“First, kill all the sports writers.”
-excerpt from Men’s Journal, October 8, 2008, written by Matt Taibbi
Turns out his wish may have come true.
Taibbi, Todd Bertuzzi, Randy Moss, and many others who have taken a dislike to the miserably underpaid yet hardworking golf-shirted masses who have performed the art of sports writing over the years may finally be getting their wish.
The life of a print sports writer is on life support, with epitaphs showing up nearly every month all over North America. Some blame technology, some blame bloggers, others blame the children of tomorrow who couldn’t be bothered to read a newspaper if it was pasted to a cell phone screen in front of their face.
Six months ago, I sat at this same computer, feeling sorry for myself, thinking it was only me. I suddenly had a legacy behind me that was both a proud achievement and an embarrassment at the same time: I was the last sports editor to ever work for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
True, the Nelson Daily News had just closed its doors too, and had lost a fantastic sportswriter who had worked many more years than I had toiled here in Prince Rupert.
At the time, we heard excuses about the economy, or downsizing, a low subscription base, and even union busting. Perhaps they were all reasons, perhaps there were others. Perhaps it was none of the above. But while the newspaper industry continues to spiral in decline, and only tiny weeklies (or bi-weeklies) seem to survive, there is one fact that has been drilled home, especially in these past six months: local sports coverage is going the way of the dinosaur, and those same communities have every reason to be concerned.
It’s not only Prince Rupert, it’s not only in B.C. — it’s everywhere. An epidemic of people no longer reading newspapers in general, but especially not bothering to check out the sports pages.
Turns out people like me have been dying a slow death for years.
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“The games and characters are ripe for vivid storytelling, and philosophic discourse about human nature and our culture.”
-excerpt from the New Yorker in 1920.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was a teenager, every morning, before going to school, I’d sit at the kitchen table, scarf down some Cheerios and read the Province sports section. Eventually, three times a week, I also began checking out the sports pages of the local Tri City News in my hometown of Port Coquitlam, curious how the schools I once attended were doing when it came to football or basketball, and wondering how our local junior B hockey team was faring.
I also used to love reading sports columns. Jim Taylor, who used to write a daily column in the Province, was one of my favourites.
In the late 1990s, I even received the opportunity to attend a writing workshop hosted by Taylor, who talked about one of his idols, Montreal Gazette writer Red Fisher, who had claimed he wanted to write sports until they found him face down on his typewriter (Fisher is still the beat writer for the Montreal Canadiens). But even as Taylor was impressing the heck out of me, the winds of change were already blowing.
ESPN had grown to huge proportions in the U.S., and likewise, TSN here in Canada. And both powerhouses were in the midst of setting up websites that would ensure their legions of fans would always be up-to-date. Sports Illustrated, for decades the sports magazine that dominated sales, would eventually have to follow suit, to the point where arguably their best NFL writer, Peter King, recently admitted in a column that he wasn’t sure there was a future for magazines, SI included.
And yet, nobody listened. Naive high school kids flocked to journalism school, believing there was a future, and that they could make a difference. Those, like me, who loved sports, couldn’t wait to have the chance to move up through the ranks, perhaps one day getting the chance to be a beat writer for our favourite team, like the Canucks. All you had to do was start somewhere small, like the Prince Rupert Daily News, and work your way up.
Strange that it never worked out that way, isn’t it?
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“Sports journalism may have been dying a slow death already.”
-excerpt from Business Week, April 2010, “Are sportswriters really necessary?”
Jim Swanson probably knows what I’m talking about.
Swanson has been the sports editor at the Prince George Citizen for almost 15 years. And yet, on Christmas Eve, 2010, that tenure came to an end. He resigned, and while rumours are flying about what led to this, the Citizen has been no different than any other local newspaper in Canada lately: they’re cutting staff anywhere and everywhere they can. Gone are the days that reporters could get by with one story per day. Gone too is the art of the feature — i.e. getting to know that local sports hero — are gone.
Features are as in much trouble as the average sports reporter. Heck, one of the first stories I wrote during my tenure at the Daily News was a three-part feature “Remembering the Kings,” about the wild antics of the senior men’s hockey team from the 1970s. I had a blast writing it, and I know for a fact there were many Rupertites who enjoyed reading it.
