Internet outlets topple legacy giants in sportswriting annals
In 1991, there were 24 stories selected in the first book of the series; David Halberstam served as the guest editor. The lineup included 11 from newspapers, including four from the late, great The National. As you would expect, Sports Illustrated had a presence with three entries.
Now fast forward to the 2014 edition of “Best Sports Writing,” which was released in the fall with “Born to Run” author Christopher McDougall as the guest editor. Of the 25 stories in the book, only two are from newspapers (both from the New York Times). Instead, Internet sites now are more prevalent with eight stories coming from the Dot-com sector.
And here’s the ultimate kicker: There are two stories from Deadspin in the book; none from Sports Illustrated.
“You can see the shift from newspapers, to magazines becoming more dominant, and now mainly magazines and the web,” Stout said. “But that’s the truth of the industry. It’s like the whack-a-mole. As one source gets knocked down, something else pops up.”
Nobody likely reads more sports stories than Stout, who puts the annual estimate at “5,000 and probably higher.” Based in Vermont, he spends a good portion of his day scouring various platforms for possible candidates for the book, along with compiling formal submissions from writers and editors. Then Stout and the year’s guest editor determine what stories make the cut.
The end result is an eclectic mix that often veers off the mainstream in sports. Don’t expect to read about LeBron James and Peyton Manning in this year’s book. Rather, the collection includes stories about a one-legged wrestler; a homage to the sports bra; an ultimate fighter who faked his death; and a riveting piece about a runner mysteriously vanishing during a race on a mountain in Alaska.
“It’s much easier for a story to stand out if it is on something less common,” Stout said. “It’s hard to write a LeBron James story that is going to stick out and be superb. So much is written about him.”
The selected stories tend to fall in the long-form category, which Stout believes explains the drop-off in the newspaper side.
“Back in the 90s, a lot of our stories were from the Sunday newspaper supplement magazines,” Stout said. “They gave sportswriters the opportunity to be more ambitious with a story. There were probably more than 50 newspapers that had Sunday magazines. I don’t think there’s more than five now. You just don’t see the volume of takeouts (from newspapers).”
The same situation also exists to a certain extent with Sports Illustrated. Stout said the magazine is doing fewer big back-of-the-book bonus pieces as it did in the past.
Stout, though, cautions not to read too much in Sports Illustrated not having a story in this year’s book; ESPN The Magazine had three.
“If over a five-year span, there are only one or two stories from Sports Illustrated, then that probably means something,” Stout said. “But based on one year, I don’t think it is that significant.”
Still, some sort of statement is being made when an edgy, new era site like Deadspin is represented with two stories while Sports Illustrated, the industry standard for more than 60 years, has none.
“It says writers still are putting out great stuff. They just found different places to do it,” Stout said. “When we put our first (Internet story) in the book in the early 2000s, people went, ‘Whoa, where did this come from?’ Now people are not surprised to find good work on the web anymore. There is an inexorable shift to digital that is obvious to anyone who has their eyes open.”
The good news, Stout contends, is that in the age of short-attention spans and 140-characters, there still is a thriving market for quality long-form stories on sports. He says he easily could have put out a “shadow book with 25 other stories.”
Stout says his goal in each book is to select stories that will stand in the test of time. “If you come back to (the 2014 book) 24 years later, hopefully you still will get enjoyment out of reading these stories,” he said.
Perhaps Stout’s mission could be seen in the book’s title. Note it is two words: Sports Writing. He cites a passage he used to open his first book in 1991.
Stout recalled that long-time Boston Herald columnist Tim Horgan used to ask future press box residents, “Why do you want to become a sportswriter?”
“The student always would reply, ‘Because I love sports,’ Stout said. “Horgan said, ‘Wrong. You have to love the writing first.’”
In the book, Stout then wrote, “Precisely.”
Recommended reading on sports journalism this week:
- Joshua Robinson of the Wall Street Journal writes it is normal for soccer players to dodge the media in Europe. Marshawn Lynch would love it over there.
- Bryan Curtis at Grantland with a nice read on the Lynch situation at the Super Bowl.
- Matt Yoder at Awful Announcing reports ESPN has hired three “millennial” reporters, including the son of Christopher Reeve.
- The Boston Globe has a Q/A with my old high school classmate, Bob Kravitz, on the fallout he received from breaking the deflated footballs story.
- Media consultant Kevin Sullivan believes Lynch took the focus away from his teammates last week.