Is this the Golden Age of sports journalism?

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN for The Other 51, my weekly podcast about writing.

Woj, who has been a friend and mentor to me for two decades, talked about how much better so much of sports journalism was now than it was in the past. I asked him, admittedly hesitantly, if he considered this to be a golden age.

Most people who responded to the tweet did so in a quick, hot-take, snarky manner that only demonstrated they hadn’t actually listened to the episode. But friend of the blog Dr. Matthew Zimmerman did, and raised a good point.

If it’s a question worth asking — is this a golden age of sports journalism? — then it is worth taking a more nuanced look. Because sports journalism is more than just reporting, more than just ESPN, more than just hot takes.

For fans, it is definitely a golden age. There has never been more information available about the sports we follow, the teams we cheer for, the athletes we care about. I can get real-time coverage of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey, Buffalo Bills football, Everton football. St. Bonaventure basketball, Oswego hockey - all without leaving my living room in Fairport, N.Y. We take that for granted, but it really is a marvel.

For reporters, I’d argue this is also a golden age. As Woj pointed out, it’s never been easier to stay in contact with the people you cover. Yes, access to players is harder than it used to be. But that also forces reporters to be better, to make extra phone calls and cull databases and not just settle for what the players or coaches tell them over beers at the hotel. It’s also better for women and minorities in the business — not perfect, but certainly better than the time so many people seem to think was the golden age.

It’s funny how so many Golden Ages tend to be Golden Ages for people who look like me, isn’t it?

Are there challenges to reporting in this era? Of course there are. But if you look at the amount of work being produced, and the amount of quality sports journalism that exists (rather than just root, root, rooting for the home team) and think of sports journalism as more than just the bloviators you see on TV at the gym, you can argue that this is a golden age for sports reporting.

But of course, there is the elephant in the room - it is not a golden age for the finances of journalism

Basically, the entire business model that has supported journalism in the modern era has been disrupted. For years, 75 percent of a newspaper’s revenue came from advertisements. Now, the New York Times and Washington Post are getting a majority of their revenues online from subscriptions. That’s perfectly fine for them, but that’s not yet trickling down to the local level (people who are enthused about The Resistance and supporting national investigative journalism aren’t supporting their local papers at the same rate). You see this in the sports world, too. The pivots to video aren’t working. Cord cutting and expensive rights deals are hurting the industry leader. Local papers are starting to charge for online sports subscriptions, but that’s still very new. The Athletic model is interesting, but is it scalable?

This extends beyond the health of news organizations. As Dr. Zimmerman pointed out, what does this mean for journalism students being able to find paying jobs?

Almost everyone in this business got started at a tiny little paper somewhere making peanuts. But that notion of writing for free, or almost nothing, isn’t as compatible in this era of mounting student-loan debt. It’s not that students are lazy or don’t want to write at a small paper. It’s that they often can’t afford to do so. Exposure doesn’t pay the rent, and asking a generation of eager, skilled young journalists to write for free will drive a generation of talented people away right when we need them the most.

No, it is a not a golden age for the business of sports journalism.

But that doesn’t mean we need to be defeatist about the industry. That doesn’t mean that everything is terrible because the business models are in transition. It means everyone in the industry — publishers, reporters, academics — need to stop looking for the magic bullet that’s going to bring back the filled newsrooms of the 1980s and start figuring out creative ways to make pay for journalism. This goes beyond ads, and it goes beyond shaming our audience into paying for news. As Jeff Jarvis has pointed out, there has never been a successful business model predicated on the word “should.”

In so many ways, this is a golden age of sports journalism. That’s important to say out loud.

Because it means its something worth saving.

Five thoughts on The Athletic

I deliberately have not written much about the growth of The Athletic and other subscription-based sports journalism sites over the past few months. My podcast partner Galen Clavio and I are conducting a research study into these sites, and I want to approach this issue with as open a mind as possible. I have opinions, but I’d rather immerse myself in the research rather than react to everything that happens.

