Povich Symposium: Sportswriting Then & Now
By Connor Mount
Panelists gathered for the Shirley Povich symposium agreed that the decline of daily beat reporting and accountability and the rise of criticism from remote locations are among the biggest changes in the field of sportswriting Tuesday.
Tony Kornheiser, the co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” noted the shift in journalistic roles, saying, “There’s a lot of people who sit around and they wait for somebody else to report something. And then they lay back in the weeds, and when your head comes above the water line, they shoot you. And that passes in many cases for journalism.”
Moderator Maury Povich, a famed talk show host and the son of Shirley Povich, provided websites such as Awful Announcing, Deadspin and Barstool Sports as examples of the journalism Kornheiser described.
Mike Wilbon, Kornheiser’s co-host on “Pardon the Interruption,” gave a hypothetical example to make the same point.
“What bugs me now is that people is that people sit in their mother’s basements and write this crap and they don’t have any knowledge of what is going on in that place, and it’s too easy to get it,” Wilbon said. “You can go to a game, you can go to a locker room. The only reason to read this stuff is to tell people why something happened, and if you’re not there, and you can’t tell me why it happened, I don’t care about all your advanced analytics and all the other things you concoct.”
Christine Brennan labeled the practice “hit and run journalism” because the authors of the critical content don’t face the consequences a beat writer might after writing something negative about the team they cover. The “fly by night” authors don’t have to worry about athletes freezing them out in the future because they don’t need to maintain contact with them in order to write stories about them. Brennan said the style of reporting cannot last, and that it will be the hardworking journalist who will eventually win out in the long run.
Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins defended the websites put down by the other panelists.
“I think it’s important though to point out that some of these Internet outlets that we’re calling ‘fly by night’ have…kind of kept mainstream sports media a little bit honest,” Jenkins said. “I mean, let’s face it, the Deflategate story in the NFL is a bit of collusion between mainstream beat writers and the NFL…The ESPN-NFL partnership means that certain stories don’t get reported [like] they probably should be in some ways.”
Deadspin released police photos earlier this week of Nicole Holder and the injuries she suffered from an alleged attack by Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, sharing the images with the Internet before any other outlets. TMZ was the first to publish the video of former Ravens running back Ray Rice striking Janay Palmer in the face in an Atlantic City elevator.
Jeremy Schaap, an ESPN employee who works on their E:60 video program, came to the defense of the network’s coverage of the scandal.
“I would disagree and I would say that I think we advanced that story as much as anybody,” Schaap said. “I think the long-form story we did on the relationship between the league and the Patriots…that’s the best thing I’ve seen anyone anywhere in the industry do it. If our relationship between the NFL prevents us from doing that kind of reporting it certainly wasn’t evident there.”
The rise in criticism from writers working for websites unaffiliated with the major sports leagues and from Twitter users has prompted a shift in athlete-reporter relations. Chelsea Janes, the Washington Post’s beat writer covering the Washington Nationals, is currently dealing with that change.
Athletes “have found numerous ways to avoid sitting at their lockers,” Janes said. “There’s just a greater awareness. There’s just a sense that there are more ways to be misquoted, misrepresented, more people without an accountable outlook behind them that can say whatever they want…and I think there’s just more of a widespread paranoia. And I completely understand it.”
Kornheiser has also detected athletes’ reluctance to speak with the media.
“Now there’s this thing, The Players Tribune,” Kornheiser said. “Now what you see from players is, ‘I don’t want to go through the same process that I used to.’ Or, ‘I’m gonna tell you my story and I’m not gonna depend on you to tell it the right away. I’m gonna tell it myself. I’m gonna have my own website. I’m gonna have my own forum. I’m not trusting the filter that you’re gonna put to what I say.’”
The Players Tribune is a website created by former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter that was launched in October 2014. It allows athletes to write their own essays, thoughts and reflections and publish them on the website.
Despite the drastic changes to the peripherals of the landscape, with the declining print newspaper and periodical business being the main focus point, the heart of the industry can live on. Wilbon gave advice for the generation of aspiring sportswriters ready to inherit the field.
“Learn how to talk to people face to face,” Wilbon said. “Stop texting for a minute, stop emailing. Learn how to have a conversation with people. Learn how to pick up a phone and do it if you can’t do it in person…let them see you. You see them. Personal interaction. This is a people business.
“And learn how to tell a narrative. And you don’t need advanced analytics to do it. Learn how to tell a story…if you can’t tell a story without relying wholly on statistical information, then that means you can’t tell a damn story. The best storytellers in my life were people who weren’t journalists. They were people, old folks, who could sit by the fireplace and just keep you riveted. They didn’t have any stats.”
Tuesday’s discussion marked the10th annual edition of the Shirley Povich symposium. Opening remarks were made by University of Maryland Vice President of University Relations Peter Weiler, Philip Merrill College of Journalism dean Lucy Dalglish, University of Maryland professor George Solomon and Graham Holdings CEO Don Graham.