Why sports fans still value bona fide sports journalism

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Most people would agree that fans make sports. The entire sports industry is built around fans, and what fun would the games be without them?

The sweeping technological changes of the past two decades have amplified fans’ voices in ways that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook allow fans to shout their support and vent their frustrations directly to teams and players (or at least their public relations representatives). Fantasy sports and analytics have forever morphed fans’ priorities and colored their opinions. Overall, today’s sports fan is more connected and better informed, so it should be no surprise that many choose to try their hand at sports reporting and analysis.

Sites like Sports Illustrated’s FanSided and Vox Media’s SB Nation offer fans the opportunity to post and blog long-form articles about their favorite teams. Media companies view sites such as these as a win-win scenario. Fans can read articles that were written by individuals like them who care just as deeply about their favorite teams as they do. By using fans to write blog posts, many of whom are willing to work for next to no pay, media companies can save a significant amount of money on staff writer salaries. In fact, the economic exploitation of fan writers is a hotly debated topic.

Fan-driven sites have other drawbacks as well. While some writers are beyond outstanding, others are less than stellar. Some haven’t even graduated from high school yet. Also, since writing is not their full-time job, many fan writers lack the time and the resources needed to conduct true sports journalism. They do not carry out independent research or interview their own sources, and most of their writing is merely reactionary. Perhaps they have just watched the game, but they don’t dig deeper. Inaccuracies abound, and plagiarism is not unheard of on these sites. Making matters worse, some editors have little more experience than the writers who are working for them.

However, there are some real gems out there that should be acknowledged. For example, SB Nation’s Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician is considered by many to be a top sports site. The writers are fantastic, and the articles are filled with insight and humor. Best of all, the site’s commentariat is downright hilarious. Many fans spend the college football and basketball seasons constantly refreshing the site’s homepage, waiting on the latest updates and takes from the Nunes staff. 

Fan-driven sites certainly have their place. In fact, as the availability of local news is declining across the United States, it’s refreshing to see the rise of online communities dedicated to their local teams. Much of the moaning about the popularity of such sites seems to come not from fans, but from sports writers and media personalities who have to compete with these sites for attention and revenue.

However, true sports writers do not need to worry about fan-driven sites. Instead, they should see them as a fun supplement to their work. Few describe the future of sports journalism better than St. Bonaventure University in a recent online article:

“New technology and methods for fan interaction with their favorite sports have revolutionized the profession. The future of sports journalism will feature iterations of these trends along with a few unforeseen innovations. Enterprising journalists can anticipate future shifts in the field by first understanding the expectations of fans.”

The value of true sports journalism in the Internet Age

Real sports journalists can adapt and change just like fans have. In fact, true sports journalism has become even more valuable in the Internet Age for a few key reasons.

The first is the quality of writing. In a world of takes and tweets, one can become numb to the coarseness and incoherency endemic in the sports entertainment industry. Sports journalists – writers who have studied and honed their craft through schooling and practice – offer a product that rises above the rabble. 

That doesn’t mean their writing has to be stuffy and academic. In fact, the best sports journalists are often some of the funniest and most entertaining writers you’ll find working today. Drew Magary and David Roth are both popular writers who translate their passion for and knowledge of sports into witty and informative prose that engages readers and forces them to think deeper about sports culture.  

Some skeptics will downplay the quality of writing as a selling point. Why, they argue, would fans pay a premium for higher-quality sports writing when they can find plenty of sports blogs elsewhere for free? 

While it’s difficult to speak to the proclivities of every sports fan, a quick look at the revenue of dedicated sports journalism sites tells you all you need to know about the profitability of such ventures. Defector and The Athletic are two subscription sites dedicated to sports journalism. Last year, Defector, still a new and growing site, netted $3.2m in revenue, while The Athletic was bought by The New York Times for an eye-popping $550m.

Sports journalists can also offer real investigative reporting, which is something few, if any, fan sites are capable of doing. Consider a world in which investigative reporting didn’t exist. For information, we would have to rely entirely on things we see with our own eyes and what teams and players are willing to share with us, often through the buffer of a public relations team. 

Imagine if there was a scandal involving a player. It would be nearly impossible to get a full picture of the story that is free from bias. If the scandal involved an owner, it would be even harder. The public would be left either blindly trusting individuals with a vested interest in how the story is told or grasping at morsels of information gleaned from social media rumors.

Investigative reporting by sports journalists keeps the public informed and plays a crucial role in holding bad actors accountable. Diana Moskovitz and Kalyn Kahler are two journalists whose reporting on scandals surrounding the NFL is nothing short of outstanding. 

Moskovitz and Kahler build their articles based on information gleaned from their sources. These people have access to insider information related to the topic at hand, which they’re willing to share with these reporters, usually on the condition of anonymity. Moskovitz, Kahler, and journalists like them are able to recruit sources because they have sterling reputations for accurately reporting stories and not blowing their sources’ covers. 

While it doesn’t require tons of specialized training, developing sources does take a lot of time and effort as well as relationship-building. A journalist must also possess deft social skills and a strong sense of discretion. 

Given time and a bit of guidance, many FanSided and SB Nation writers could likely write perfectly fine investigative articles. However, most don’t have the time, and many of their editors don’t have any experience with which to guide them. 

While writing quality and investigative reporting are two of the most significant qualities that separate sports journalists from fan writers, there are more. Consider objectivity. Many readers appreciate a good, passionate blog post from a dedicated fan. Again, fan sites are fantastic at generating such content. However, if sports discourse devolved into fans just shouting into and across their own echo chambers (more than it already has), it would be lacking. 

Many sports journalists get into sports writing because they grew up as fans. However, the good ones set aside their fandoms in favor of objective, unbiased reporting. They provide neutral, fact-filled articles that fans can use to inform their debates.

Sports media is constantly evolving. The rise of social media, in particular, changed the way sports are followed and reported. Journalism schools teach prospective reporters how to incorporate new technologies into their coverage and how to adapt to new trends in the media market. That training has real value.

This discussion of the merits of sports journalists and the advantages they have over fan writers should not be interpreted as some sort of media elitism. Although journalism degrees are valuable, they should not be the sole qualifier for winning a sports writing position. There are many excellent writers in the world, and most of them don’t have journalism degrees. Sports media outlets that neglect writers from alternate and diverse backgrounds are severely limiting themselves.

However, if you plan on getting serious about professional sports writing, you will need some training. Look into online courses in sports journalism, and consider going back to school to earn a second degree. Build your portfolio by covering local sports for a regional newspaper or sports outlet. Work with your editor to improve your writing. Start developing sources, even if they are high school coaches and part-time referees. 
Sports journalism is challenging but valuable work. Fan sites complement sports journalism. They will not – or, at least, they should not – replace it.  If you want a career in sports journalism, be prepared to work hard for it.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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