But with this week’s kerfuffle that raised the ire of the Internet Outrage Machine, here are five thoughts:

  • The comments that Alex Mather, The Athletic’s co-founder, made to Kevin Draper at The Times are at best impolite and, at worst, confirm every stereotype of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
    • That said, I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with the sentiment behind them. It reminds me of the old two-newspaper-town rivalries. It reminds of of the way Yahoo competed against ESPN for years. Competition can be a very good thing. In 21st Century media, there’s a lot of “we’re all in this together,” that it’s almost a bit refreshing to see a company go old-school and want to win. Of course, there are better ways of saying that than wishing for hundreds of people to lose their jobs.
  • Angel Rodriguez, the sports editor of the L.A. Times, had a wonderful Twitter thread about this issue this morning. Rodriguez’s main point was that too many newspaper sports sections have driven away readers with poor web design, early deadlines, laying off copy editors, etc. In an attention-driven economy like 21st Century journalism, you cannot rely on the goodwill of your readers as a business model.
  • There is a lot about The Athletic that feels like a classic Silicon Valley start-up story — the boost of venture capital, the incredibly fast growth, the brash talk. One thing that often happens in start-ups is the demand of growth from investors can change the company’s mission.
  • Netflix changed so many things in the online space. Before Netflix, the conventional wisdom was that people would not pay for online content. There’s so much free stuff, why would you pay for it? What Netflix proved is that people will pay for content if it is what they want and it is done well. That’s the lesson for The Athletic, and every other sports media outlet- if they give people good content that is well done, they will pay for it. But the content must be worth the money.

The day I left daily journalism

Eight years ago today, I walked away from the only job I ever wanted - newspaper sports reporter. Five years ago, I wrote and published this. I’ve updated the year count. It’s still one of the favorite things I’ve written.

It was early in baseball season — May 2006, I think. My first year covering the Double-A Binghamton Mets. A little bit before the game started, I got an IM from my girlfriend (now wife) with a video clip of her niece (now my niece) performing in a dance recital. As the grounds crew watered the infield and the crowd started to file into the stadium, I watched my niece dance. And mixed in with pride was a wave of sadness.

Would this be how I connected with my daughter some day? Would I be watching her dance recitals on a laptop in the press box rather than from the front row?

Three years ago today, I walked out of the Press & Sun-Bulletin's newsroom for the last time, ending my career as a sports writer. I still love my farewell blog post, because it so accurately captures my feelings at the time.

Leaving that job was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made.

It's also the third best decision of my life, behind only asking my wife to marry me and our decision to have our daughter.

Funny how the decisions that are so hard at the time turn out to be such no-brainers in hindsight.

It was early in baseball season — now, it's 2007. My fiancee (now wife) and I went to visit one of her former college journalism professors and a classmate. We spent the night at a bar in the middle of Madison County, not far from Turning Stone Casino, sharing stories long into the night over excellent wings and plenty of beer.

Watching the three of them — my fiancee (now wife), her friend and their old professor — I was inspired. The bond that they had, the connection between student and professor, ran so deep, was so real. It reminded me of my connections with my favorite professors. It had nothing to do with how well they were prepared for the job market, or what kind of success they had had. It was a real, personal bond.

Watching the three of them, I realized how much I wanted to teach.

Do you miss it?

I used to get that question a lot. Now, not so much, but in that first year or two, people would ask me if I missed being in the newsroom, missed being on the beat.

There are only two times I've truly missed it. The first was September 2009, when the Binghamton University men's basketball team began to implode in scandal. I've got a thing for covering college sports scandals, and this was a good one. Every day brought a new revelation, a new piece of the story. While that was breaking, I missed it. I missed being in the middle of a story, trying to track down the source you need, trying to confirm the rumor you've read online or heard from somebody on the desk. "The chase" is how Charlie Jaworski, my old editor in Binghamton, referred to it. And dammit, it was intoxicating.

