Is television killing sports columns — and sports columnists?

January 26, 2005 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Stephen Rodrick, writing for Slate magazine, seems to think it is. In a devastating critique of many of the yelling heads that appear on ESPN’s several talk shows, Rodrick makes a simple point: the time a sports columnist spends on television takes away from the time he or she has to write a good column — to talk with sources, to visit lockerooms, to research information, etc. He has particularly harsh word for people such as Stephen Smith (Philadelphia Inquirer), Dan Le Batard (Miami Herald), Tony Kornheiser (Washington Post), and Woody Paige (Denver Post).

Some columnists still give their first priority to writing the column — people such as Tom Boswell of the Washington Post.

“At the New York Times, where sports columnists are only rarely on television, the reported column lives on. In the first four days of 2005, columnist Selena Roberts wrote back-to-back columns that artfully skewered the seamier side of Auburn’s football program using—get this—actual public documents that probably involved a trip to a courthouse or two. Rhoden also penned a thoughtful piece on USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow and racism in college football.”

The issue is more complex than simply a sports columnist neglecting work and readers. The problem lies in two words: reach and money. A sports columnist who participates in a sports talk show — especially the nationally televised ones that are on ESPN — will have an audience for his (or her) few unedited words that is many times greater than the audience for the newspaper column. In addition, such an appearance gives the columnist cachet and entrée. Athletes, managers and others involved in sports, as well as spectators, watch these programs. They are more likely to talk with a writer they have seen on ESPN than one they probably do not read. Columnists may well argue that a television appears helps, rather than hinders, them to do a better job.

The other consideration is money. A few of the very top columnists make six-figure salaries, but most do not. In fact, they are woefully underpaid (as are many other newspaper people). Rodrick acknowledges this consideration in his article by quoting one columnist as saying that a single appearance on an ESPN show would “pay for my daughter’s wedding.”

Finally, there is the question of the columnist’s obligations and loyalties. We can assume that any newspaper columnist who appears on one of these talk shows has the permission of his or her editor at the newspaper. We can also assume that the fact that the writer is getting paid for this appearance is no secret. Rodrick’s article makes it clear that he believes the writer’s chief obligation is to the newspaper reader, but is it? If so, why? Does the newspaper reader deserve the best efforts of the writer to the point that he or she sacrifices personally and even professionally? The assumption that the answer is yes underlies Rodrick’s article.

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