Renowned journalists gave their thoughts on the history and future of sport’s writing on Saturday, Dec. 2, while speaking at the Legends of the Keyboard panel at the Newseum in Washington.
The event was co-sponsored by the Newseum Institute and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland.
The panel was moderated by George Solomon, director of the Povich Center and former assistant managing editor for sports at The Washington Post for 28 years, along with Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and one of the founding editors of USA Today.
The panelists included Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today; Thomas Boswell, sports columnist for the Washington Post; Robert Lipsyte, former sports reporter for the New York Times and award-winning author; Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated; Claire Smith, former sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer; and Terence Smith, former special correspondent at PBS Newshour.
Merida began by naming Shirley Povich as an example of what a great sportswriter should be. Povich was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Washington Post for 75 years. Boswell, who knew Povich for 28 years, agreed with Merida.
“I’ve always thought that the sports page was the first place where young people take possession of a subject with enough authority that they can talk to adults,” Boswell said. “Shirley, as I got older, became a hero because he was such a stylist, so thoughtful, he took core positions on serious issues.”
“Passion, loving what you do, becoming first and foremost a good journalist and caring about people [makes a good sportswriter],” Terence Smith said.
Lipsyte made the argument that sportswriters are going through an identity crisis, unsure of what to cover in a sports world that seeps into other aspects of society.
“We don’t know who we are,” Lipsyte said. “Are we reviewers? Are we real journalists? Are we investigative reporters? Is there a way of combining all these things? I don’t have any of these answers.”
Over the past few years, the demand for quicker news has increased, with the ability to access stories from one’s phone. Despite the change in the consumption of news, Brennan believes that the standard for writers still stays the same.
“The best are still doing it the exact same way in terms of fundamentals, in terms of their standards,” Brennan said. “I don’t think it goes out of style to double check, triple check, quadruple check.”
As readers opt for shorter, on-the-go news, long-form pieces may become a distant memory, something Claire Smith says would be a disservice to journalism.
“I would like to think that long-form journalism is forever,” Claire Smith said. “There was never anything so relaxing and wonderful as a Sunday when The New York Times were at your doorstep and you had the whole day to read from cover to cover.”
However, Smith also questioned writers’ roles in contributing to the decline of long-form journalism.
“We are complicit in turning our print journalism format over to internet and to the 280-word box and we have helped kill attention spans for a large majority of our population,” Smith added. “Are we the victims of it or the conspirators of it? We need to treat our audiences more like adults. We need to give them the long-form journalism that I think they are still yearning to read.”
With athletes protesting during the national anthem and speaking out on political and social issues, many fans have said that players and sports writers should “stick to sports.” However, Merida noted that sports and culture have always intersected, even more so now, which has contributed to the success of The Undefeated.
“We’re in a great time where these things are mixed and we’re in an era because of the digital time that we’re living in that athletes have a lot of ways to communicate to people,” Merida said.
Brennan also applauded sports and sports writing for its ability to lead to larger, more important, societal discussions, like the child molestation scandal at Penn State and Ray Rice’s domestic violence situation.
“I think it’s terrific because that national conversation is so important for us to have and sports fan are coming to that national conversation,” Brennan said. “It’s fantastic that sports can take us to these conversations even if the issues are very troubling.”