Of course, not being at the paper allowed me to attend a U2 concert and spend a weekend with my wife (now wife) instead of spending all hours on the phone or the computer ...

The other time I've missed it? The first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament. God, that's such a fun day to be a college basketball reporter.


I miss parts of it. I miss writing every day. I miss the moment when you're writing a story and suddenly the whole thing makes sense, everything unfolding in front of you like a chess board. I miss writing on deadline, pounding out a story in 15 minutes, so focused on my keyboard that I never once saw the fireworks that the B-Mets often had after games. I miss the small level of celebrity that being a reporter brought. I miss the camaraderie of the old newsroom.

Let's get real for a second:

One of the reasons I left was that I wasn't good enough to move up the career ladder anymore. Let's be honest. This isn't self-deprecation or a ploy to get compliments. I wasn't good enough for the big leagues of journalism. I didn't have it. I've been told that I didn't have enough asshole in me to be a truly great reporter, and it's true. I hate making people mad. I didn't have the ability to do that job at the highest levels.

That started becoming clear to me around 2008, 2009.

It was around that time that things started to go from kind of bad to really bad in our industry. By that point, moving up in the industry was already difficult. Fewer jobs were available. Bigger papers weren't hiring feature writers anymore. More beats were being consolidated, so there were fewer beat jobs. The ones that were out there got hundreds of applicants.

But things kept getting worse. The layoffs started, followed by the furloughs. Wondering every six months if you were still going to have a job was bad enough. Wondering every six months if you were still going to have a job while trying to figure out how to make ends meet when you lose a week of pay each quarter. Then the job cuts kept coming. The industry still hasn't figured itself out.

More striking — it stopped being fun.

The newsrooms I worked in used to be fantastic, vital places. There was an energy to the room, especially when news was breaking. Being a reporter could be, above all else, fun.

That was long gone by 2009. The layoffs, the furloughs, the space cuts, all of it, sucked the life out of the room, out of the industry.

For this, I blame newspaper owners. By their actions, by their slavish devotion to print profit margins at any cost, by their desire to maximize profit while minimizing the quality of the product, by their inability or unwillingness to embrace digital news, they have sucked so much of the soul out of a business I love.

It's telling that when anyone leaves the business, my first reaction (and that of almost everyone else I know) is "Good move. Smart decision."

But more than any of that, more than the economic problems of the industry or the changing culture of newsrooms, it wasn't just that the industry had changed or that the job had changed. I had changed.

Being a sports reporter had been my dream job since I was 18. But dreams change. There's a great line in High Fidelity, where Laura tells Rob "You have to allow things to happen to people, most importantly yourself." Gradually, I realized I didn't want to be a reporter anymore. I didn't want to be a beat writer first and a husband (and father) second. I know a lot of reporters who can do that balance and do so marvelously. But I couldn't — or, more accurately, I didn't want to. I didn't want to spend my nights at stadiums and gyms anymore. That night with my wife's former professor inspired me. I found myself being drawn more to the notion of being a professor than of being a reporter. That excited me far more than writing for a news organization.

I wasn't 18 anymore. It was time to put the dreams of that 18-year-old, and the dreams others had for me, to rest.

I had new dreams to follow.

Monday nights this semester, I have a late class that runs until 8 p.m. During the class' break the other day, I got a text from my wife. It was a video of our daughter, nearly 2 years old, saying "Hi, Daddy" and then leaning in to give the phone a kiss.

After steadying my knees and stopping myself from bursting into tears in the Newhouse 1 men's room, I flashed back to that video of my now-niece at the dance recital. Here I was, working late, getting videos sent to me of things I was missing. Have things changed at all?

But this feels different. Being in school has given me the chance to be at home with our daughter most days since she was born. (And I can't complain at all, when my wife works nine-hour days supporting our family while I'm in school. She's making the real sacrifice, and I'm in awe of it daily.)

This didn't feel like anything I was missing.

This felt like something waiting for me. Something new. Something good.

It felt like the future.