Inspired by my favorite podcast, The Road to Now, and some work I’m starting looking at the historical roots of access in sports journalism, I’m publishing parts of my dissertation that describe the history of sports journalism. This is Part 2 of 3
Sports journalism continued to grow in prominence throughout the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Arthur Schlesinger reported that in 1880, American newspapers dedicated only .04 percent of their space to sports coverage.[^1]
By 1920, that total ranged from 12- 20 percent of a newspaper’s total news hole. By the mid-1920s, nearly every newspaper in the country had some kind of sports section. Robert McChesney wrote that this is when sports journalism emerged as a distinct genre of journalism, and became an “indispensable section of the daily newspaper.” [^2] This era has been called the Golden Age of Sports Journalism, with legendary writers such as Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon covering sports for newspapers. It was also the time when many sports journalism practices emerged — including the game story, a play-by-play recap of a game. Joe Vila, who covered football for the New York Sun, is credited with inventing the play-by-play recap.[^3]
With the emergence of sports journalism as its own distinct genre, the way sports journalists do their job became established. Popular accounts of sports journalists' jobs show that they would attend games, take notes throughout, interview the coach (or manager) and star players after the game, either in a press conference or locker-room setting, and then write their stories before deadline.
Throughout the 20th century, sports continued to be heavily mediated, through radio and television broadcasts of games and events, with newspaper sports journalists responding to technological evolutions by changing their work routines. George Vecsey wrote that in the 1960s, reporters filed their stories from road games by sending them via Western Union telegram. By the mid-1980s, Vecsey and his colleagues were using portable word processors and computers to write their stories. Christopher Walsh described his daily work as a sports reporter at newspapers in Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin in the 1990s and early 2000s covering games, practices and breaking news. “At a typical night baseball game, the press box is full by 3 p.m. and doesn’t empty until midnight,” he wrote.
One of the most obvious changes to the way sports journalists did their jobs came with the growth of game broadcasts — first radio, then television. Game broadcasts forced newspaper journalists to change their focus. Michael Oriard wrote: “Sports writing has become an adjunct to television, its primary role now to find the story behind the story.” Instead of writing game stories that relied almost solely on play-by-play descriptions, sports journalists began using their stories for more analysis, more color, and interviewing players and coaches to get their views on the game. This began in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to radio broadcasts [^4] and continued with the growth of television coverage in the 1950s and 1960s. [^5] The quote became a critical part of sports journalists’ work, a way to differentiate themselves from other media, [^6] and like other journalists, reporters were judged on the quality of their sources.[^7]
McChesney wrote that TV coverage changed some of the ways newspaper sports journalists do their job. Stories became less likely to be recaps of the game and more reliant upon stats, analysis and background. By the mid-1980s, there was already a cable channel dedicated to 24-hour sports coverage, ESPN, and in USA Today, the one true national print newspaper, sports received 25 percent of the available space every day, compared with 12-20 percent in most local newspapers.[^8] In spite of this growth, the ways in which newspapers covered sports remained very much the same.
This has remained true even in the age of digital media. In 2013, Alan Siegel wrote that the Boston Globe’s “core approach to sports coverage—which still relies on boilerplate game recaps, columns, and weekly “notebooks” offering bullet-point takes on the happenings from the various sports leagues—hasn’t changed much over the years.”