The bleakness has never been about just one moment, but there is still that moment that stands out as a microcosm of where sports writing has slowly been spiraling. With 2012 just a few weeks old, the club scene was keeping many GAA journalists looking busy and useful at a relatively quiet time of year. So, a group gathered in the boardroom of a prominent company with column inches to fill across the week and a quick way to do so. What happened next depressingly went down as follows and is immensely common within this game.
A PR person entered and gave a pep talk on Lucozade before Colm Cooper was brought in and he too had wise words in case any angle regarding an energy drink had gotten away; he then preceded to blandly answer just a handful of football questions that also became bland as the journalists realised there was no point in trying for an interesting insight in such sterile and safe surrounds; before finishing, Cooper was thanked in an over-the-top manner given this was a man that had essentially been paid for doing little for those that were thanking him; and, as he left, those scribes got together, decided as a monopoly what angle would work on what days, when a single word hadn’t been uttered worthy of print on any day.
The convenient in-house notion in such box-ticking scenarios is that everyone wins and a balance is struck. But there is a battered loser – sports writing itself. This isn’t to blame Cooper for playing it safe or any journalist who is overworked and never allowed the needed time to properly detail a subject because they’ve immediately to move onto the next one. But it is to highlight the steady decline of a section of media that not long ago highlighted all that was right with it via depth and discovery brought together with great skill and flair.
It’s far from just Gaelic games or within Ireland either but across sports and nations. A colleague in England recently bemoaned the dreaded phone call to the office after a Premier League press conference and the standard sentiment from the editor of: “What’s the line?” In other words, churn something out for a quick sell to the none-the-wiser reader even though that allows for virtually no intelligent development. These days it seems peeling the onion is hassle where it was once the cornerstone of a standalone section and special sports writing.
Every so often, scattered amidst emails from PR folk looking for a mention in return for some behind-the-scenes handout, one drops asking for advice. Sometimes from university students, sometimes from those still in school, they share a common goal of getting into sports journalism based on a sentimental view of a bygone era of big reads and colourful characters. But the most honest reply now involves telling them to run a mile for most new jobs within sports media have become about being a cog in the machine, not a story teller.
There’s an argument that suggests sports journalism has simply become a different art when in fact it is a dying art. More and more, it is evolving into a popularity contest and a numbers’ game. For instance, a large Twitter following is more and more of a must for this generates hits, which in turn generate advertising money. But some with such followings are overworked because of that appeal, giving less time to each article, hurting standards, but gaining more Twitter followers based on being seen, allowing the vicious cycle to continue.
But it’s a numbers’ game in so many other ways as well. Once, working for an online sports section, it was immediately stressed that the rule of thumb was to churn out six articles over an eight-hour shift for studies showed quantity resulted in more hits than quality. And beyond that, there is even a growing model in some newspaper titles where a league table exists for journalists based on who gets the most clicks and, by extension, they are deemed to be the most relevant and valuable to a company. But the idea of a sports journalist was never to be popular for the wrong reasons, but often to be unpopular for the right reasons.
Just ask Paul Kimmage how popular he was before being proven correct about Lance Armstrong or Paul Howard about expressing negatives about Michelle Smith to a fawning nation. Soon there’ll be no room for the next generation who want to be like them when this should be the way sports sections differentiate themselves in an era of instant information.
In the Irish sports media, Conor McGregor in recent weeks summed up that attitude better than any other. Giving him coverage attracts readership because of his outspoken views. But those outspoken views should bring about hard questions and analysis, only that might restrict access which in turn would restrict readers. It’s basically become a form of marketing where everyone keeps everyone else happy with the trade-off being a constant lowering of standards from all. In fact one of the few articles that challenged McGregor’s latest circus was also the best and there’s little coincidence there. In this instance, Ken Earley was one of the few stepping back and giving a needed insight into the reality rather than the hype.
What much of this has resulted in is a formula with coverage being swapped for convenience and quality swapped for speed. Just 15 years ago, a sports editor in a now defunct newspaper demanded three ideas for each space and only if one was good enough would it be given that space. Yet a decade later, the sports editor of that same newspaper started to take on the boardroom ideal that no article should be beyond a thousand words as the reader doesn’t have such an attention span. But given time to allow for proper research, no sports article should be able to tell its interesting story within such parameters therefore the attention span can never be expanded by good sports writing. The bar drops and drops in such a way.
There are still great sports reads but ask yourself how often you come across them? And there are still great sports writers but ask them and most talk of disillusionment. It’s not a self-serving emotion either, but it is a sentimental one based on an era that inspired them but has been allowed to slip away. And for that, it’s sports fans that have lost the most out of anyone.
Sunday Business Post
19 July, 2015