Roy Peter Clark, the extraordinary writing coach at the Poynter Institute, wrote a lament for the loss of the great game story last week.
Clark (whose 50 tools for writing is the best thing I've read about news writing), reacting to the insane Blue Jays-Rangers game last week (the one with the Bat Flip), wrote that he was looking for a great, memorable game story to match the great, memorable game. - or more accurately, a great lede. "I’ve never met a great game story that didn’t have a great lead."
Clark evokes the great Red Smith lede from the Bobby Thompson Home Run (Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead.) and the Shirley Poivch lede on Don Larsen's perfect game (The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach first game in a World Series) and examined some of the better ledes from last week's game.
It's an unfair comparison. Those ledes are the best ever in sports writing - it's like saying a band's song is good, but man, the Beatles wrote "Let it Be" and the Stones wrote "Gimme Shelter." Plus, those two games had a singular moment to focus on (Thompson's homer, Larsen's pitching). The Jays-Rangers game had about seven things to focus on.
But Clark's column got me thinking about the state of the game story. From Clark:
The game story has seen better days. It has been worn down by endless replays, the multiple demands of social media, the incursion of data and by a news cycle measured by the nano-second. There are attempts to reduce it to formulas carried out by robo-writing. But then something happens. A big game breaks in and demands attention. Fans see something they have never seen before and want to experience it again and again. Not just the what of the game, but also the why and how.
The state of the game story is one of those topics that pops up periodically in sports journalism circles. I'm not one of those people who thinks we should do away with the game story, even in it's traditional format. As someone who teaches sports journalism, the basic game story is a good core skill to start students on. It's the sports journalism equivalent of playing scales. I think that the game story still serves a really valuable purpose at small town newspapers and for high-school sports coverage. Just because something doesn't work at ESPN or The New York Times doesn't mean it doesn't work across journalism.
Plus, I've grown to distrust the cliche that "everyone's already seen the game." I think that's an assumption that's dangerous to make. For every fan who watches every second of the game, who follows live stats and Tweets during the game, there's another who had to work late, or was busy their kid's school and doesn't know what happened. For every die hard fan, there are people like my father and father-in-law, who just want to know who won the game and what happened. I think assuming our audience has a level of knowledge is potentially dangerous.
Far more problematic, for me, is the locked-in, institutionalized way games are covered by most media. The game story-sidebar-notebook-opposing locker room-column model for game coverage is outdated and is, thankfully, starting to evolve (The Buffalo News is doing really interesting things with their Bills coverage).
The game story will always be a part of sports journalism. One thing my dissertation showed was that sports journalism revolves around game coverage - I'd argue that no area of journalism is so intrinsically tied to a part of their coverage as sports journalism is to games. So the game story will not go away. But it may evolve. It may be de-emphasized. The great game story about Toronto-Texas was a fun column written by Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur, that captures the insanity of the game not in a traditional format but in a way that was fun and interesting to read.
But the game story will remain a part of the field. Which means there will be more chances for another all-time lede.