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The state of sports journalism

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Earlier this week, The New York Times officially published its sports section for the last time. From now on, the Times will only cover sports through The Athletic, a sports website it bought last year. The disappearance of The New York Times sports section is only the latest change in the way news organizations are covering sports. Sports Illustrated, for example, is a shell of what it used to be, having bought out most of its staff in 2018 and changed from weekly to twice a month, and now once a month. ESPN shuttered its print magazine back in 2019. And there are fewer and fewer beat reporters covering teams.

We asked Richard Deitsch to help us figure out what's going on. He's a media reporter for The Athletic and editor of an upcoming book titled "The Year's Best Sports Writing." I asked him to describe the sports writing industry right now.

RICHARD DEITSCH: The sports writing ecosystem is very different because we have seen an extraordinary amount of layoffs. So legacy publications, including my former employer, Sports Illustrated, have really been reduced. Obviously, the place I currently work at now, The Athletic, has suffered layoffs. ESPN has suffered layoffs. So many of the legacy publications are just much smaller. The good news is that information and stories always want to be told. There's always a vacuum, and that vacuum is filled by some great work.

but you are correct where, like, 50 years ago, let's say you would read The New York Times and The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated, you know, you may get yourself a really significant collection of great sports writing over the course of the year. That has absolutely changed. You have to extend your, you know, your radius when you want to find great sports writing. But I will say the good news is it's still out there for sure, it's just in different places than we might have expected it 30 years ago.

DETROW: And you mentioned the Times. I was particularly surprised and bothered by this decision because I'm somebody who was reading that sports section growing up in New Jersey all the time. There were those writers you turn to thinking, like, I wonder what this person has to say about the story. How big of a deal is this decision? We're talking at a point where The New York Times has published its last sports section.

DEITSCH: It's in some ways sort of a little difficult for me to answer that because I work for The Athletic.

DETROW: Right.

DEITSCH: The Athletic (inaudible) me. And so The Athletic now will appear on sort of New York Times platforms as their sports section.

DETROW: Thanks for doing the disclaimer for us there.

DEITSCH: Yeah. But make no mistake about it. I mean, there were brilliant sportswriters who worked at The New York Times sports section. It's a sports section I grew up reading and read for many, many years. I know some of the people in that sports section. They have been picked for my 2023 sports writing book. So it's a loss. There's no other way to sort of sugarcoat it. You know, my hope is that Times readers or Times bundle readers will appreciate what The Athletic brings because I think it's a really, really quality sports section. But like everyone else, like, I'm going to miss the people who wrote for that sports section because they were extraordinary sportswriters, and I wish that they were still writing sports today, on a personal note.

DETROW: Yeah. There's been a few broader changes that I want to ask you about. One of them is just the number of people out there doing the work. I've been working on another story about one of the pro sports teams here in Washington. I was just talking with their PR team, and I said, how many beat reporters are covering your team every day? And I was shocked at how small the number was. It just seems like with so many papers folding up, with so much of this becoming consolidated, there's fewer and fewer people doing kind of the day in, day out beat reporting. And, of course, I could say that for just about every other field of journalism as well. How has that changed the sports reporting world from your perspective?

DEITSCH: Well, I don't want to BS your audience. Like, there's not going to be good news in the short term and medium term. Nothing is going to change in terms of the continued drumbeat of places continuing to cut staff and continuing to try to do either more or the same with less. I don't see that improving, where once upon a time, let's just use a college beat in some town. There may have been two or three newspapers dedicated to that college sports program with reporters covering the big sports there. That's probably down to one. And it's not even clear, like, how much that person would be covering that team on a daily or weekly basis.

DETROW: Yeah.

DEITSCH: Sports has the same issues as news, as politics, as culture, as features. And there has to be a solution. And I don't know if the solution is to directly support it through like, you know, kind of a Patreon kind of like place or...

DETROW: We're familiar with that one in public radio, yeah.

DEITSCH: Of course. Or like some very, very wealthy people supporting it, almost like philanthropy. I'm - I don't know what the solution is, but I do know a solution has to come or this is only going to continue to get worse.

DETROW: Yeah. The shift in the central focus of sports journalism seems to go more and more toward, I would say, TV, but it's not even TV. It's video streaming because there's so many platforms now. But kind of the focus being on the takes, the opinions, the back-and-forth, the podcast and cable shows as opposed to the writing. Is there any upside in that? Like, what have you seen in terms of how that shapes the landscape that you cover?

DEITSCH: Well, the upside is money. You can get paid more if you hit it right. And the reality is the ceiling for an opinionist in sports is far higher than the ceiling is for a elegant writer or a really, really great reporter. It is not to say that you cannot make a living as a writer or a reporter in sort of doing it in the traditional way. And, of course, those still exist. But when you see opinionists all over ESPN or all over Fox Sports 1, when you see opinionists who have, you know, millions of people subscribing to their podcast, there's something fun, obviously, about giving your opinion and people either liking it or disliking it. So that sort of opinion or takes economy is going to be with us for a while.

DETROW: You know, this conversation started on the downer note of contractions in The New York Times in particular. But I'm wondering - and let's take The Athletic out of it, where you said you work. What's the most exciting place for you right now when it comes to sports journalism? Who's doing the most innovative and interesting work?

DEITSCH: I'm not trying to cop out of this answer, but the one thing that was really great about being the guest editor of the best sports writing book was that I found, like, great sports writing existed in so many different places. Just the fact that, like, if you went deep enough into all these places, you found, like, a lot of great writing. And if there's anything to be optimistic about is I do think the talent in 2023, just in terms of writing and reporting, is the highest it's ever been. A lot of people sort of long for the glory days, like the '40s or the '50s or the '60s. You look at some of the writing there, a lot of it's garbage, just to be blunt. So that's what's great about this project is that, like, the quality of journalistic talent, it's really, really high. And that's cause for celebration.

What's not cause for celebration is I worry significantly if, you know, out of the people who I selected in this book for the main book and honorable mention, if, like, 40% of them aren't out of the business in 10 years. That's what scares me. And they decide to go to another profession where they can pay their bills and buy houses at an easier rate.

DETROW: That's Richard Deitsch, sports media reporter for the athletic and editor of "The Year's Best Sports Writing," which is out in about a week. Thanks so much for joining us.

DEITSCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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