Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Future of Journalism, Sportswriting, Etc. (Part I of 7,324,565)

When I was 27 years old, I quit my job. It still feels like an utterly insane decision, even though it wasn't, even though I'd been contemplating it for more than a year. I had been living in Akron, Ohio for five years, working as a sportswriter at the local newspaper, and I had been accepted to graduate school in Boston, and I had saved up enough money to live for that one year of school. Also, this was in 2000, at the tail end of the Internet boom, and I thought, worst-case scenario, I could move to San Jose and get a job working on a start-up of a website that would, say, teach cats to speak Farsi or sell Barry Bonds memorabilia.

Part of this decision, I admit, was based upon quality of life: I was not from Akron, I did not have family in Akron, and while I had made some real friends in Akron, I wanted to get back to the East Coast. But I also made this decision because I had grown entirely impatient and disinterested in the things I was supposed to be covering. Somehow, I had come to dislike sports.

Which brings me to Joe Posnanski's searching and introspective post about sportswriting, about whether we all tend to take things too seriously, about whether that professional distance we all learn about in school and vow to carry into our professional careers somehow wrings the joy out of the whole endeavor. And I do think Joe raises some interesting points, and I do think he brings up some things I have often wondered about myself, about this new age of information purveying: For instance, I believe one of the reasons I left the business was because I simply wasn't cut out for the daily grind of newspaper beat reporting. I knew it, and my bosses knew it. And it is a grind, just as any job becomes a grind at times--it may sound like great work, especially at this moment in our nation's history, to attend baseball games every day and hang around in locker rooms and punch out a story every evening, but there are many things about it--endless travel, bad food, disagreeable subjects--that were not very much fun, at least for me. That sounds blasphemous, but there you go.

Recently, a young and supremely talented sportswriter for a major newspaper landed in a bit of a kerfuffle because he admitted to an interviewer that he didn't enjoy covering sports. This sportswriter is almost the exact age I was when I jumped out of the business in Akron. No question, his timing was terrible, and he should have known better than to say this out loud, but I understood exactly what he meant. You have to be kind of a special breed to cover a beat like that; the guy I used to work with in Akron, Sheldon Ocker, has been covering the Cleveland Indians roughly since the days of Lou Sockalexis. He's the kind of guy who never seems to be having fun, but I assume that he is, since he hasn't taken a day off during the baseball season since Joe Charbonneau's rookie year.

This kind of work is not for everyone. It requires a certain amount of drudgery and detachment and persistence. Sometimes, when it exposes the unseemliness of the sporting world, it tends to make people unhappy, and there are people who don't like to be unhappy when they read about sports, who simply want to run away from their lives and into this world.

So I think what I'm saying--or at least what I'm trying to say--is that in an ideal universe, stories like this (by Yahoo's Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski, an astoundingly well-reported piece which may bring down the Connecticut basketball program) will find a way to survive and co-exist with the more irreverent incarnations of new media, with Deadspin and the Big Lead and the Bill Simmons podcast*, with all the little snippets of information that make up the big picture in this new world. It should not be one or the other, and yet it is much easier, and much simpler to advocate for these simpler (and less ethically thorny**) pleasures.

Don't get me wrong: In a way, I'm happy all these things exist, and if they existed when I was 27, my career might have been completely different. But I also worry whether all this emphasis on the new is somehow going to leave us with less.

*I cannot begin to tell you how much time I wasted reading Simmons' columns in the period between May 2002 and early 2003, when I worked a 9-to-5 at a trade magazine that may have been the most boring publication in the world, if not for the presence, in the same building, of Convenience Store News. But this is another story.
**And much cheaper, in terms of cost to produce.

(Photo of Shirley Povich by Lynn Povich, from NJ Jewish News)

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