Legendary L.A. Times sports journalist on the past and future of sports reporting
You will be hard pressed to find anyone with a more unique perspective on the epic shifts in sports journalism than Bill Dwyre.
After 25 years as sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, Dwyre sought a change in 2006. He wanted to spend the final years of his career writing as a columnist.
In hindsight, Dwyre says it was the right decision. The view he got during the last 9 ½ years was much different than if he stayed in “my glass office.”
“I’m happy that I did get both looks [as an editor and writer],” Dwyre said.
Even though he says he isn’t retiring from writing, Dwyre recently bid farewell to the Los Angeles Times. He didn’t necessarily want to leave, but he says if somebody “offers you a buyout at 71, you take it.”
The final column put the wraps on Dwyre’s highly-successful run at the paper. He won the 1996 Red Smith Award for contributions to sports journalism, the Associated Press Sports Editors highest honor.
Dwyre experienced the best of the times for the Times and newspapers, and the worst.
Indeed, the contrast is striking. When Dwyre took over as sports editor in 1981, he oversaw a staff of more than 130 people. He recalls the Times sports section had so much talent, a young Rick Reilly had to work his way up to the main newsroom in Los Angeles from the Orange County bureau.
Of course, it helps to have your clean-up hitter be Jim Murray. Dwyre said for a columnist of such immense talent, Murray had “no ego.”
“He was incredible,” Dwyre said.
Dwyre had vast sports sections to showcase Murray and the other writers’ work. During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the Times published 24 special sections, many of them 44 pages.
The travel budget virtually was unlimited. Dwyre said the Times once dispatched a reporter to Paris just to get a quote from an athlete to fill out a story.
Early in his tenure, Dwyre sent Murray to St. Andrews for the British Open. Concerned that he might have spent too much, he called then editor Bill Thomas.
“I remember there was a long pause,” Dwyre said. “Then he said, ‘Listen kid, I give you a budget and I expect you to spend every cent of it and more. Don’t bother me anymore.’”
Try to imagine that happening today. Now high school sports reporters barely are allowed to cover a game in the next county.
“Those were the salad days, to be sure,” Dwyre said.
Then the salad wilted in the 2000s. In one of his last years as sports editor, Dwyre called a staff meeting.
“I told them the Internet was coming and that we have to pay attention to this,” Dwyre said. “I knew the Internet would have an impact, but I didn’t see the total devastation of the way we think of newspapers.”
Dwyre said the growth of the Internet didn’t affect his decision to step aside as sports editor. And it really wasn’t much of a factor for him during his days as a columnist. He said he was given the time to do more comprehensive, thought-out stories.
“I might be the last guy standing with that kind of freedom,” Dwyre said.
Indeed, Dwyre said today’s media landscape calls for immediate reaction. In many cases, it is write first, think second.
“Jim Murray used to write the definitive column on racial issues [three days after the initial news broke],” Dwyre said. “He had you going, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?” It happened because he took the time to think about what he was going to write.”
Later, Dwyre added, “Now there’s very little thinking and a lot of reaction. That bothers me. You lose depth. You lose real balance.”
Yet having said that, Dwyre also spoke of his “amazement” in watching how today’s sportswriters operate in an era of diminishing access and ridiculous deadlines. He recalled covering a fight where he was so wedged in at the press table, he couldn’t move his elbows. And the fight started after his first deadline.
Being out in the field was an illuminating experience for Dwyre. He contends today’s sports editors could benefit from leaving their offices and spending more time with their writers.
“Sometimes you write what you think is a good story and you expect feedback, and you get nothing,” Dwyre said. “I don’t think it is malicious. But a lot [of the editors] have no clue of the crap we have to go through to get that story.”
As for Dwyre, he says he is experiencing some withdrawal pangs after leaving the Times. Column ideas continue to pop up in his head while watching a game.
Dwyre plans to do some free lancing writing on golf, boxing and other subjects. He also will continue to watch what happens with the industry.
Dwyre had an interesting answer when asked about his assessment for the future.
“One of two things is going to happen,” Dwyre said. “Everything is going to go to the web. Then every newspaper in the country, except maybe the big ones, will start printing one or two days a week. We will just give away.
“Or this on-going mandate to do everything digital that’s making us no money, has no financial backing for the journalism, will finally run out. Somebody then will put a lot of money into this thing that gets delivered to your doorstep every day, and people will get excited about it. The whole thing will come full circle.”