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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Sports Journalism

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

For decades, many looked down on the concept of “sports journalism.” Some called the sports department “The Toy Department” of a newspaper for years. The idea of a book on the subject at any point before, oh, 1960 or so, probably wouldn’t have gone too far.

Luckily, we’ve gone past that point. That makes the idea of a book on its history a worthwhile concept. Where did the concept of sports news come from? When did it began? How has the mission changed?

That’s the area that authors Patrick Washburn and Chris Lamb set out to explore. The title, “Sports Journalism,” isn’t particularly catchy but it does at least nicely describe what’s going to be discussed in the pages inside the book. For the record, the subtitle adds context – “A History of Glory, Fame and Technology.”

As you might expect, sports journalism came into being with the rise of two separate factors early in the 1800s. One was the amount of leisure time available for citizens, and the other was growth of the mass media – usually associated with something in the newspaper family. Obviously, technological advances were at the forefront of such changes. But at some point in the first half of the 19th century, stories that could be considered sports news started to show up. That often centered on areas that we consider activities, such as hunting and fishing as done as a sport and not for subsistence. But boxing and horse racing stories also began to appear – even though they were small “industries” at the time.

But later in that century, transportation started to get easier, and team sports began to grow. It no doubt started with the concept of “my town against your town,” which quickly spread to “my college against your college.” Both of them had a natural constituency for news of such games. As railroads and the telegraph grew, it became possible for larger leagues to form and for news of games to be transmitted to a wider audience. Within a few decades, newspapers quickly realized that coverage of such games could drive circulation upward.

From there, Washburn and Lamb move into other areas, mostly driven by technology. Starting around 1920, radio proved to be a popular way of bringing fans along to games when they couldn’t be there in person. Television essentially followed in those footsteps, but provided a much better picture – pardon the pun – of what was going on at a particular event. Magazines, particular Sports Illustrated in its golden era starting in the 1960, often supplied context by looking at the bigger picture. They paid attention to such matters as race and sex, often revealing in uncomfortable ways how sports often mirrors society. And then there’s the Internet, which turned the entire business completely around. I’m not sure where we’re headed with on-line products and information, but we’re in a hurry to get there.

A couple of points bothered me a bit along the way here. It was a surprise that the changes in print journalism caused by radio and television weren’t discussed too deeply. Let’s take a typical big event, such as a local team’s participation in an NFL game. The telecast means that most people have watched the event before they pick up the newspaper to read a description of it. In other words, they know the score, but they are seeking additional information. That altered the task of the reporter on site immensely. He or she (that last part comes up in the book along the way too) must find new details to satisfy the curiosity of fans in order to help sell the product – and it would help if that could be expressed in an entertaining way. Sometimes “game stories” barely touch upon the game event, but merely serve as an entrance to information about other areas.

The other issue is a little more complicated, and it comes up in a section about ESPN. There always has been a little tension between those involved in broadcasting sports and events and those who are there to report on them. The obvious difference is that often the former is paying for the opportunity to broadcast the games, and must give up some of its independence as part of the bargain. Reporters don’t have that worry. Sometimes organizations can fall on one side or the other of the issue. But occasionally, a company like ESPN is involved in broadcasting games but has a different department filled with journalists who are working to present straight opinions.

Washburn and Lamb tend to lump them all together as sports journalists, but there’s a clear distinction between the two. Sometimes the issue comes up merely as the fact that an ESPN SportsCenter might lead with a story that has a connection to its broadcast, when there’s a bigger story elsewhere. But sometimes some ESPN personalities have lost jobs when going “too far” in criticizing players, leagues and teams. It’s an interesting balancing act.

Washburn and Lamb suffer a little bit from the academic writing gene, which means the material can be presented in a slightly dry manner. On the other hand, their research is thorough and they cover the relevant points. “Sports Journalism” is a quick read (less than 200 pages of copy), but it will get those brain cells working. Those who are predisposed to be interested in such conversations about the subject will find that the book is a worthwhile addition to that library niche.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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