I'm thinking a lot these days about
the future of sports journalism. The
occasion is Poynter's second Sports Journalism Summit. From April 18 to 20, as many as 150 sports
journalists, young and old, but mostly young, will convene here in St.
Petersburg, Fla., to talk about their craft and their
future. That future can be described -- like everything else in the news media world these days -- as bad or good, bleak
or sunny, demoralizing or exciting, iconoclastic or breathtakingly innovative.

In other words, no one knows for sure.

I don't do crystal balls, but I've borrowed my friend's
Magic 8-Ball to help me answer my own questions about the sports journalism
craft. As I hold the 8-Ball in my hand,
I confess to having a brief vision of Jeanette Lee, the Black
Widow, the world’s most recognizable pool champ.

Are
you really thinking about Jeanette Lee?

(8-Ball:
As I see it, yes.)
I grew up in the '50s and '60s, watching and playing
the big three: baseball, basketball, and football. What fascinates me
is how my passion for sports has expanded. I have less loyalty to the
big three, but, on any given night, I could be watching or reading
about soccer, hockey, boxing, poker, women's 9-ball, a little NASCAR,
golf, pro-wrestling, even the Ultimate Fighting Championship. If I were
beginning as a sports writer, the world would look like a gigantic
playground. I'd want to write about the Super Bowl and the local
horseshoe champ.

Should
old school sports writers be threatened by the new school developing
around the Internet?

(8-Ball: My reply is no.) There is confusion and fear throughout
journalism focused on this topic.
In the old days, the path was pretty clear. You started at a small paper and worked
your way up to a bigger one. You
covered prep sports and climbed your way to the college and professional
ranks. If you were good, you could
become a columnist. In your
fantasies, you could write for Sports Illustrated and make a bundle
writing books. But then came sports
talk radio, ESPN, Web sites, multimedia and blogs. I think this means more paths to
success, not fewer.

Continue,
wise master.

(8-Ball: Cannot predict
now.)
I'm fascinated, for example, by
the success of Bill Simmons, the franchise columnist and blogger for
ESPN.com. To the hot, young, irreverent
bloggers, Simmons may seem hopelessly mainstream. Hell, he works for ESPN -- and has written a
book! But for a decade, he has created
something new and different, pissing off some old school scribes along the
way. For them he roots, roots, roots too much for
the home team. Watches too much
television. Wanders too far, on
occasion, from sports into popular culture. Lusts too ickily for Anna
Kournikova. But it's a frame, a voice, a
point of view. Supposedly, he's like you
and me: the Sports Guy, and he continues to attract an enormous
readership. But here's what I like most
about Bill Simmons: he writes long, long, long, and manages to carry me along
with him. He's a living, breathing
contradiction to the contemporary wisdom that readers don't have time or
interest to read, especially online.

But you're an old school
guy. You read Red Smith. Aren't you offended by some of these dramatic
shifts in the culture of sports journalism?

(8-Ball: Don't count on it!) Many of
the new school forms encourage reader or fan feedback. The blogger is less of a voice from Olympus,
and more of a convener of the tribe. The
challenge is always the same: moderation
and mediation. The blogger's edge often
comes from the rejection of political correctness and mainstream
sentimentality. I'm down (or up?) with
that. What I can't abide in the feedback
loop is crude incivility, expressed by anonymous voices in the form of barbaric
racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia.
If those are the fleas that come with the dog, I want to kick the dog.

Do you think traditional sports
journalists can keep the attention of a new generation of readers?

(8-Ball: Please stop shaking me.)
I think we'll see two different things happen at once. A lot of young
new voices will come along, and
they will be more successful, sooner than their predecessors. But think
about this: Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (a couple of
geezers) attract a young audience for PTI.
Woody Paige (a handsome geezer) is popular with young readers and
viewers. On college campuses, Dick
Vitale has the profile of a rock star.
John Walsh, the executive editor of ESPN, argues that success comes
from
curiosity and passion. I would add that
new school fame often comes more from old school virtues than we might
think: seeing the world as a storehouse
of story ideas; finding things out and checking them out; working hard;
writing
in an authentic voice.

Why do we still care so much
about sports?

(8-Ball: Please wipe off your
fingerprints and put me down.)
For lots
of reasons, but not the most commonly cited one, that sports offers entertainment and
escape from the hardships of life. I
think it goes much deeper than that.
First of all, sports has been a doorway of liberation in the culture, a
way that marginalized groups worked their way to the mainstream. Think Joe DiMaggio (as a representative of
the Italian-American community), or Jackie Robinson, or Billie Jean King. Sports is a source of civic pride, as any
parent (like me) who has watched a child win a state championship can
attest. Even deeper, it's a symbolic
(supposedly safe) way in which a culture establishes and tests its most
important virtues: courage, loyalty,
selflessness, patience, the ability to recover from devastating loss. That's why sports will always attract such
talented storytellers.