Ruminations In The Candy Shop: Thoughts On Sports Writing In The Digital World

Matt Waldman shares his perspective on sports writing layoffs, long-form journalism, video, and cultivating a long-term outlook. 

When faced with the decision of eating vegetables or candy, most of us will make a beeline for the sugar. We know better, but we don’t care.

These dopamine inducing devices in slick, colorful packaging have big money behind them. If you’re not addicted, your kids are craving its rewards as you read this.

We only begin craving vegetables after we’ve made the radical change of cutting out sugar for a nutrient-rich diet. Most of us won’t take these measures, but even a moderate change often helps people feel better long-term.

If you’re under 35 and still have the metabolism of a hummingbird, none of this matters to you. Not yet.

Sports journalism is facing this candy versus vegetable battle, and there has been a lot of public shop talk in recent months due to high-profile layoffs.  It’s a conversation that I’ve been ambivalent about being a part of.

Most people who follow my work don’t care about this topic and spending a lot of time on it doesn’t seem useful.  Yet, some of my readers are either aspiring writers or colleagues in the industry. It’s common for us to hit each other up for advice.

I think I offer a different perspective on recent events than what I’ve been seeing around the candy shop, so I did some research. As I began a draft, my ambivalence didn’t wane, so I reached out to some writers.

Everyone agreed that what I wanted to say was worth a read, but they also concurred with my feeling that our mainstream audiences won’t care.  I know I wouldn’t if I were them.

One friend noted that many of the writers who need to hear this the most won’t step out of their Twitter echo chambers to get anything out of it.

“None of us truly know what’s going on or what’s going to happen, and a lot of these writers who are reading this are looking up at the top echelon of the job ranks,” he said. “They don’t understand the pressures that these writers face. You and I are closer to these jobs than writers on this continuum, and I don’t think we fully appreciate the experience.”

After this conversation, I was close to shelving this idea. While I don’t need a big audience for work that I like to do, I want to feel that someone will likely benefit from reading it. Plus, a topic of this sort can come across as self-important hand wringing.

The next day, a colleague posted something about recent industry happenings on his Facebook page, and I shared some the things I was working on in the thread. He is not in the celebrity tier of our industry, but he is on the higher end of the job spectrum. When he read what I had to say, he encouraged me to post more.

I’m still ambivalent about this post but after additional thought, I decided that I still feel passionate enough about the subject to share my thoughts. Ultimately, this is an exercise mostly for my benefit. Sometimes you just have to write things out to gain clarity about how you feel about a subject. If this post helps a single person who is thinking about his or her career direction in the wake of recent events, that’s a bonus.

My perspective on journalism and writing extends beyond sports.

Although I produce YouTube videos and write about football online, my experience as a professional writer goes beyond sports. I spent a decade as a magazine features writer and editor at a university business publication. Before that, I was a freelance copywriter and creative writer with a resume that includes projects with the Fontainebleau Hotel, Starwood Resorts, and the Ritz Carlton.

I’ve edited journalism professors, nationally published authors, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. One of my long-time bosses and mentor, Kent Hannon, spent a decade as a staff writer at Sports Illustrated during its heyday. He also had turns as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution bureau chief, a magazine journalism instructor, and a non-fiction author.

I’m giving you resume because a lot of people think that “making it” as a writer is about earning a job with a nationally known media outlet, writing a bestseller, or successful screenplay. These are narrow paths towards making a living as a writer.

I may not have (or ever earn) a readership or a contract on par with Peter King, Bill Simmons, or any other celebrity in the industry. However, I have made a solid living as a writer for the past 15 years and it has been a source of my overall income for even longer.

Even so, it took a lot of work and difficult decisions to reach this point. It won’t take nearly as much for me to lose it. If you’re thinking about entering this profession, understand that risk takes up permanent residence at your desk.

It’s why these layoffs and changes to content strategy are understandably dismaying for many. I follow a lot of intelligent, passionate, and dedicated writers.

There’s a lot of strong work out there—some of it so innovative that it changes the way many people think about a person, subject, or process. Sometimes these ideas lead to new business ventures.

It’s exciting to work in a world where writers can change the way others conduct the business of research and analysis.

