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Frank Deford laments the passing of journalism that Frank Deford likes (and which hasn’t passed)

Jun 25, 2012, 5:00 PM EDT

Frank Deford

The legendary Frank Deford spoke at an awards ceremony on Friday, and during  his acceptance speech he lamented what he believes to be the death of sports journalism.

He was somewhat vague on what he thinks is causing the death, but he goes after sports writing that is primarily about statistics and “texting,” suggesting that he believes internet writing, sabermetric-style analysis and social media based stuff like Twitter are killing sports writing.

This, he says, is creating a class of readers and reporters who are “optionally illiterate.” Those who can read and write weighty things, but choose not to.

And what is lost?

Like everyone else, I have no idea what’s going to happen to the future of our profession. The great thing about sportswriting is that it’s about storytelling. The drama, the glamor …. I don’t want to see sportswriting be overwhelmed by statistics. I want to read about the heart and blood of athletes and their stories, which has made sportswriting so special.

I worry who is going to pay for the expensive stuff. The long, expensive, investigative pieces, the enterprise journalism. The work that matters more than anything else and justifies the whole experience as journalists.

I understand what Deford is talking about, but I think he (a) misidentifies who the consumer of sports media is; and (b) identifies a false choice with respect to what sports media can be.

Deford has obviously enjoyed the hell out of his career, but since when is sports reporting — or any reporting — about that which “justifies the whole experience as journalists?”

Of course it’s more fun to write an in-depth piece on an athlete or a game that conveys a storyline. A story that communicates pathos. Which tells a rich story. Which requires travel to big events and meetings with exciting people. That makes a reporter’s job fun!  But it’s the readers who matter, right? What they want is what is important, not what the reporter wants, correct?

Statistics and recaps may bore the hell out of Frank Deford, but based on the consumption patterns of readers — and just how many more eyes are reading more things about sports on the Internet these days than ever subscribed to Sports Illustrated — I’d say that the readers like that stuff just fine. Maybe quickly wanting to learn what will help his fantasy team better during his lunch hour renders a given reader “optionally illiterate,” but it also gives that reader what he wants, and that’s the whole point of any consumer product. And, yes, sports media is a consumer product.*

But that leads to the second part: giving the reader tweets, texts, blurbs, charts or blog posts with that less-glamorous, less-drama-filled content does not mean that the reader cannot also enjoy the writing Deford thinks is disappearing. The investigative stuff. The in-depth features. The things that only a reporter with good access, brains, skills and the ability to tell a good story can provide. It may not be considered the flagship of sports writing like it was in Deford’s heyday, but there’s still an awful lot of that around. Amy Nelson and Jeff Passan do it for online outlets. There are still a lot of others who do it too. And, actually, it’s one area where there is a tremendous opportunity for growth in sports media.

I’ve written about this before, but there is a future in substantive sports media, and it’s not about the bits and pieces that get tweeted today. What we’ve come to call “commodity news,” which teams and leagues themselves are taking over. So much of what I suspect Deford hates actually falls under that category. That day’s lineup; official quotes from players and coaches; other things that can be easily disseminated and more effectively controlled by the team’s increasingly sophisticated media arms and which have turned so many reporters into tweet-first, think-later spokespeople, largely against their will.

The media can and should let the teams and leagues have that stuff, because it does nothing to help any given newspaper, blog or website to simply regurgitate things that will be all over the place in seconds. Rather, the media will do better by concentrating its resources on providing content that differentiates it from the competition. This can be in-depth and investigative stuff. It can be opinion writing like we do a lot of here at HBT. It can be gossip like Deadspin. It can be unique statistical analysis like Fangraphs. Anything, really.

The point is for the writer, newspaper or website to put their particular stamp on the product to make readers want to get it from them specifically as opposed from any old place. Once that unique voice or angle has been established, the opportunity for the money, which Deford specifically worries about, arrives, because you’ve created a unique product that people will come back to. One that can’t be easily repeated or replicated or undermined. All it takes is the will to commit to a given model and stick with it even if the immediate financial benefits aren’t apparent. Online media is maturing. Eventually it’s gonna shake out and there will be winners and losers. Making your outlet a winner requires it to have a plan now.

