The General Columnist Era Is Over

The Observer had a piece on the death of the general sports columnist, something I'd like to egg on whenever and wherever possible. George Vecsey, the 70-year-old New York Times columnist who says he's ready to retire, and sees no real replacements waiting in the wings: ↵
↵⇥“People younger than me should be in their prime and doing this,” said Mr. Vecsey. “When I go to a sports arena and I don’t see [Newsday’s] Shaun [Powell] and Johnette? Who’s going to be the next Selena Roberts? The next Bob Lipsyte? The next Dave Anderson?" ↵
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↵Answer: they're not there, because they're home, and likely didn't get into sportswriting to write like the gray, grizzled sports columnists of yesteryear and their two columns a week sandwiched into side column of the front page of the sports page. These were 800 words usually headed by a picture of the columnist in whimsical pose, where the columnist was given free reign to tackle any subject of their choosing, pretty much. This made sense in a world when the newspaper explained things for what amounted to a captive audience, and having one professor at the lectern was a tolerable arrangement for those wanting something extra with their sports. ↵

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↵The internet exploded this framework in a few critical ways. First off, it turns out people think in bits both shorter and longer than 800 words. Shocking, but sometimes people could read thousands and thousands of words at a time without passing out due to dehydration. ↵Astounding, I know, but somehow the long distance runners of the reading world made Bill Simmons a very wealthy man, and the sprinters turned Deadspin in the face-eating, thousand-tentacled beast it is today. Like it or not, readers don't just think in 800-word snippets. ↵

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↵Also, it so happens that sports fans were both far more eclectic and choosy than anticipated. True, there are generalists out there, but most people are cafeteria fans, happy to take whatever they like from the bar, or even to just zone in on one sport like Stains the dog watching a plate full of cupcakes. The model for many young bloggers, for instance, is not someone like a Vecsey, a Bill Plaschke, or anyone else you might see aping away on Around The Horn. It is a devoted specialist like Paul Zimmerman, or even a tangent-hopping single-topic writer like Gregg Easterbrook, or heaven forbid, writers who didn't write about sports at all. ↵

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↵Sportswriting in that sense is dead, and perhaps has been dead for a long time. For that, raise a huzzah: trapped in the column, mobbed by the dueling schools of maudlin sentimentality (call it the "Albom ↵school") and knee-jerk antipathy generators like Jay Mariotti (creatively referred to here as "the Mariotti school,") sportswriting on the whole has been uninteresting for a long, long, long time. ↵There's little point of treating the columnist like he's something to be missed: good writing is good writing, and good writers will survive any transition between technologies. ↵

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↵Case in point: Dan Jenkins (pictured above), one of the few sportswriters who not only has a proper reverence and irreverence for the English language, but who slid into the digital age seamlessly by Tweeting away in brilliant 140 word bursts from the U.S. and British Open. Jenkins is kobe beef: build a long piece around him, or serve him raw in tiny bits as an appetizer. Good ingredients work no matter the treatment, something that may not be true of generalist columnists who learned that single sentence paragraphs and easy moralizing about athletics and their place in society were a great way to stuff column space for paychecks. ↵

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↵The problem for them is that the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they're under 40, they're not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality. If the general columnist dies out, it's not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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