There’s another fact that’s often true about the most vocal of my colleagues: Only a small percentage of the people I interact with are over the age of 40, and most are still looking up at 30.

So when I hear some of them lamenting about the future and the supposed death of long-form writing, two responses come immediately to mind.

The first is sympathy. It’s always difficult to find out that the destination you’ve dreamed about reaching has changed so much that you can see on the horizon that you no longer want to be there. Worse yet, you still want to go, but the equipment you brought with you is insufficient or obsolete.

The second response is what are you going to do about it?

Sports writers have fond memories of reading Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover, but a lot of its customers subscribed for the photography of Michael Jordan and swimsuit models.

Everyone is allowed woe-as-me time. While you’re doing so, learn how the industry arrived at this place.

Harvard’s Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Publicly policy has a site called Journalist’s Resource.  I recommend reading Professor Christopher Daly’s piece “The Decline of Big Media, 1980s-2000s: Key lessons and trends. I‘ll provide a link at the end of this piece.

It touches upon many of the things that Hannon shared with me about the climate of working at a top publication during print journalism’s financial golden era. It also sets the stage for the emergence of digital media and where we are today.

A lot of the writer community laments the decline of long-form journalism as the push for content that fits smartphones takes greater industry precedence. I think long-form’s recent decline is really nothing more than a bubble that should have burst a long time ago.

Writers love to wax nostalgic about the good old days, but it’s important to consider the historical underpinnings.  Growing up, I loved Sports Illustrated for the stories. So did many others who either became writers or remained deep readers.

But if we think a large percentage of subscribers read multiple articles every week then we’re ignoring how much the swimsuit issue was a central part of the publication’s marketing strategy. Whether it was Michael Jordan or Paulina Porizkova, I knew plenty of subscribers between ages 13-40 whose main use for the publication was the photography. Even when print was the only game in town, a lot of newspaper subscribers rarely read more than some combination of the box scores, the horoscope, a comic, and an advice column before they cut out coupons and the crossword for later use.

If you were an active reader of sports journalism between 1990 and 2005, you experienced the transition to digital platforms. Bill Simmons became my generation’s cultural figurehead of long-form entertainment columns, mixing sports and pop culture with an everyman’s tone.

As online audiences increased, every aspiring writer who emailed me about writing for the site where I worked at the time wanted “to write a column like Bill Simmons.” They also were raised on print and, like the rest of the industry at the time, could not fathom the differences between the two mediums.

Simmons work on ESPN’s Page 2 was part of a team of long-form icons like Ralph Wiley and Hunter S. Thompson. They were the natural transition between print and digital before smartphones and before research showed how our brains read for depth on screens versus paper.

Like many I knew, I often printed Page2 to read these columns at lunch. It was a sign that those of us raised on print could intuitively feel there was a difference between reading articles on paper and scrolling through them on a screen.

Business—especially media—is a copycat world, and Simmons’ critical and commercial success on Page2 sustained the inflated bubble of online sports writing. His launch of Grantland was a wonderful celebration of long form and earning a dedicated following during its five-year run.

In hindsight, it was also doomed before it even began.

Frank Deford was part of an era where the 7,700-word feature was not uncommon.

Page2 earned Simmons the political clout to launch Grantland, but the research on depth of reading in the digital world didn’t jibe with his mission. I’d be surprised the research was even considered. Of the few who look into it, they rarely work past the early stages of denial to embrace the information—even fewer know how to apply it or get the support to implement it.

The Bill Simmons Era is the height of the bubble, but what’s more important is understanding media during the 80s and 90s that laid the groundwork. Media outlets were smaller, profitable corporations during that time. If they weren’t, they were businesses funded by benefactors with deep pockets and motivations other than the fiscal.

When sharing these thoughts with Hannon, he recalled a story that underscored how much money was available to report on events.

“There was no greater exponent of long-form than the late Frank DeFord,” says Hannon who recalled fact-checking a 7,000-word DeFord piece on tennis legend Bill Tilden and the amount of research and travel that would go into a story of this depth. “DeFord wrote well over 100 Back Page pieces for the magazine, which were often compelling leftovers of research that didn’t make it into the finished product. Think about how much reporting DeFord did to write masterful pieces of 5,000-7,000 words and still had enough to write 100 Back Page pieces.”