And the end result of that: a world in which people can read their fantasy updates, their statistical analysis, their in-depth reporting, their rumor mongering, their human interest features, their texts, their tweets, and their long form whatever from anyplace they want.

Not a world like Deford fears in which it’s either this or that, either good or bad, either glamorous and drama-filled or “illiterate.”

*I am aware that there are those who like to think of the press as The Fourth Estate. That it speaks truth to power and all of that stuff. Well, that’s admirable and it may be what has been taught in J-school for the past 40 years or so, but the notion of the press being some greater institution than a mere business is a relatively recent, relatively short-lived and approaching obsolete one. There have always been examples of great journalism rising above mere product and serving a social good — and reporters should clearly strive to write good important stories — but as an overarching purpose of the press, that notion flourished in the 60s and 70s and has been dying pretty slowly for several years.

And it hasn’t been the bloggers and tweeters that killed it. It’s the people and companies who own the newspapers that have done so. If you don’t believe this, ask why your local paper is smaller than it used to be and the newsroom emptier than it used to be. Papers themselves believe that they’re for-profit businesses, and they act accordingly. We pretend that’s an aberration at our peril.    

  1. danaking - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    I’ve been an admirer of Deford for years, but his perspective is skewed here. I dropped my subscription to Sports Illustrated about fifteen years ago, when it became less a magazine about sports and more like (Sweaty) People. I want to know what happened, and gain an understanding of why it happened, so maybe I’ll recognize it next time. That’s what I like about sports. I’m happy that Josh Hamilton appears to have overcome most of his demons, but i don’t want more than a cursory knowledge of what they are. If want to hear about people’s problems, I have people i know and love with problems. Sports is where I go to get away from that.

  2. bigleagues - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    Shouldn’t it be “whom hasn’t passed?”

    • Maxa - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:35 PM

      If you’re going to be a grammar Nazi, at least make sure you get it right.

      • bigleagues - Jun 26, 2012 at 9:05 AM

        I did not make an definitive statement of error. I asked a question. Furthermore, I should have slowed down when reading and commenting because I thought I had read “journalist” and not ‘journalism’.

        So egg on my face.

        Having said that . . .

    • paperlions - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:46 PM

      No, it is the journalism that hasn’t passed, which is a which, not a who (subject) or a whom (object).

  3. schlom - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    Pfft, who is going to read that, it’s too long. Can’t you condense it into a tweet?

  4. lessthanittakes - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:32 PM

    Who else heard Deford read that quote in your head in his voice? It was downright Professor Farnsworthian.

  5. If the Shoe Fits - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:36 PM

    Poor Deford.

    Clearly, he’s missing out on guys like Posnanski, Verducci, Passan, et al if he thinks this isn’t happening today. It IS happening, and in more places than the average person could read. Sure, there’s Bleacher Report, and other garbage out there. But there’s also guys like Mike Fast writing things that are actually IMPACTING the games. Or guys like The Common Man pointing out the insanity of how some writers are so far off base in their assertions.

    How sad that we’re all on his lawn, and that he doesn’t appreciate the fact that there’s more amazingly good content out there than one person (at least one with a job) can reasonably read. Every team has incredibly smart, passionate writers contributing great content. Too bad he’s just too jaded to be interested.

    • ufullpj - Jun 25, 2012 at 10:14 PM

      Verducci is nothing more than a flack for the Yankees or the Mets. Posnanski is good, so is Passan.

      The problem is that we’ve got too many lazy writers (See: Verducci, Tom and Olney, Buster) who sit on their asses and literally phone everything in.

      Deford is dead-on. Sorry. But with that said, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for the other forms of information. Deford is unique, now, because he uses words in ways other journalists no longer do.

