There are few endeavors in sports journalism that are being more scrutinized than The Undefeated, Jason Whitlock's hosted site through ESPN, the so-called "Black Grantland."
This isn't a post about Whitlock, or about taking sides in this debate. It's about an interesting point Whitlock made in the Q-and-A with Daily News reporter Tom Hoffarth. Hoffarth asked Whitlock about his opinion of journalism schools and the way journalism is taught:
I don’t want to blame journalism schools. I want to blame the fall of the newspaper industry. That’s always been the training ground for young journalists. For someone like me, getting out of college, I covered high school and Little League sports (at The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind.) Then I got another job covering high school and Little League sports (at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina). Then I got a job covering the Michigan basketball team (at The Ann Arbor Times). I had to go through this proving grounds before I was ever allowed to write a column. I had to learn some things. Now because of the blogosphere, because newspapers don’t have the time to train anyone, everything is in a microwave. So the next thing you know, 22- and 23- and 24- and 25-year-old people who don’t know what they don’t know are writing scathing opinion pieces and analyzing and interpreting. … I don’t blame them. It sounds like I am. But our whole structure fell apart.
It's a fascinating point. For years, sports journalism worked kind of like pro baseball. You got your start at either short-season Class A ball (a weekly paper) or a full-season Class A team (a small-town daily). As you got better and improved, you moved up to Double-A (a bigger market), Triple-A (a smaller metro market) and finally, The Show (a major metro market). When I've interviewed reporters, they almost always look back at their days at a small-town paper as the most important times of their careers. It's where they learned their craft, where they made mistakes, wrote a lot, covered high-school sports, learned how to deal with people, got better.
Times have changed. Small papers are struggling. They're doing everything they can to stay afloat, and serving as a minor leagues where a young reporter can hone their craft is far down on the list. Students are graduating college with far too much student-loan debt to be able to work at small-town papers for less-than-nothing honing their craft.
The notion of sports journalism being "a microwave" is a really important one. Business is not good, news organizations and sports departments are struggling, news is moving faster than ever these days, and giving someone time to learn their "craft" can seem outdated, even pretentious.
Also, this notion of "sports journalism as the minor leagues" has this whiff of nostalgia about it that. It feels like "journalism the way it oughta be." It feels like "I paid my dues, and these kids today aren't being forced to" talk of an older generation. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that a 22-to-25-year-old reporter can write opinion pieces, do analysis and interpret what they watch. Their opinions, analysis and interpretations are not inherently wrong because they are young, and to think so is outdated, dangerous thinking. To think so means that the only people who can do the important functions of daily sports journalism are ones of a certain age and demographic, and that's not going to help the industry. To think so ignores the fact that, like it or not, for better or for worse, the idea of "journalism" is changing, and that our traditional ideas about the profession and the craft may not always be inherently right.
In an ideal world, the world that Whitlock described would still exist. Students would become reporters and be able to hone their craft. They'd be able to take whatever time they needed to to become the best versions of themselves. That should still be the focus of every young reporter - becoming so good they can't ignore you.
But this is not an ideal world for sports journalism as traditionally practiced. And to hold on to traditional ideas of how to succeed as the only way to go may fail to recognize the new world we live in.