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July 2, 2008

ESPN and Sports Journalism

What follows is a repost of an assignment I wrote for my Sports Journalism class on the state of sports media. I thought I would share it here, although I am sure it could be expanded and made a little less stream of consciousness.

What is wrong with Sports Journalism? Everything and nothing at the same time.

The downfall of sports journalism, in its own way, is the thing that made sports journalism take off: ESPN. The self-proclaimed World Wide Leader has both given fans access to things we would never have had 28 years ago, or even 15 years ago, but it has taken it to the extreme where every iota of a person’s life is analyzed to the extent where you say, “Why do I need to know this?”

That is not to say that ESPN doesn’t do great work at times. Until Sunday night NFL games moved to NBC, the broadcast team in the booth was the best in the business. Sportscenter, before it devolved into a wholly sponsored 90-minutes and a dunk parade, was one of the best outlets for sports news. And E:60, the new long-form journalism being done by the company is some of the best work I have seen, from some of the best writers at the company.

And ESPN gets online. They do well on the web, they have intriguing content written well, and they understand new media and podcasts – the college basketball and football podcasts are both spectacular and much more informative pieces of analysis than anything they put on television.

Maybe that is the issue though. The television medium is where ESPN is doing its worst work. Its best material is online, beating CBS and SI handily. I can’t say I get through the magazine anymore, but it was some good work when it first started, although the flashiness now is more than I can take.

Sports journalism has become a web experience. Game data is available in such a plentiful state, that there is no need to wait until the morning paper to get scores or game reports any longer. Fan sites and blogs get more hits than local newspapers about what is going on across the country (although many of the former are dependent on the latter for their livelihood). If you can’t get something up and out on the web quickly, no one is going to read it. Provide a forum for fans to post their chatter, and you will pull in views and generate buzz.

However, that is the dark side of sports reporting as it stands. Blogs, for all the good ones out there, are still dominated by a few mega blogs, which all link to each other, and promote some content which is no better than the gossip pages in People Magazine. I don’t care if Matt Leinart is out with five USC coeds, as long as he does it on his own time, and it doesn’t affect his performance on Sunday. Pure and simple. I know that there has always been coverage of players and their girlfriends, but it has been taken to a new level by the internet and some of the “reporting” that takes place on blogs.

So where are we headed? I don’t think that blogs are going away anytime soon, although the departure of Will Leitch from Deadspin will change the face of the well-established leader in the blog field (ironically, the one thing that ESPN doesn’t do well, outside of Bill Simmons, who I don’t like and don’t care to read). So the challenge becomes how you take the blog format and add real reporting to it.

It is something that is probably easier said than done.

To get real reporting, many blog writers would need access they don’t have: to press rooms, to interviews, to players and coaches outside of their MySpace and Facebook profiles. As with anything, that requires pull, something that most of the bloggers do not have but established media does have. That means no access.

Or does it? I contend that they could still pick up a phone, which is a common criticism of the reporting. Pick up a phone, call a team, call a school, call a coach, and see if you can get an interview. See if one of the players will talk to you. Sure you might have to use sources from attendees at a club if something went on inside, but it doesn’t hurt to try and get the official line from the school.

Most of all, stop making things up. The satire of some blogs goes so far over the top, you lose all meaning. By all means, write a good and interesting column, but lay off the made up storylines, and the fake interview room scenarios. They work in small bites, not when you constantly write them week after week.

The web is the current and the future of sports reporting and it needs to improve standards to be more like established media. The established media needs to learn how to do the web, or present content in more interesting ways.

The other day, I came across a great video piece on ESPN about rabbit chasing in Florida: a great piece which I have never seen on television, only on the web. The problem that ESPN would have with a piece like this on the big screen is that it would be over played. You would see it seven times on Sportscenter, it would be put into pre-game coverage, it would be played during halftime of a game with some of the players featured in it. It gets over-exposure.

On the web, the piece stands alone as a great look at a side of the high school game you couldn’t know unless you were from there, and covered the teams and the players. These are the stories that create sports fans.

ESPN found a way to make poker interesting on television and it created an empire. It could continue to do the same thing with sports reporting without going over the top like it does at times (Around the Horn, ESPN First Take (formerly Cold Pizza), 1st and Ten all come to mind at first blush). They have the ability to pull in those from new media (and they have) who do it well and make the industry on the web something to cheer about.

However, they can’t do it if they don’t pay attention to the content that gets placed on its television networks, the bread and butter of its business. It is no secret why Sportscenter commercials did well back in the day. They were only shown on ESPN and yet were some of the most popular ads on all of television.

It was advertising for a great product, one that has consistently gone downhill since its heyday in the late 90’s and early 00’s.

Print, broadcast and web have a lot to learn from the past and the current to continue to generate content which makes people tune in and keep reading. There is no magic cure to what ails current sports journalism, but there needs to be the willingness for the established media and the new media to work together to get it done, something I haven’t seen happen yet.

Maybe when it does, it will be even more unstoppable than today.

This entry is tagged: blogs, ESPN, journalism, media, oversaturation, sports, sports journalism

Posted by bmiraski at July 2, 2008 4:38 PM