same? No matter how hoary and esteemed we hold the tenets of journalism - be it sports or news - it has always been painfully subject to the vagaries of fashion.

As usual, it's the observation of the fantastically insightful and erudite Sunday Morning Quarterback who cuts closest to the quick: "Yammer, peons, yammer away, and paint the walls erected by your money-grubbing media forebears, and over one another's splatters, and erect new walls, and fight about it, until somebody new comes along to the table so you can rage against their impertinence, too. Same as it ever was."

posted by kleph @ 2:00 am |

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