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Wilbon on sports writing today: Not as much good stuff as there used to be

Second of three parts

Michael Wilbon repeatedly stressed he isn’t looking to pass judgment or that he longs for another era.

“I don’t want to sound like some grumpy old man telling you to get off my lawn,” he said.

Yet Wilbon’s role as editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2012 confirmed what he already knew.

“There’s not as much good stuff being written as there used to be,” said the former Washington Post columnist.

Make no mistake, he said, he found plenty of good stuff in the book. Make that, tremendous stuff. As I wrote Sunday, there are several stories in the book that will stand the test of time in any era. It is a great reminder of what sports writing still can produce.

Wilbon, though, laments that the volume simply isn’t the same. He says the impact of social media and the post-it-first mentality of sports websites have altered the craft. It’s all about information, and less about style and quality, he said.

“Tony Kornheiser likes to say, ‘This is the golden age for sportswriters,’” Wilbon said. “‘He said, ‘Don’t confuse that with the golden age for sports writing.’”

Here’s my Q/A with Wilbon on sports writing, 2012:

Why did you want to edit the book?

I don’t get to write as much anymore, so I wanted to be connected to it in that way. I wanted to look where we are now and assess where it’s going.

It was interesting. People don’t write takeouts and profiles anymore. There’s a few, but that used to be a staple of sports journalism. It’s not a driving force now. It’s all news and information driven now. It’s all this metrics and stuff I don’t give a shit about. I’m not saying it was better 30 years ago. It’s just different.

But you have profile pieces in the book.

Yes, but I went out of my way because I thought they were really good. I wanted a good mix of stories. There’s some columns, some shorter stories, issue and enterprise pieces. There’s a writing and awareness of where we are as a culture.

Oh my God, the hockey piece (John Branch, “Punched out: The life and death of a hockey enforcer,” New York Times) stands out among the best sports writing I’ve ever seen. I had bets with myself. ‘What’s going to be better than this?’ Nothing. It’s a stunning, stunning piece of work. There were a couple along those lines.

How did a story pass the test and get into the book?

Good question. Did I find it compelling? Did I not put it down? If the phone rang, will I answer it or not? What I like is so varied. What’s going to hold my interest is not uniform. I want to feel compelled. I want to feel something.

What was your overall impression from editing the book?

There’s not as much good stuff as there used to be. Don’t get me wrong. I turned down some good pieces. But I know what it used to be. There’s not enough stuff that compels me. The volume (of quality writing) is not close.

We’re all chasing the same story. Most of it I don’t care about. Where’s LeBron going? Even the great writers aren’t as great as they used to be. They’re smarter. They may be good reporters. They may get information we care about, but they’re not as good at writing. I’m not as great as I used to be. You’re too busy trying to get it posted before Yahoo! does. It’s all a rush to get it posted, to be first.

That’s why Grantland is important. There’s a void. People don’t do (the longer stories). They don’t read anymore.

I don’t want to sound like the old man with the rolled up newspaper saying, ‘Get off the lawn.’ But it’s the truth. If people want to get mad at me for saying that, they can.

Weren’t they saying the same thing in the 80s when you were coming up at the Post? Didn’t the veterans talk about how good things were back in the glory days of Red Smith and Grantland Rice?

Listen, there’s still good sports writing. Great sports writing. But is there as much of it as there was 30 years ago? No, not in my opinion. Who’s the Frank Deford out there now? Leigh Montville? Dave Kindred? Our Ralph Wiley? Is there anybody out there writing a column like Tony Kornheiser did 20 years ago? Is the Republic going to fall if nobody can turn a phrase like Barry Lorge did? No, but I like that.

It’s just different. The biggest development: Beat writers don’t watch the game. They’re tweeting. When I was at the Post, I told the beat writers, ‘Would you put that down and watch the game.’ They’re sending the editors the inactives just before kickoff. For what? It’s going to be on TV in two minutes. It’s hard to do all that and then produce great writing.

I’m on the board of (Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism). We changed the whole curriculum because it’s not the same. They don’t write as well. Why is that? They’re taking classes in multi-media. They have to learn how to operate a camera. It’s stuff I didn’t have to do.

You say all that, and yet the book you did could have been as representative of 1989 as 2012.

That’s the best compliment I could get. I wasn’t doing it consciously, but I think I was putting together a book of stories that I care about. It reflects my point of view. It might look like something in 1988, because it’s going to reflect what I believe in.

They asked me to edit this. I chose stories I liked. It’s not edited in the style of a 28-year-old. The book reflects my feelings about what the good journalism is, not somebody else.

Thursday: Wilbon doesn’t have to write anymore, but he does. Why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Wilbon on sports writing today: Not as much good stuff as there used to be

  1. Not surprising, given that Wilbon appears to be only exposed to the students of an elite J-school, that he is clueless about *why* today’s students don’t have the luxury he did of being able to concentrate on the singular skill of writing.

    There are a fraction of the journalism jobs — never mind sportswriting — that there were even 15 years ago, let along what there was in the early 1980s when he was breaking in. Specialization is necessary to simply be employed in the field because employers are requiring reporters and writers to do multiple tasks with ever-decreasing headcounts.

    The reason why there has been a decline is that those of us with the skill to write were often forced to leave the field over the past two decades because there were more opportunities to earn a living elsewhere. This started, as aforementioned, about 15 years ago — no thanks to Wilbon’s current employer — when style became more important than substance.

    Sportswriting became more about how you said it than what you actually said. You had to have a radio gig, even it was just with the local AM radio station. But sooner or later, you’d better get on TV. Anywhere. Anytime. God help you if you didn’t have the right look. Or the right “personality.”

    Even worse, having a Journalism degree (or in my case, two) was becoming less of a requirement and more of an impediment. The lessening emphasis on the printed word was leveling the playing field.

    None of this is Wilbon’s fault, mind you. But it would be refreshing if he stopped to consider before complaining.

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