      I’ll be honest – my first click for national sports news is now PFT & the related sites; ESPN is visited only sparingly now. I read NFP, Yahoo, and PFT for football, PBT and CBS for baseball. Too many agendas and wannabes at ESPN, and most of them, quite frankly suck.

  6. detroitfanatic - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:40 PM

    I nodded off just looking at that gobbly gook. I didn’t make it through the first sentence before I was bored as shit and feeling like Craig was defending what he does as Journalism.

    Just because someone tweets, or has a blog, does not make them journalists. You are not a journalist. You make smarmy comments about what journalists write, and then rip off their work. You paraphrase tidbits of information others have worked hard to get, and post it on your blog. Just because you put a hyperlink to an actual journalist’s story, doesn’t make it alright to copy and paste the most important facets of that story. NBC has no business profitting off of Sherman’s work to write this story, but they will, all because a summarizer and blogger pretends he’s a journalist.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Jun 25, 2012 at 6:26 PM

      So you hate my “tidbits” and think they render my work illegitimate, yet admit that you didn’t read past the first sentence of something I wrote that was of substance? Why, that seems fair.

      • detroitfanatic - Jun 25, 2012 at 6:54 PM

        I read the whole thing. I didn’t say I didn’t make it through the first sentence. I said I was already bored as shit at that point, and was ready for your self aggrandizing, sanctimonious bs of how what you do is superior to what actual journalists and contributors do.

        As far as rendering your work “illegitimate”, it isn’t the tidbits. It’s the lack of originality. Has Craig Calcaterra ever written anything that wasn’t a response to something someone else wrote? It just seems so lazy. “__________ wrote this today. {insert copy and pasted text from a copyrighted source, most likely all the important parts}. Here is why he is an idiot/incorrect/correct/ignorant.”

        You are the Perez Hilton of baseball. Instead of drawing penis’ on celebrities’ faces, you rip journalists for writing styles, and the phrases they use, and the stories they write.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Jun 25, 2012 at 6:57 PM

        Feel whatever you want about what it is that I and other bloggers do. But understand that your characterization of what I do is incorrect and shows that you don’t read my stuff very often.

      • detroitfanatic - Jun 25, 2012 at 7:15 PM

        The very next “story” that came up on this site is exactly what I’m talking about. The one about how the Chicago Sun Times’ journalists are wrong.

        “Now, I’m sure De Luca, Deputy Managing Editor, News and Sports, and Morrissey, columnist, have done exhaustive research on the topic. That topic being how to kick people when they’re down. Byrd might be a career cheater, for all I know. Or he might well be as clean as anyone in the sport. One thing I’m pretty sure about: if he recently started cheating, he’s pretty terrible at it.

        Oh, and there’s one more relevant fact: the drug found in Byrd’s system isn’t performance enhancing. But don’t let that stop the snark-fest guys.”

        This follows the same cadence that most stories here do. Like I said, “_________ wrote something. Here is what they wrote {copy and paste other’s work}. Here is why they are idiots.”

        I am aware you didn’t write this. It is your site though, and this is the same sanctimonious bs that I see on here everyday. I like your commenters though, and 99% of my visits are just to see what they thought of something.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Jun 25, 2012 at 7:24 PM

        There is certainly media criticism here. It does not constitute the bulk of our content or even anything close to a majority of it. But yes, it is here.

        I’d ask you: why is that illegitimate. Deford himself here thinks that the reporter’s role in the story is central. If other reporters aren’t as up front about it, many — either explicitly via their opinion or implicitly via their imposition of narrative over what are essentially random events — do so as well. In doing so the media plays a large role in shaping the way fans consume and understand sports.

        And they should not be criticized in doing so … why again? Because they claim to be impartial when they clearly aren’t? Because they’ve been appointed by someone?

        And where did I call Deford an idiot? Indeed, I think that if you truly pay attention to what we do around here, rarely if ever do we actually attack a member of media on anything close to a personal basis as opposed to criticize the ideas they have placed into the public discourse.

