Despite Industry Woes, Good Journalism Sill Exists

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Despite Industry Woes, Good Journalism Sill Exists
Aug 12, 2019

We are about two weeks from the start of a new semester at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism and my 17th and final year teaching at Maryland.

Dismal reports about the future of our business come across the computer screen and desk daily, at a frightening pace, topped off depressingly by the New York Times’ special section, Aug. 4 on “A Future Without the Front Page.”

How about these headlines in The Times special section that day to show prospective students and their parents when they visit Merrill College and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism:

-       “Dying Gasp of a Local Newspaper”

-       “Curtain Calls of Local Giants Large and Small”

-       “Our epitaph”

-       “Front-Porch News, Delivered by Text Message”

-       “The Ghost Papers”

Well, if that doesn’t get a parent to write a check for junior’s tuition, try this, by The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, as quoted by the Columbia Journalism Review’s “The Media Today” on Aug. 9: “In today’s Darwinian media environment, newspaper, magazines and online publications seem to be biting the dust every week — a depressing new normal.”

Grove was responding to, among other journalistic events of the past few months, the recent acquisition of Gannett by New Media Investment Group/Gate House for $1.4 billion. That would give that company one out of every six daily newspapers in the U.S., including USA Today that tried to be the most complete paper in the country, especially in sports when it covered everything and even reinvented the baseball box score that hadn’t been changed in 100 years.

Still, at the annual conference of sports editors in Atlanta in June, more than 100 leaders of sports departments, big and small, seemed optimistic that they and their news organizations would survive. The quest for sports, they believe, from the highest level of LeBron James to kids’ baseball and soccer, would overcome a business model that might have been updated 25 years ago. (Shared coverage is the new norm, when once a rival sports editor four decades ago threatened to “drive me and The Washington Post into the sea.” We didn’t share coverage in those days).

I asked Carl Sessions Stepp, professor emeritus at the Merrill College and a smart sounding board on such issues, his thoughts as more than 500 students, including 125 freshmen, prepare to begin the new school year at Merrill College:

“Today, the daily papers, except for The Times and The Post, are pretty sad, for working and for reading,” Stepp said. “On the other hand, there is some extraordinary journalism being done, some of it by newspapers and some of it by the many online sites. I’ve been telling young people that journalism itself is healthy — people have more desire for news and information than ever before. It’s the business that’s in trouble. So, if you’re young and have talent and desire, I think you can find a spot. People will always want news. You just have to be savior about the kind of places you try to work for.”

So, finally, a few words of wisdom to students, for one of the last times: Read good reporting and writing, write as much as you can, hold a book and not a telephone, find some role models (and don’t let them go), get internships and look for ways to get published, posted or taped. Don’t get discouraged. Find a way. Don’t worry about the New Media Investment Group. instead, break a news story.

***

It’s been a tough month for one of my favorite ESPN radio/television personalities, Miami’s Dan Le Batard, whose defiance of the network’s “no politics on the air” edict resulted in a “conversation” with ESPN President James Pitaro. If that wasn’t enough, Le Batard was bummed out by being moved from one Miami radio station to another by the owner of both stations. All remains the same on his ESPN national radio outlet — and popular television show with his father. It’s not easy being Le Batard.

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I had to laugh at New York Times deputy sports editor Matthew Futterman’s recent piece about how running (he’s marathoner) helps him “understand myself and approach to life — as a marathoner (23 and counting) and as a writer, which are sort of the same thing.”

I used to run (10 K’s were my tops), but have long admired many sports editors and sportswriters who disdained such activity for a different lifestyle. Such as Ike Gellis, the late sports editor of the New York Post and my boss for a year (1965), whose daily lunchtime activity was devouring two hot dogs with sour kraut, mustard and cream soda. It was my job to fetch him the hot dogs daily, regardless of the heat of the day. Some of the other greats of the business — Frank Deford, Pete Axthelm, Dan Jenkins, Stanley Woodward, to name a few — were never seen in running shorts at lunchtime. Veteran sportswriting great, Tom Callahan, once told me runners lied. “If they said they just ran six miles, you could knock three miles off that.”

Callahan was not a runner, just a great sportswriter.

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