Does death of “Sports of the Times” mean commentary is endangered?
“In sports writing, the action’s moved away from columns” reads the headline of a recent article at NiemanLab.org, Harvard’s journalism website.
Writer Joshua Benton takes off from a Grantland piece by Bryan Curtis about the decline, possibly the death, of the New York Times’ “Sports of the Times” column:
It really is remarkable, for those of us who grew up reading sports columnists in our local daily, how much the institution turned out to be an artifact of a temporary news ecosystem … The rise of sports radio helped push back on that monopoly, but the Internet finished the job. I don’t believe there is a class of reporter that has seen its value fall in the past 10 years as much as the hack print sports columnist, who (at least in the major pro and college ranks) faces more competition than ever. (Rick Reilly used to be a god.)
Curtis, in Grantland, had quoted Times sports editor Jason Stallman, talking about two of his prized feature writers, saying, “These are guys we have fallen in love with doing distinctive enterprise stories and other investigative types of work. We’re disinclined to put them in a box of just commentary.”
Curtis concludes that Stallman’s statement “shows how the MVP of the section is no longer the columnist but the longform writer.”
“Remember that whenever someone says that the web is all about short and quick and 140 characters,” Benton, of NiemanLab, writes.
An interesting counterpoint comes in the comments.
“I think exactly the opposite is true,” writes Chris O’Brien, who covers technology for the Los Angeles Times, citing the primacy of sports columns over gamers at his longtime former paper, the San Jose Mercury News. “Readers can get the summary of the game anywhere. It’s the ‘what does it mean?’ aspect that makes for unique content. And it also gives a take for readers to react to.”
Cody Worsham, the editor of the LSU sports publication TigerRag, also disagrees. “I think there will always be demand for strong, reasoned, well-articulated sports opinion…the bar has just been raised; the idiots weeded out,” he writes. “What I’m saying is, buy low on good column writing now.”
I’m with the commenters. Worsham is right about the bar being raised. The value of the “hack print sports columnist” has fallen not because commentary is no longer valuable, but because there’s so much more competition for those hacks than there used to be. Local hack sports columnists have lost value because they’re hacks, not because they’re columnists.
I think Benton may have erred when he wrote in his lede, “But more than one column in one newspaper, Curtis is really writing about a broader shift in what content is valuable in an online age.” I don’t think that’s true.
Stallman, the Times sports editor, talks about what content is valuable, but just for the Times. It makes sense that at a time when commentary has exploded online, the Times would pull back from it and focus on one of its greatest strengths, one that is more rare: in-depth enterprise and investigative reporting.
But it’s a truism in journalism nerdworld that the New York Times is a universe of one. What’s true for the Grey Lady often doesn’t translate for anyone else. Many, including Bleacher Report, have been successful in recent years pursuing a commentary-heavy strategy.
What do you think? Is the disappearance of “Sports of the Times” some kind of harbinger? Or is it an isolated event limited to the unique situation of the New York Times?