        Why aren’t they fair game? And if they are, who else is out there criticizing them?

      • badintent - Jun 25, 2012 at 7:28 PM

        I get your point and it is a valid one. As one that grew up on SI and NYT sports in the 60and 70′s in the era of the greatest sport writers, we now have TMZ/sports gossip replacing what used to be high quality college level writing which brought the story to life. Instead of David Anderson, we have cheap shot artists and Rupert Murdoch “dirt collecting J*ws” spewing their vermin all over the internet and supermarket tabloids. If I have to see Kim Kardashian one more time with her fat butt with a jock, I ‘m gonna get that Gilgo Beach guy to have a date with her.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 25, 2012 at 7:40 PM

        It’s the lack of originality

        Wait, wait wait wait wait. Hold on a second here. Are you really going to bring up originality in a post about Frank Deford, who has written this same type of “damn kids get off my lawn you don’t respect how we used to do it” schtick for at least the last 10 years?

        What’s next, are you going to defend Rick Reilly’s originality too?

  7. paperlions - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    I thought it was the job of the fool to speak truth to power.

  8. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:42 PM

    The great thing about sportswriting is that it’s about storytelling. The drama, the glamor …. I don’t want to see sportswriting be overwhelmed by statistics.

    [paraphrasing Tom Tango here]
    I won’t presume to speak for everyone, but I think the majority of us enjoys the former. Tell us how the grass smells, how the crowd cheered, the excitement at the crack of the bat. All the things that the David Halberstams, WC Heinz, Roger Angell’s of the world used to give us. This is your world, and we eat it up.

    However, don’t start talking about how Player X is underrated and is really better than Player Y. Don’t tell us that because a player had a 5 hit game, he’s clutch and always performs when the moment counts. Don’t do that, because when you do you are entering my world. And I’m better at judging this stuff than you are.

    • skipperxc - Jun 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

      I wish I had more thumbs for this.

  9. Francisco (FC) - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:47 PM

    Once that unique voice or angle has been established, the opportunity for the money, which Deford specifically worries about, arrives, because you’ve created a unique product that people will come back to. One that can’t be easily repeated or replicated or undermined. All it takes is the will to commit to a given model and stick with it even if the immediate financial benefits aren’t apparent.

    RIght on. For exapmple, I’m very focused on my Craig’s Lair yarns, a unique product for HBT I’m sure. Of course the only benefit I’ll get is amusement, but that’s fair.

  10. dowhatifeellike - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:47 PM

    tl;dr

  11. steveohho - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:50 PM

    “The long, expensive, investigative pieces, the enterprise journalism.”

    Who is he kidding? The result of most “journalism” is just to occupy space between the ads. The saying, “he who pays the piper calls the tune” is decidedly true for sports and non sports coverage.

  12. brewcitybummer - Jun 25, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    There is plenty of content out there for people who love the human interest stories. Those stories where sports are supposed to teach us something about the human condition, society, human nature, resilience,etc. I don’t fault anyone for loving that stuff. But I work in social services and I see the human condition, human nature, resilience, etc everyday at my jobs. I don’t want human interest stories; I just want to appreciate athletes for their athleticism and that content is there for me too. So, everyone is getting what they want. The sky actually isn’t falling and things are alright; at least in sports.

  13. woodenulykteneau - Jun 25, 2012 at 6:08 PM

    People like to pay for journalism the way they like to pay for porn; if it’s really good, they’ll pay. If it’s good enough, they’ll take what they can get for free. So long as there’s a steady supply of “good enough” — and there are plenty of wanna bes, the kind that use “impact” as a verb and type in CAPS — this will continue.

  14. annaalamode - Jun 25, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    I’d actually rather not read about anyone’s blood. Thanks ever so much.