And what about reliving the career of John Olsen, who starred for the Rainmakers from 1960-62? Or the team that won it all in 1964? Or Lisa Walters being inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall-of-Fame? They were important members of our community who went on to do great things after they left town. But now, how will we ever know if one of our own is succeeding?
Swanson, meanwhile, has resigned, and has now moved on to a different industry. He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last, and he became the third sports editor to be pushed out of the industry in B.C. this past year, joining Bruce Fehr from Nelson and myself.
It’s unlikely he’ll be replaced either. The small local papers that remain no longer want sports writers around, and in fact, many don’t even bother to have a sports section anymore.
My parents, now retired, live in Maple Ridge. Home of Cam Neely, home of Greg Moore, home of Larry Walker, to name only a few. And yet, one of their local papers down there no longer bothers to have a sports section anymore.
Once upon a time, you could get a sense of what a community was about just by reading the sports section. Heck, that’s one of the first things they used to teach at J-School.
When the Daily News called me for a job back in 2003, I thought I was pretty cool, and waxed rhetoric about hockey. Rodney Venis, editor at the time, listened patiently before he responded, “Uh, sorry dude, but we’re a basketball town.”
So once I arrived in Rupert, I did my research, read back issues of the Daily News, and learned pretty quickly that it was basketball, and not hockey, that ruled the town. The code name was “Rainmaker,” and the only tournament in town anyone cared about was “All-Native.”
Fast forward to 2010. If anyone now was to move to Prince Rupert, they wouldn’t have a clue what this town’s about. Fishing? Okay, that’s probably a no-brainer, considering you can see the ocean pretty much from any street in town.
But sports? Unless you happened to arrive in town early February, you’d have no idea.
And it’s the same in Prince George, Nelson, Maple Ridge … and pretty soon, that’s how it’s going to look everywhere. Once upon a time, a community could read about the successes of their local athletes, or how their team fared at a tournament.
Now, unless somebody’s blogging about it online, the only place anyone will even hear a whisper about it will be on the playground. Or maybe at an awards dinner.
It’s a loss of community, and it’s just a continuation of that detachment in society. The only reading people do nowadays, so it seems, is on the computer, so a printed newspaper now can only run with quick news hits, and hope they stay afloat.
Meanwhile, a community now has no idea what truly is going on within their community, unless they really look extremely hard to find it. And where is that, exactly? Perhaps, somewhere buried in all the gravestones of former sports writers?
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“The future of sportswriting, sadly, is not in newspapers,” said Jay Mariotti, a 17-year sports writing veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times when he resigned from his post in August 2008.
Mariotti, as it turns out, was one of the smart ones. He saw the writing on the wall, and got out while he could. Now, he’s a national online columnist for AOL Sports, and while he too will probably never again get to write a 2,000 word feature, he’s still doing what he loves, in a different avenue of presentation.
As for me, well, currently there’s Muskeg News. It’s the new entity here locally, a part of what is now the new future. The majority of people now check online for anything they need, especially when it comes to sports. It’s another reason why communities like Prince Rupert are desperately trying to find new ways to let people know what’s going on. It’s not easy, but what other choice is there?
After all, newspapers are dying. And really, sportswriters are almost, metaphorically speaking, “dead.” Heck, that same New Yorker article that had so many wonderful things to say about sports writers back in 1920 also claimed that sports writing was a “trivial enterprise.” Trivial, it appears, now means non-existent.
Or does it? Mariotti, the one who smartly performed his escape, began his career at AOL with a hum-digger blog, entitled, “Just because papers are dying doesn’t mean writers will die with them.”
Indeed. Relics like myself, Fehr, and Swanson, may have been pushed out screaming and kicking, but we haven’t gone away. There are those like Fisher who hopefully will always be around, with a typewriter to catch their fall and their last written word. Hey, it recently happened for a great hockey writer, Jim Kelley, who blogged for Sportsnet. He wrote his final sports column in the wee morning of November 30, and then passed away that same afternoon.
Did you get that? His final article was online. Somewhere, Mariotti is nodding his head, while those who are new to this like myself, are starting to understand. True, there’s no future in sports writing when it comes to newspapers. The industry just doesn’t want it anymore, they don’t want us around anymore.
But there is a future, as bleak as it may seem. And believe me, it was bleak as a Rupert day could get for yours truly back on July 16, and yet, I’m still here. I’m still in Rupert, and I’m still writing sports.
Looks like you couldn’t kill us after all.
~Written by Patrick Witwicki