Panelists Talk ‘The Great American Sports Page’

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Panelists Talk ‘The Great American Sports Page’
Dec 9, 2019

By Ryan Romano

When John Schulian was younger, most colleges didn’t have sports writing programs. He fell in love with the genre through something else: a yearly sports writing anthology published by E.P. Dutton, which exposed him to titans such as Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon — and showed him the possibilities that sports writing offered.

“There was so much freedom stylistically and subject matter-wise,” he said. “And there were chances to be bold in a way you couldn’t be … in other sections of the newspaper.”

After a long career in journalism, Schulian put together his own sports writing anthology, “The Great American Sports Page,” which came out earlier this year. On Saturday, he joined five other venerable sportswriters for a panel discussion of the same name, hosted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Freedom Forum Institute at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Taking a wide-ranging look at the past, present and future of the field, Schulian was joined Thomas Boswell, columnist for The Washington Post; David Kindred, contributing writer for Sports on Earth; Jane Leavy, sportswriter and author; Kevin Merida, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of The Undefeated; and Ava Wallace, college sportswriter for The Washington Post.

The sports writing process has changed immensely in the 21st century. Leavy, author of a revelatory biography of Babe Ruth, credited the internet for allowing her to dig up information about his childhood — from his parents’ ugly divorce to the premature deaths of his siblings — that previous biographers had missed.

“The availability of newspaper archives and family archives and papers online, the amount that you can go find, is astonishing,” Leavy said in front of a packed auditorium. “My predecessors, who did not find out what I found out … they didn’t have what I had.”

Other changes are making sports writing more difficult. Schulian said athletes used to be more open with the press — he joked that reporters could “go to saloons with them or be with them when they got their DWI” — but with more money in sports than ever before, athletes have become much more guarded.

“They all have the same four sentences they utter,” he said. “‘I put a good swing on the ball’ — it’s not even grammatical!”

Readers’ preferences are shifting, too. When Boswell was coming up as a sportswriter, columnists were “generalists” who covered every sport — even the ones they didn’t know much about. Nowadays, he said, readers want columnists with “authority and expertise” on a more narrow range of topics.

“When you write about something that you really understand and have covered, that gets a response,” he said. “If [you] write about something you don’t know about, they just dismiss you.”

Merida said there’s also a greater demand for sports journalism that touches on culture and social issues. And Wallace said modern readers want to learn more about athletes themselves — especially if those readers were raised on Vogue-style celebrity coverage, as she was.

As print journalism continues its steady decline, outlets are making greater use of social media to reach readers, and that’s opened the door for a new wave of digital journalists. Merida noted that while he was speaking on the panel, several Undefeated reporters were live-streaming on Twitter from a sneaker convention in Los Angeles.

“We just transform to the culture,” Merida said. “A lot of people [consume] streaming services, they consume a lot of things on social, and that helps to define what people are looking for.”

As they reflected on the state of sports writing, each panelist named several active sportswriters they’d like to see in a future anthology. Their suggestions ranged from old-school columnists such as The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke and The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins to internet natives such as The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis and ESPN’s Mina Kimes.

Wallace posited that if people her age were asked the same question, they’d pick opinionated writers such as Jemele Hill and Bill Simmons, who don’t fit into the traditional sportswriter mold. This should serve as a lesson, she said — the old mold isn’t particularly relevant anymore.

“The definition of a sportswriter is so broad now,” she said. “It’s really so niche for so many different people.”

Regardless of new developments in the industry, or changes in consumer preferences, the basics of sports writing are the same, Kindred said.

“Know a story, find a story, report a story,” he said. “And I think that’s worth teaching.”

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