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.
Golden age for coverage, and chances for news consumers to enjoy many informed and intelligent voices? Without a doubt. Golden age for sports media students to find opportunities to get paid? As far as different opportunities, absolutely. But in number of opportunities available? https://t.co/ys7mNJzmyh— Matthew Zimmerman (@Zimmsy) December 14, 2017
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.