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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Commentary: Protect the prose!

May the game of sportswriting retain its dignity

Over the last month or so, this sportswriter-in-training has detected a rather toe-curling upsurge of craters inflicted upon the very field he aspires to.

Many within and without the journalism industry have already expressed a melancholy acceptance that newspapers as we’ve long known them are an endangered breed. Like with our environment and our economy, some unswervingly insist otherwise be it out of impatience or veiled anxiety. But, on the whole, the evidence is sufficient to have both the producers and consumers pondering what they can and should do with the inevitably changing field.

In my reportage of the reportage scope, I regret to conclude that the quality and quantity of many –if not all- sports pages are dissolving at a slow, anguishing rate. Nothing underscores this more than the removal of household names from any given publication, of which there have been a handful of examples in recent weeks.

Starting here in Providence, the Journal –owing to a reported plethora of staff buyouts- has seen its last contributions from Steven Krasner, who was on their roster for over three decades primarily as a Red Sox and Pawsox reporter and trickled his touch down to beginner’s audiences with works like the 1996 picture book, The Longest Game.

Sticking with the diamond writer’s guild, at the beginning of August, Boston Globe Red Sox beat reporter Gordon Edes turned in his nightly Fenway press pass in favor of a column with Yahoo! Sports. Go figure; it is a web exclusive outlet.

And last week, at virtually the same time that the Sox saluted Krasner as he typed his way into the sunset, The Hockey News bid adieu to longtime back-page columnist Mike Brophy, who now intends to devote all of his journalistic energy to the Canada-based Rogers Sportsnet channel.

For both better and worse, it’s all in the electronics these days. There is no other operative summation than to call this too much of a good thing. I know this from personal experience as both a consumer and aspirant producer.

In the bordering years between the conclusion of the 20th century, the mostly irrational Y2K fuss, and the advent of the new millennium, I was a displaced adolescent Rhode Islander stuck in the Midwest. Naturally, I embraced the still fairly new Internet as it allowed me to follow my favorite teams via projo.com and boston.com. (Not to mention, I subconsciously grew to idolize the reporters and take a fervent interest in journalism myself).

At that time, the Journal sports section was perfectly to the Rhode Island sports scene what the Globe still largely is to the Boston teams. During their respective seasons, the Pawsox and the Providence Bruins would garner an enriched 800-word notebook and/or game recap almost every day. The inventive detail in every article was reliably constant and the spirit of the thing was pleasingly captured.

Then the frequency of coverage and the quantity of content lessened ever so slowly. And now, a Pawsox game summary is a vanilla-flavored packet of bullet points and P-Bruins stories are a word-for-word identical twin to what you find on the team’s website.

Dare I predict that the same troubling fate ultimately awaits the pages chronicling the state’s collegiate basketball teams? Right now, Friars and URI Rams fans each take in nourishing coverage of their respective cager clubs with the regular seasonal insights of Kevin McNamara and Paul Kenyon. That coverage remains sufficient in proportion to the level of play and the market size, but the same impression is extinct for the area’s minor pro teams.

Did I say extinct? Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to hit that extreme. It’s not as though the deterioration of sportswriting –and newspaper writing as a whole- is a fixedly irreversible phenomenon.

A recent correspondence with a longtime family friend and Ohio newspaper editor offered me a mixed review concerning the state of the fourth estate. “Newspaper journalism is going through some tough times right now,” he told me, “but there will always be a demand for good reporters who dig for stories and can tell them well.

You the fans/readers can help. Disregarding apparent realism for a second, remember that the opening montage to Cheers wouldn’t look the same if the guy triumphantly hoisting the “WE WIN!” headline had printed it off his Apple in pdf form. There’s something about a foldable broadsheet –especially the morning after an unmistakably historic event- that makes it a unique souvenir.

If nothing else, as you heighten your patronage for online multimedia outlets, get hungry. Demand detail. Demand to be as entertained by the immortalizing accounts of the game last night as you were by the game itself. Demand to be perched back in that seat for an encore of highlights –or to taste the atmosphere you had missed if you couldn’t make it.

We the scribes need that kind of drive, and an adequate playing field to dispense that drive.

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