The Sports Guy, routines and the struggling newspaper

The New York Times Magazine profiled Bill Simmons recently. If you haven't used up your 20 articles yet, it's a good read. This isn't going to be an entry about Grantland, the new joint Simmons-ESPN project that will feature some fantastic writers (Ken Tremendous and Chris Jones, among other favorites). It's not really going to be an entry about Simmons' writing (I run hot and cold on his columns, but he does what he does well).

No, since this is my nerdy little blog, this is going to be about Bill Simmons, journalism routines and the struggles of the newspaper industry.


I wrote my first newspaper column on April 8, 1999. I was two months into my job as a general-assignment reporter at The Times Herald, working three days a week while finishing my undergraduate degree at St. Bonaventure. It was the fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide, and as a college-aged Nirvana fan, I wrote a column about it. A week later, I asked Pat Vecchio, my editor, if he would be willing to run a column I had written for my opinion writing class. He said yes, and it ran.

The day the column ran, Pat walked through the newsroom. Hey Bo (my nickname in the room), how'd you like to write a weekly column.

I don't think I hesitated. Sure, I said.

That's how I became a columnist at age 21. I wrote a weekly column for the editorial page for five years. I got bombarded by Clay Aiken fans when I insulted  him in print. I wrote about graveyards in Charlotte, music in St. Thomas, punk rockers in Olean. When I moved into the sports department, I started writing regular columns for the sports page. One of the strengths of the Olean paper is that it has a local sports column every day. I wrote a column by watching a college baseball game in a bar in Port Allegany, Pa. I wrote about the Buffalo Sabres, the St. Bonaventure basketball team, about finding peace while playing ball in Butler Gym and about a former high school star struggling with life after basketball. (I'm sorry I don't have links to these. I will try to dig them up at some point).

Understand, 21 is an obscenely young age to have a column. It's almost unprecedented, except for the best of the best. I was not the best of the best. I had good editors who had a lot of trust and belief in me, who let me write stupid columns born of youth and inexperience and who supported me when my youth brought a fresh eye to my stories.

By the time I got to Binghamton, my column-writing days were pretty much done. Because of time and space issues, along with the culture of the newsrooms, there were not many chances to write a column.


From the Simmons article:

“The only one way to get a column back then was to go through this whole ridiculous minor-league-newspaper system and then kind of hope that other people died,” he says.

Simmons had no interest in waiting his turn. A few years into a job in the sports department of The Boston Herald, a local tabloid, he quit to tend bar. Soon after, he noticed a “Boston Movie Guy” on AOL’s Digital City Boston Web site, and badgered its editor until he hired him as “The Boston Sports Guy” for $50 a week."

This is one of the reasons you hear from other sports writers as to why they hate Bill Simmons. There's a perception among some sports reporters that Simmons didn't want to pay his dues. That he wanted to be handed a top gig right out of college and not have to work for it.

When I say my research interests focus on journalists' routines, I'm referring to the individual level. I'm talking about the day-to-day behaviors and decisions that reporters use to do their job and construct news. But there are also routines on an organizational level or across a profession. One of those in newspapers - and this seems to be particularly true in sports writing - is the notion of working your way up from the small town paper. The classic trajectory is to start at a small-town daily (or weekly), move up to a bigger paper, then to a metro paper, and then to a major metro (or national paper). You can draw an analogy to baseball, where a player starts out at short-season A ball, then goes to full-season A, then Double-A, Triple-A and then the majors (I topped out at Double A.)

On one hand, this makes sense. It gives you a chance to learn the craft. It gives you experience. Once you've taken 34 high school football games over the phone on a Friday night; once you've covered a soccer playoff game in the freezing cold; once you've learned to keep your own stats at a basketball game, you develop a respect for the job. You learn to take every assignment seriously, that every game is the Game of the Night to someone. You make mistakes, learn from them and get better. You learn that it's easy to spout opinions about a game you watch on TV, and it's hard to work a source for a piece of information or write a column that's colored by your in-person observations and informed by good reporting.

The fact that Simmons apparently felt that kind of experience was beneath him has always been grating to me.

On the other hand, newspapers seem to be slaves to that routine. A column is something that is "earned." It's something that goes to an experienced reporter, one who has paid his dues and played the game, and a younger reporter can only hustle and work while the columnist cashes in. Some of the research I've done suggests that's why there is so much opposition to blogs in newsrooms. Blogs mean that everyone - beat writers and fans alike - can express opinions. Everyone's a columnist, without having to "earn" it.

And I'm not sure that mindset is incredibly healthy. I remember reading several years ago that the best thing a newspaper could do would be to give the brightest 27-year-old a column. Risky? Sure. But maybe great things can happen.


Is this the reason newspapers are failing?

Is this stubborn insistence on sticking with this norm and routine the reason newspapers are struggling*? If newspapers had hired a bunch of Bill Simmons' back in the 1990s, would the industry be better?

(* - There's an interesting notion to consider. What do you mean when you say "newspapers"? The print product? The online edition? Is the newspaper the New York Times you buy in the store or the website you go to? Because while the print product is struggling and the newspaper industry is struggling, you can argue that newspapers online are growing and doing better each year. It'd be an interest concept to explicate - what is a newspaper?)

I don't think there's one answer for why newspapers are struggling. If there was a silver bullet, somebody would have come up with an answer and fixed the problem. I think it's a confluence of factors that has led to this struggle. It's the adoption of a business model that relied on repurposing the print edition online, including giving away content for free. It's the fact that newspapers were so far behind the curve in seeing that the Web was evolving into a social medium that they are just now starting to sort of catch up. It's the fact that they didn't see Craigslist coming.

It's also the fact that newspapers remain stuck in the routines they have always used. It's also the fact that newspapers didn't realize that there was an untapped audience for the writing style that Simmons uses. It's also the fact that newspapers were generally unwilling to take risks - be it playing with web coverage of events, using social media before it became ubiquitous or taking a risk on a young columnist who may not have paid the traditional dues but brought a fresh eye and new attitude to the space.

That's not to say there's not value in paying your dues. That's not saying that experienced columnists with institutional memory can't be must-reads. That's not saying that Bill Simmons would have been Bill Simmons had he been hired at one of the Boston papers 20 years ago.

But there is a value in thinking differently. There's value in being willing to take a risk. It's the difference between being two years ahead of the curve or five years behind it. It's the difference between being comfortable in this new media landscape and struggling to remain relevant.

What's everyone else think?