George Solomon’s Farewell to Class of 2019

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George Solomon’s Farewell to Class of 2019
Jun 3, 2019

Merrill graduate Hannah Yasharoff signs the Povich wall.

Nothing gets my blood going the right way than the annual commencement of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. On May 23, about 130 aspiring journalists received diplomas from Dean Lucy Dalglish and heard commencement speaker Chelsea Janes tell them to follow their dreams and realize the importance of their work despite negative feelings toward the craft from many in the country.

The graduating seniors selected Janes to be their speaker — and interesting choice because the onetime extraordinary beat writer of the Washington Nationals for The Washington Post chose last winter to vacate the baseball press box to cover the 2020 political campaign. Janes is not the first sportswriter to try reporting in another field (Tom Wolfe, Bob Considine, Mike Lupica, Dick Schaap, David Remnick, among others, did the same). Shirley Povich, W. C. Heinz and Stanley Woodward wanted and got to cover World War II, with Heinz and Woodward on the scene when the allies liberated Paris in 1944.

But I would point out to Janes that when Heinz returned to the U.S. after covering the war in Europe, his editors at the New York Sun welcomed him with open arms and asked what’d like to do next for the newspaper. “Sports” was Heinz response. He was assigned to cover the then-powerhouse Columbia University football team, coached by the legendary Lou Little. Little, aware of the dangers faced by Heinz in his previous assignment, met with Heinz his first day on the beat and told him, “whatever you need from us, you’ve got.”

Today’s college football coaches might say the same thing to Heinz, but adding “practice is closed” and players are “off limits.” Such is life in sports in 2019, except even in these uncertain times journalistically, one can reflect on the quote by the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren, who said in 1967: “The sports page records people’s accomplishments and the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

Which is why we send our sports-centric graduates into the world, hoping they can still find opportunities writing or talking about sports at a time when even the pillars of the business, such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, confront financial issues that make even their futures less clear and their staffs uneasy.

In early May, ESPN announced it will cease publication in September of its print magazine after 21 years. In a statement, ESPN said, “Consumer habits are evolving rapidly and this requires ESPN to evolve as well. The only change here is that we are moving away from printing it (the magazine) on paper and sending it in the mail. Our journalists will continue to create the same exceptional content (online).”

A month later, ESPN showed its intent to remain journalistically significant when its Baxter Holmes broke the story of former Lakers president, Magic Johnson, running his organization through bullying and intimidation. Johnson denied the story — on an ESPN show with Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon.

Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, down to about two issues every month instead of a weekly product you couldn’t wait to read, had its “intellectual” property rights purchased by Authentic Brands Group from SI’s ownership group, Meredith Corporation, for $110 million. The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss reported Meredith will continue “to print the magazine and manage the editorial side of Sports Illustrated for at least two years.”

What does this mean for Sports Illustrated’s readers and employees? “Who knows,” one SI writer said.

“I would wait at the mailbox for my copy of Sports Illustrated every Thursday,” Ted Leonsis, owner of the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, once told me. “But times change.”

The double issue published by Sports Illustrated April 22-29, with Tiger Woods on the cover, contained great photos and stories by Michael Rosenberg, Chris Mannix, Stanley Kay, Dan Greene, Jon Wertheim, Bill Drozdiak and Rone Tempest that would impress even the late SI legend Frank Deford. I’d still wait at the mailbox for that. Same goes with the “The Big Read” by Tom Junod on Warriors standout Steph Curry in the latest ESPN The Magazine.

All gone? I hope not.

The dozens of college students interviewed by The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch in his recent “media circus” column don’t want that kind sports journalism to disappear, either. Their hopes and dreams are no different than Deford’s — back in the early 1960s — when the recent Princeton grad, after work at the local watering hole, would hang on every word from his editor, Andre Laguerre, and the rowdy gang who made SI.

“I hope to be a sports features writer, focusing on long-form and enterprise writing,” Kelsey Russo of Georgia told Deitsch. “I am confident that I can do this work in the sports media world because there are people out in the industry doing it now who have inspired me. I also know this style of writing is my passion, so I will strive to pursue this area of sportswriting.”

“I’ve always been more of a writer than a talker, and I’ve always been more of a reader than a listener as a media consumer,” Duke’s Hank Tucker told Deitsch. “I’d much rather read a good long-form feature story than listen to an hour-long podcast or watch a talk show.”

So, what future awaits Deitsch’s panelists — and the Merrill College 130?

I asked some friends in the business for their opinions:

Sandy Rosenbush, retired editor and winner of this year’s Red Smith award: “If anyone tells you he or she knows what shape the news reports of tomorrow will take, they are lying. The business is changing rapidly. But what we know is people want news: politics, sports, weather, all kinds of news. So, know how to report and whatever happens, you will succeed.”

Greg Lee, senior managing editor, The Athletic, D.C: “The future of sports journalism is still promising. However, what is not clear is what platform will be the last place where great storytelling will reside. The future is clear on the desire for sports information; what is still not clear is what the long-sustaining business model will become.”

Christine Brennan, columnist, USA Today: “Although these are difficult times for newspapers, I still believe today is the greatest day to be a journalist — until tomorrow. Never has journalism been more important than it is at this time, with the reprehensible attacks from President Donald Trump and those associated with him. I have no doubt that journalism and the First Amendment will prevail because truth always wins in the end.”

It’s a tradition at the Shirley Povich Center that our favorite sports-centric graduates sign our wall after commencement. The same wall that the late, great editor Ben Bradlee signed years ago, along with the three members of the Povich family, David, Maury and Lynn, all of whom made the wall a reality nearly 10 years ago.

Ethan Cadeaux, James Crabtree-Hannigan, Jordan Katz, Tom Kendziora, Daniel Oyefusi, Sammi Silber, Danielle Stein, Hannah Yasharoff. Good luck, to all of you.

Homepage image: Merrill College graduate Daniel Oyefusi addressing the crowd at commencement May 23. (Alex Pyles/Merrill College)

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