Sunday, July 27, 2008

Exodus

Daily newspapers used to be important things. Before television, they were the primary way most sports fans found out who won or lost games, who was in contention, who was on the outs. Even in the TV age, the daily paper was your connection to your team(s), and the only means of reading up on box scores, or standings, or the real mainstay of sports writing, opinion columns. For most of my soon-to-be-forty years, whether you liked it or not, you had to buy the paper if you wanted to know what was going on.

All that started to change, of course, something over a decade ago. The internet unleashed news and sports writing from the grasp of printing press and TV station owners, and put the ability to reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people in the hands of just about anybody with a computer. While the blogging revolution was going on, the web also revealed who the most important employees of a given newspaper really were: not the columnists with lifetime sinecures, not the beat reporters with one eye on the AP wire, but rather the little old ladies downstairs who took the orders for want-ads. While online news and sports sites thrive and grow more profitable by the year, newspapers are in a fiscal nosedive as advertisers and subscribers alike take their attention and business elsewhere.

All of which brings us to 2008, and a fascinating exodus that's occurring just under the radar in the sportswriting world. As print newspapers become less and less relevant (and far less profitable), more and more top talents are jumping off the sinking ship to ply their trades online. In blog parlance, it's called "taking the Boeing," a phrase coined by uber-blogger Glenn Reynolds when ace political writer Mickey Kaus agreed to bring his hugely-popular Kausfiles blog under the Slate.com umbrella (Slate being owned by Microsoft, which shares its home city of Seattle with aircraft behemoth Boeing--it's a stretch as a joke, but it works).

Around these parts, Neal McCready left the Mobile Press-Register to become the feature writer for Rivals.com's Ole Miss site around the beginning of 2008. I'd said for years that McCready pretty obviously would be a lot happier if he were covering Mississippi instead of Auburn and Alabama, and by all indications (including an acidic and very funny kiss-off email that was widely forwarded around), Neal finally agreed. He's clearly having a ball in his new job, and good for him.

That said, I was stunned when Phillip Marshall "took the Boeing," or rather the SI ESPN Shuttle a month or so ago. Marshall has newspaper ink running in his veins; his father Benny was a legendary sports editor at the Birmingham News, and Marshall himself has been a major figure in the Alabama media for most of my own lifetime. He was easily the best sports editor, reporter and writer the Montgomery Advertiser has had in the last 30 years, and in his more recent gig as the Auburn beat writer for the Huntsville Times, he won the state's top award for sports writing in both of the last two years. But Marshall walked away from the Times in June to set up shop in a brand-new Sports Illustrated ESPN-affiliated AU news and blog site, Auburn Undercover (which I must say has a dumb name, but great content).

The exodus is not limited to Alabama's papers. Fort Worth Star-Telegram living legend Wendell Barnhouse recently hung up his newspaper spurs to become the Big 12 Conference's online reporter. Under less voluntary circumstances, Jay Christensen (who wrote the blurb about Barnhouse linked just above), was recently axed thanks to the floundering LA Times' efforts at cost cutting. Christensen's previously-anonymous blog The Wizard of Odds was (and is) among the very best college football sites out there, and I'm betting that Jay will go a lot farther online than he would have in the stratified world of big-newspaper sportswriting.

Even when people don't leave their big-media home bases, they're finding more readers by going online. For my money, the best two college football writers in the country are Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ivan Maisel of ESPN. Barnhart's online-only AJC blog is far more timely and interesting than almost anything that gets printed in the actual paper, and Maisel's work scarcely ever sees physical print at all these days; the vast majority of his stuff is online-only at ESPN.com.

All of which makes one wonder how far all this is going to go. The market is proving that small outfits concentrating on a single team or school or sport can do quite well; there are three full-time all-Auburn news and message board sites running right now (full disclosure, with several friends of mine working in various jobs), and they're all making money. Sports sites with broader appeal are also doing fine, and all the proof you need of that is Orson Spencer Mellencamp's recent taking-of-the-Boeing to become a feature writer with the Sporting News.

Readers are leaving newspapers far faster than the better writers. I remember hearing my dad gripe about the state of the Montgomery Advertiser about a decade ago. Gannett had bought out what was up until that point the best paper in the state, and their low salaries and Mickey Mouse editorial template quickly ran off everybody with any smidgen of talent. "What can you do?" he asked me rhetorically. "You have to get a paper, and even this garbage is the best one around here."

Now Dad has an iBook with a wireless hookup, and every newspaper in the world is as close as his end table. He used to get three daily papers while I was growing up; now he gets one, and I'll bet you he won't renew it the next time a bill arrives.

As a lot of people who worked for secure local monopolies pre-web are learning, my dad is hardly unique.

4 comments:

Gruber Barabonds said...

Isn't Marshall's site ESPN affiliated and not SI?

WDE

Will Collier said...

Quite right, correction made. Thanks.

Andrew said...

As the son of a Boeing employee, I thought I'd just inform you that the joke/metaphor here is now factually incorrect: Boeing moved its corporate HQ to Chicago a couple of years back. Their huge airplane processing facility in Everett's still there, though.

Otherwise, great read.

Will Collier said...

Andrew,

I go to Boeing's Seattle plant (the military jet version down in Tukwilla) quite a bit for my "real job." I'm aware of the Chicago move for the execs, but as far as I'm concerned, that'll always be a Seattle company...