George Solomon’s End of the Year Column
The end of the year always marks a number of memorable journalistic achievements. This year is no exception, with newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and Cleveland Plain Dealer doing wonderful work during the World Series– proving with its coverage the game story still has a place in sports journalism.
Chuck Culpepper’s college football and basketball coverage in The Washington Post had the same effect on me– as did the Olympic coverage from Rio by USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Boston Globe. Nor did The New York Times take a back seat to anyone with its hard-hitting investigative sports reporting on important issues, including concussions and domestic violence.
If the number of reporters assigned to major sports events declines every year, noticed by those of us who overstaffed such events, at least we ink-stained wretches (writer David Kindred’s favorite term for newspaper veterans) appreciate the quality of work turned out regularly by newspapers and websites.
Dan Jenkins may no longer excite us weekly in Sports Illustrated, but his daughter Sally cranks out killer columns for The Washington Post. Superstars Tony Kornheiser, Frank Deford and Bill Nack do more work these days for television. But Mike Lupica, Michael Wilbon, Bill Plaschke, Mitch Albom, Christine Brennan, Bob “I really have retired” Ryan, Kevin Blackistone, John Feinstein and Tim Cowlishaw, among others, serve both mediums well. Richard Justice does terrific columns for MLB.Com – sometime seven a week – with the site proudly noting its content is not censored. And for Wall Street Journal readers, Jason Gay is a must.
And those of us who live in the Washington area have for years applauded the work of Washington Post sportswriter Barry Svrluga. Svrluga, whose specialty has been covering baseball with veteran columnist Tom Boswell, was recently promoted to a columnist himself — a worthy battlefield commission if there ever was one. Neither Boswell nor Svrluga have radio or television shows – perhaps remembering the late Red Smith’s question: “Who has time?”
I asked Ed Sherman, who covers sports media for the Poynter site, what were the big sports media stories were in 2016? He noted ESPN’s loss of subscribers, declining NFL ratings (solution: can we get NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth to do more games for more networks?) and Bill Simmons’ struggles on HBO. Of the decline in NFL ratings, Sherman responded: “The star players can’t stay on the field…It seems there is an injury on every play. Throw in a bunch of ho-hum teams and boring primetime mismatches and, well, the networks are looking at a big problem.”
Among the departures in 2016, Vin Scully’s retirement as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ broadcaster after 67 years calling the team’s games, beginning in Brooklyn 1950, has to be paramount. Scully was miles ahead of most of his colleagues because he felt his job was to report the games, tell stories about the players and what they were doing on and off the field. He did not root for the Dodgers, beg for wins, complain about the umpires, or sell tickets for the team. He was the complete professional who attained respect from everyone in the game. And what a voice.
“Because of the day-by-day tributes, he became the story and that made it more difficult for him to do his job,” said Malcolm Moran, who runs the sports journalism program at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis. “But he did his job, as he always had. What a balance; to be objective after 67 years covering the same team.”
Verne Lundquist calling SEC football games forever for CBS did not get the national recognition as Scully. But Lundquist also was a broadcasting legend, who like Scully, did not have to remind you that he was a legend. I was also was sad to see Tom Jackson – another true professional — leave ESPN.
Personally, I will miss Andrew Beyer’s horse racing columns in The Washington Post. Beyer retired this year after covering the sport for more than four decades. His writing was perfect; concise, smart and authoritative. You could call him the sport’s watchdog; but in the past 10 years horse racing seemed to die before his eyes — even though a day at Saratoga or Pimlico on Preakness Day prompts the question “What death?”
Richard Sandomir, who covered sports media for The New York Times for 25 years, thankfully is still with us—but leaving the sports department to work on The Times’ obituary desk. In his final sports column on Dec. 11, Sandomir wrote: “I had a voice that some wanted to muffle. I watched enormous amount of TV sports, at night, on weekends, on holidays, taking notes in case somebody said something stupid. This was a job? Watching TV for a living?”
The Times will miss Sandomir; he covered an important subject extremely well. But like many journalists in sports departments, his role at The Times could have become expendable in the near future. He’ll be a solid addition to The Times’ obit desk, whose news columns should be a must for journalism students required to read something longer than 140 characters.
Another major loss for The Times’ sports staff was the departure of William Rhoden, who wrote an important column for more than 25 years. Rhoden, the winner of this year’s Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith award given by the Povich Center, transferred his talents to ESPN’s “The Undefeated.” “The Undefeated” — by the way — was a vital and important addition to the sports journalism scene in 2016.
On another personal note, we’ll mark the passing this year of Hubert Mizell, a sports columnist for more than 25 years at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa) Times and others stops at industrial plants producing news on paper. Mizell, a classmate of mine at the University of Florida when gators actually did infest Alachua County swamps, covered every sport and every major sports figure in this century and much of last century. We’ll also mourn the passing of Jennifer Frey, a sportswriting superstar who died much too young. And what’s left to say about Turner’s Craig Sager, who died Dec. 15 and left a sporting nation sad because he made so many people happy.
As for the future of our business, one need only to read the table of contents in the Columbia Journalism Review’s Fall/Winter edition to roll your eyes and ask parents of prospective journalism students to avoid. In the beat of the Music Man – we’re talking about the “Innovation Issue” – featuring stories such as “new ways to follow the story,” “the tech/editorial culture clash,” “innovation gone bad,” “the age of the cyborg,” and “where have all the digital dollars gone?”
If you think that’s Trouble in River City, how about Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll’s words: “Newsrooms require new ways to think about – and embrace –technological innovation. One place to begin with is the public mission of journalism. After so many years of dislocation and confusion, it is past time for journalists to separate professional innovation from business and audience innovation. This is not an either/or choice, but it is imperative if the profession is to revive its own credibility and appeal.”
In the same issue, two of The Washington Post’s driving forces –Shailesh Prakash and Joey Marburger—leading the organization’s recent surge in the digital arms race, shared their vision and hopes for the future. However exciting this sounds, at least one person who spent 37 years at the newspaper’s former headquarters on 15th and L streets, NW, in downtown Washington, is just hoping these guys won’t cancel my seven-day subscription.
Enough for now. Next time diversity in sports media.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.