NCAA Football

Park: Sports journalism in the 21st century

May 10, 2016

Holy crap, being a graduating senior at Stanford is terrifying.

To be fair, scrolling through the trusty ol’ Facebook feed over the last few weeks has been really cool — it’s truly awesome to see the crazy hard work and sleepless nights that all most some students at Stanford put in pay off in big ways, and I’m humbled to be able to call those incredible people my friends.

But holy crap, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

For me, it’s really the uncertainty that gets me. I mean, I know what I’m going to be doing this summer and (for the most part) my plans for my coterminal graduate degree at Stanford next year. But really, the only thing I know for sure right now is that I think I might want to be a sports journalist after school.

(Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be mushy senior introspection for that much longer — bear with me.)

But the bigger cause of uncertainty right now for not only me, but also hundreds of other aspiring sports journalists around the country is the elephant in the room that nobody seems to want to address head-on: What even is a sports journalist anymore?

Twenty years ago, this would have been an easy question to answer.

Back then, a sports journalist was a reporter and a writer. He would go to games, sit in the press box, interview a few players and coaches, break stories, and most importantly, report what happened on his beat on a day-to-day basis. The elites could twirl an eloquent web of words that could ensnare readers sitting thousands of miles away and bring them into the scene while maintaining a detached objectivity at all costs.

But today? I’d argue that it’s hardly even the same profession anymore.

Sure, some remnants of the “old system” survive to this day (such as the importance of being at games and developing relationships), but the rest is barely recognizable from the profession’s roots.

For one, breaking news is a lot less important in today’s connected world — if something breaks, a reader is going to hear about it immediately from all corners of the Internet, making it less important that an outlet has the story itself, but more important for that outlet and journalist to have an interesting spin on the story or a fresh opinion.

It’s also much less important to be at the games and report what actually happened in an objective manner nowadays — since all fans are just one or two clicks away from seeing the play-by-play for themselves, the traditional game recap with highlights and quotes has all but faded into obscurity (if you don’t believe me, you should see the numbers on The Daily’s web traffic). Any old blogger can write a game recap and provide cursory analysis from the comfort of his or her couch. Fans just aren’t looking for that from reporters any more; it’s the stories and the personalities (from both players and writers) that stand out as the things that journalists can uniquely provide that the depth of the Internet can’t.

With the advent of blogs and Twitter, objectivity no longer rules and opinion is no longer abhorrent — in fact, it’s absolutely felt to me like my opinion and emotion have been valued all the more over the last three years of covering Stanford football on gamedays than the actual news. No, I’m not overreacting — do you honestly think that a football beat reporter’s injury update on Twitter would get more retweets/likes than Dickie V posting a bunch of exclamation marks?

With that said, there’s a clear bifurcation in the sports industry right now: Those that have adapted, and those that have not. I truly admire the old guard for maintaining their steadfast dedication to jotting down interviews on a notepad and dutifully filing their game notes and recaps after a contest, but the dedication to that aging craft reflects either a personal or institutional inability to adjust to the times and see what has to be done to “save” sports journalism.

I’m very much one of those purists myself — my old-fashioned game recaps will always hold a place in my heart, and it’s still really difficult for me to write casually (as I do here) knowing that it’s going into print. But I understand that’s not what the sports journalist of tomorrow is.

That’s not to say that we know exactly what the sports journalist of tomorrow will be. That’s still very much in the air. But I think fans, ratings and page views have clearly spoken as to what the sports journalist of tomorrow will not be.

There are many, many writers out there that bemoan the necessity to engage in social media, do podcasts and video pieces and bring the “common fan” closer to what many in the field feel to be a very exclusive fraternity of sports journalists. And though social media and multimedia aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, I couldn’t disagree more that becoming more casual — more like a fan — as a journalist is something that tarnishes the profession.

With luxury access to live sports essentially limited to only journalists and those able to pay to get in back when sports journalism first began, there absolutely was a separation between most fans and those educated enough to write about and discuss sports. But with TV, radio, social media and the Internet, that gap has long since ceased to exist — the industry just hasn’t fully realized it yet.

Here’s the thing: It takes skill to be a good reactionary Tweeter. It takes skill to have an eye for the small story that went unnoticed in the deluge of 24/7 sports news and bring it to the table. It takes skill to write catchy (sigh, clickbaity) headlines. And yes, it also takes skill to engage with fans but avoid feeding the trolls.

The paradigm of the sports journalist has fundamentally changed: We’re no longer valued solely for our reporting. We’re valued as entertainers just as much as we are as reporters now — if not more. It’s useless to try and keep objective reporting and entertainment separate anymore, because now, more than ever, the former can’t survive without the latter.

It’s for the best that the realm of sports journalists has drifted ever closer to the realm of the common fan. Because here’s what sets the world of sports apart from everything else: Sports is for everyone.

You don’t need a communications degree or a master’s in broadcast journalism to enjoy and truly appreciate sports — the act of watching, analyzing, enjoying and being awestruck by the game is something fundamentally common to all of us, from the kid growing up on the streets of Honduras to the multi-billionaire Qatari oil mogul.

That’s the beauty of sports: There’s no prerequisite to taking it in, and it’s almost universally enjoyable to do so for everyone. That’s why people will gather with friends at bars or wearily slump into a couch after a long day of work to watch even a meaningless baseball game, but it’s ludicrous to imagine hosting a watch party for, say, anything on C-SPAN, even though it’s probably objectively true that the latter has a much greater impact on our lives as a whole.

So while this long, rambling column leaves me no closer to any closure regarding the uncertainty of my future or of the sportswriting profession, I’m able to sleep a little easier at night as the beginning of my end at Stanford approaches a lot faster than I’m willing to acknowledge. While nobody exactly knows where sports journalism is going, I’m convinced that it’s moving in a direction for the better, and I know I’ll be excited to (probably) be a part of it, wherever it ends up.

Feel like you also noticed the bitter edge to Do’s voice, that as a graduating 14-year-old senior he is firmly cemented in the social media age? Think he would be better suited to an earlier world of pencils, notepads and noxious cigar smoke? Let him know (and validate his fantasies) at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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