Greska: On sports journalism, now and beyond

Marquette Men's Basketball

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

This morning on Twitter felt like an avalanche of depressing news, with the Tweets from respected journalists at ESPN one after the other announcing they were being let go. Dana O’Neil, Jesse Temple, Eamonn Brennan, Brett McMurphy. Young, old, male, female, it did not seem to matter. It sucks.

While I’m no longer in the field of sports journalism, or any journalism, this is a topic that still hits really close to home. I grew up dreaming of being a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. I went to college setting out to make that happen and even got to spend a year in the industry. I have a lot of friends in the business and still consider myself a small, inconsequential part of that fabric. 

But when my brother was looking at colleges and programs, I told him straight up, don’t go into journalism, particularly sports journalism. It has nothing to do with the work itself. Though the hours can suck and the fun be taken out of games themselves, I still felt blessed to get to sit in the courtside at the Bradley Center, or walk into the clubhouse at Miller Park, or talk to NBA prospects on the phone. But then the paychecks came, and they left a lot to be desired. That was in 2013, and it has only gotten worse since.  

The question I’ve seen a lot of is simple, why? Why in a time of billion dollar TV rights and multi-million dollar contracts for the players, is the industry that has grown in step at every juncture now in such peril? 

There are a couple threads on Twitter that I’ve started discussing this, but I think it all comes down to a very simple answer: the internet. 

There will be books written about it, so I’ll try to keep it short, but having worked at different levels in a few different industries, this is my thought process. 

The internet makes it really easy for a user to only consume what he or she wants. I no longer have to buy the full paper if I only want to read the comics. Likewise, I am no longer reading the full sports section, if I just need a box score from last night.

The internet makes it really easy for a provider to see what consumers are reading/clicking on. So whereas before the sports readership could be whatever the full newspaper subscription base was, it now is much more exact. I can tell you at this exact second how may people have read this post. 

The internet makes it really easy for advertisers to see which campaigns are working best and which outlets/sections to work with. So whereas before the advertiser only had one number to be sold on, he or she is now able to request much more detail. Not only how many people, but how many times, and for how long. 

The internet has given users more choice while giving providers and advertisers more detail on those choices. That has led to more informed decisions. A poor columnist had a ton of job security back in the day just by keeping his/her head down and not making a scene. A columnist nowadays can measure metrics on topics and adjust accordingly. So if the editor sees Tebow articles get twice as many visits as generic QB articles, the editor will want more and more Tebow articles, so it can have better metrics to land advertisers.

You see where I’m going with this right? If I can spend 30 minutes working up a “Hot Take” about why Tebow is ruining baseball’s integrity with his minor league foray, why would I spend 3 days actually going to watch him play, interviewing him and players and fans, and getting an actual report as to his progress? That costs time and a lot of money. “Hot Takes” cost me nothing, have better metrics, and are quick, allowing me to produce even more content right away.

I’m not immune to this, even as I’m doing this for fun and not for a living. The two most-read stories of the past 3 years are the Buzz Williams contract piece and the Ellensons unfollowing Wojo on Twitter. Why would I spend hours on Synergy researching pick and roll breakdowns, garnering a whole 200 clicks, when I can guarantee 10 times that much just by writing a couple sentences on Buzz?

Again, I do it for fun, so I still take the time to use Synergy when I can because I love learning and do know diehards appreciate the knowledge. But these newspapers and networks like ESPN and FOX Sports are not doing it for fun. In fact, being part of large, conglomerate entities makes them even more profit-driven than if they were free standing companies. ESPN isn’t answering to its shareholders, it is answering to those who own Disney stock. Shareholders don’t care if Steven A Smith offends Durant and causes a rift with a partner. They care that First Take ratings remain high and advertisers keep flocking there.

It’s even worse with newspapers. I interned at a tiny regional newspaper called The Reporter in Illinois when I was in college. It published once a week and had an editorial staff of 4 people. When a new owner came in, they slashed the editorial team to two and made stringers and interns write the rest of the paper. Now imagine that type of penny pinching in thousands of communities across the country. It’s somehow even worse on a bigger scale. The Chicago Tribune outsources a ton of its high school coverage or just doesn’t cover it altogether. It has shareholders to answer to and profit margins to meet. It made no sense to tailor to tiny localities. Heck, it is even experimenting with having AI written pieces. Who needs reporters when the computer can do everything itself. 

In one sense, large national publications will benefit greatly from the current trends. They have the large, diverse readership advertisers crave. There is a surplus of talent with so few outlets available, meaning they can keep wages down and keep rotating people out as needed. They have all the power and few(er) of the pressures. 

However, this is not good for the industry. This chart pretty much says it all.

That’s as steep a drop as it gets. And the big difference from now and 1950, the last time advertising revenue was so low, is that subscription revenue has bottomed out as well. Users expect (and get) free content online, no need to pay for the same things I can get for free. 

The worst part is there is no rebound in sight. As AI becomes more sophisticated, there will be less and less need for reporters to do basic tasks. All we will be left with are columnists and bloviators. The Skips and Steven As of the world will keep raking in the big bucks, while everyone else fights over the remaining scraps. 

I’ll finish with this stat: Since 2014, the reporter profession has dropped by 18% when the BLS predicted only a 9% drop over the next 10 years. If you look further back, it’s even more bleak.

I know ESPN is not a newspaper and I know their issues come from a different source, mostly cord cutters and exploding content costs, but their solutions have been the same. In the information age, information doesn’t pay.  

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Categories: Columns


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One Comment on “Greska: On sports journalism, now and beyond”

  1. Nick LoCicero
    April 26, 2017 at 4:43 pm #

    Great article Andrei. At least you got a great college education at a great University and had the opportunity to meet some great people, including my son.
    Hope all is well

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