Think about the expense. The outlets that generated revenue generated enough that stories the scope of DeFord’s were common.

Even smaller assignments earned top dollar. According to Daly (and others I know who worked during that era), freelancers could earn as much as $10 per word.

For some perspective, my university publication paid freelancers between 50 cents and a dollar per word during the past decade. Many online writers in the same role are earning $50-$80 per article.

Vinyl is making a comeback for similar reasons that long-form will remain in demand on a more appropriate scale to its readership.

The conglomerates came along in the 90s and purchased many of these profitable entities as a part its growth strategy. These buyouts were often debt-leveraged and it forced these publications to deliver revenue on a different scale and schedule to shareholders.

The business entities saw media as a cash cow. They hoped to generate 80s-level revenues that afforded editors to inform young writers that any expense reports under $300 made everyone look bad. Instead, these debt-leverage buyouts created financial conditions that were impossible to meet.

The new relationships between diverse properties within the conglomerate also stunted growth.  Editorial teams were now more concerned with doing stories that could harm the image of parent companies. You can read more about this in Daly’s article.

It’s why this early period of online sports journalism from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s seemed so hopeful. The technology created greater immediacy and the business insiders saw the potential for a far greater volume of readership.

These hopes inflated the bubble further. By the time Grantland debuted in 2011, research about depth of reading in the digital realm had already been out for at least a couple of years, and that shiny bead was expanding beyond stable capacity.

When I view our industry from this perspective, long-form isn’t dying; it was never meant as the predictable revenue generator on a large scale—especially in a digital world.

Vinyl was “dead” for decades. Now, recording companies are desperately seeking pressing plants because listeners, young and old, have grown to appreciate the thoughtful and intimate presentation of records and cover art.

Sounds like long-form to me. We’ll see if audiences eventually develop a similar craving that drives a higher volume of demand.

Video is the newest flavor offering, but has anyone figured out how to make it profitable? Other than a few individual proprietors working with the medium, the answer is no.

Like written content, audiences don’t consume video with great depth. Research shows that any video over two minutes in length loses 50 percent of its original viewers.

Unless the subject matter is specific and brief, a two-minute video isn’t strong on context, nuance, or thought-provoking information.  It’s often candy.

I like candy, but I’m skeptical that video will be a huge revenue producer that leads these media properties structured in “grow or die” mentalities back to the financial golden years.

Still, vegetables don’t sell like candy. Whether it’s video or the written word, if it’s on a screen, research indicates that digital content is not ideal for complex topics.

The point we must consider is whether long-form was ever really been a fit for the factory farm. When it hits, it hits big. Otherwise, it’s a steady niche audience, and niches don’t fund conglomerates on its own.

The farm or the chocolate factory? It’s a tough decision and I can sympathize.

If you’re an aspiring journalist, it leads to important questions. Is having a byline at a national outlet the only way you define success?

If so, it may be time to re-think your goals. I’m not telling you it won’t happen, but if the reason you’re pursuing this career is writing, then widening your scope of “success” could limit your misery.

Cultivating a steady audience around work that you love doing doesn’t require the biggest stage. It may mean that you have to live more modestly or work multiple jobs for a while to make a living and still do the work.

If you know writing is for you, then you’ll do it because you have to. If you don’t know what I mean, you probably won’t be in this camp.

If you like writing but you can be honest with yourself that you love the big stage even more, then you’re already diving into video and podcasting. Just be careful that you’re not sacrificing a meaningful part of yourself to follow a trend.

I know what it feels like to feel sick to my stomach about turning down opportunities from big-ticket names—especially when the short-term outcome indicated a possibility that I made the wrong choice.

However, I knew what my long-game was and was fortunate enough to see clearly what got in its way. I didn’t want to box myself into a career beholden to obligations that didn’t fit what I did or enjoyed best.

I did that once in a different industry and I can tell you that it’s one thing to view life with flexibility in your 20s, it’s another when you look up at age 35 with a family and your decisions impact others.

I’m not judging anyone for taking the sugar. It’s a lot of fun and hopefully lucrative long-term for those heading directly to the chocolate factory.

But if you know you’re going to miss tilling the soil on the organic farm, there is another way.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.