Let's be honest: This week hasn't been a great week for sports journalism.
The Marshawn Lynch story dominated the Super Bowl news cycle, and the insistence of so many columnists and bloviators that Lynch should talk to reporters, and talk in a manner which would make their jobs easier, and that he should be fined and/or boycotted because of the he way he did or didn't talk, just ended up making all sports journalists look petty, mean-spirited and like bullies.
The Deflategate Scandal - which, regardless of what actually happened is one of the biggest molehill-produced mountains in recent history - lingered far too long as a news story. The on-going controversies over concussions and Ray Rice continue to make elite sports journalists look bad. Media Day - though not completely useless to reporters - never makes the media look good. Today is game day, and there has been very little talk about the actual game.
This is not to say that all sports journalism has been awful this week. It is easy to pick on sports journalism — because of the trivial nature subject material, the historically symbiotic relationship between teams and the media, the historical attitude of news reporters to the toy department. But sports journalism isn't inherently good or bad. On the news side, there were reports this week that Mitt Romney was going to run for president, and then he announced he's not, and there aren't a series of think-pieces about what's wrong with political journalism.
But that doesn't change the fact that sports journalism had a bad week. We don't come out of this week looking great. As Will Leitch wrote:
The key part of Letich's sentence there is "as it is currently constructed." Like all media, sports journalism is evolving in the age of digital and social media. So rather than curse the bad week, what can we learn from it?
1. Understanding access.
The Lynch story illustrates the importance sports journalists place on access to sources. This is nothing unique to sports, nor is it new. It's also understandable - journalists talk to the people involved in a story. We want their viewpoint, their thoughts, to illuminate our stories for our readers. Also, if one of the most potent-sounding criticisms of sports journalists is "You never played the game, you couldn't possibly understand," then talking to people who do play the game is critical to our jobs.
But the Lynch story shows that reporters take this thought too far. Deadline pressures and professional norms lead reporters to look for quotes to fill a hole in their story. We sometimes treat athletes like public officials, thinking they have an obligation to talk (they don't). We're so reliant upon the formula, upon our "need" for sources that we don't look for other ways to tell a story, or we create conflict where one doesn't need to be.
The point of access is this: No organization should tell me, as a journalist, that Marshawn Lynch is unavailable to me. But if Marshawn Lynch doesn't want to talk to me, that's his choice and that's fine. That's "meaningful availability," to me. As Bob Woodward wrote once, the First Amendment includes the right not to speak.
2. Understanding our role
An undercurrent of the Lynch story was the idea that "athletes need the media." It's a false, antiquated idea, but one that runs rampant in all media.
Vin Crosbie, one of my professors at Syracuse, describes the biggest change in media in our lifetime as the move from relative scarcity to relative abundance. Digital and social media are a symptom of that. For our discussion, the point is this: A lot of our attitudes as journalists remain based in the era of scarcity. We were the experts. We were the ones with access. We were the only place fans could get news and information. We were the only place players and coaches could share their message.
That's not the case anymore. We're one voice in a crowded marketplace of ideas.
This is reality, and it's a good thing. The more voices, the better. But it does mean that we as a profession need to rethink our practices and our roles. How can we stand out? How can we give our readers the news they want, the news they need, and the stories they didn't know they'd care about? Do we really need to write about Deflategate, when that story's being reported nationally? Do your readers really need to know what you think about Marshawn Lynch? Are there stories away from Media Day, away from the pack, that can be told that your readers would care about? Would a reporter with Excel and statistical data be able to provide as much value to readers as a reporter chasing quotes with the pack?
Page views and clicks are important, but is that really how we want to define our work and ourselves as a profession? Are we a profession of whiners and hot takes? Or can we do good work, both describing the games and the serious issues off the field? Can we meld old-school values with new-school ideas to make great sports journalism?
This was a bad week for sports journalism. But if we look at the week and learn from it, it could be the catalyst for something great.