  15. dowhatifeellike - Jun 25, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    With the advent of things like Twitter, I get most of my “human interest” stories from the humans themselves. Between social media, radio/TV broadcasts, and the mlb.tv app, I get all the information I want/need. What could a writer possibly say in 5000 words that I haven’t heard about? I’m already overloaded with info.

    At least half of my visits to HBT are to see if they cover something I just heard.

  16. Walk - Jun 25, 2012 at 9:42 PM

    Interesting issue being skirted here. Would you come to hbt for just the stories minus the comments by readers? I am sure i would but i gotta say i like getting the lay of the land that the comments provide. More than once i have read a comment and realised i did not think something through as much as i should have and on other occasions it was pointed out where i was wrong. Stories are good and the comments are sauce for the goose.

  17. micker716 - Jun 25, 2012 at 11:49 PM

    Frank is right. Journalism has devolved into a lazy, easy comment or criticism of someone else”s work. 140 characters is not human interaction and it’s certainly not journalism. The first time someone from HBT actually interacted, interviewed or (God forbid) confronted one of their subjects would be worthy of, well, an article. Craig, I enjoy the blog for what it is, but you are a lightweight. Deford is the real deal. Keep it short with links, graphics and a catchy title and we’ll click: “It’s the readers who matter, right? What they want is what is important, not what the reporter wants, correct?” That’s the difference, a writer like Deford makes me care about his subject despite any preconceived opinions or biases. I’ll always read a Deford article, I’ll click on a Roger Clemens post. I could care less who wrote it.

  18. badintent - Jun 26, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Lets all go burn some books to 451 F. Start with Madona’s coffee book, then on to any thing that is by the Kardashians.. Did everyone see Bruce Jenner at the Oregon Track meet ? the man look like he drank HGH for a month !! And got stem cell injections in his face . I can see him at home, “Girls, Daddy has a shot for you , just think of Jose Cancesco in theTexas Rangers locker room, next Raffy, then Alex.

  19. sawxalicious - Jun 26, 2012 at 1:42 AM

    @ detroitfanatic-
    I don’t know if you check out this blog often or not, but I think you have mischaracterized what it is Craig and the other writers do here. Craig does not come down off high and proclaim he is an awesome journalist (though I think he would do fine if he decided to go that route). You do have valid points about the link-pasting and commenting about other people’s stories. However, that’s how Craig and the other guys put this blog together.

    I look at this blog as Craig and the other guys leading the banter around a water cooler. I do enjoy reader comments, but the bloggers often have great commentary as well. I think it’s unfair to hold them to a standard of “sports writers.”. They apparently present a decent enough product for me to consistently enjoy.

  20. honkerdawg - Jun 26, 2012 at 3:48 AM

    DeFord is right, people are lazy and just want to hear the talking heads rant and rave not what really happened. ESPN is a prime example!

  21. dickclydesdale - Jun 26, 2012 at 3:49 AM

    deford take a hike fool.

  22. jdd428 - Jun 26, 2012 at 5:06 AM

    First off, for full disclosure, I am a sports reporter in a low-level minor league market in the Midwest that also has a Division I (FCS) university. I prefer not to be any more precise than that in an attempt to protect my anonymity here. I readily admit I have never worked on a national level or in a major market (in 13 years, I’ve covered a grand total of 2 MLB games and 1 preseason NBA game professionally), so I don’t profess to have experienced first-hand the level of journalistic competition driving this debate. That said, I feel I do have insight to add to this conversation.

    The space for the long-form human interest sports pieces Deford and his likes championed no longer exists in daily print media, and a large reason for that is the consumer interest in such pieces has largely vanished. As has been mentioned, there are places online to find such material and writers (Passan, etc.) who do excellent work providing that content. There are also outlets that provide the heart-and-soul stories Deford seems to keep himself fixated upon – one such outlet is the Real Sports program to which he frequently contributes.

    Deford’s lament is merely the common refrain of industry veterans longing for the way it used to be. His point about “justifying” the journalists’ experience disturbs me. This career is not and should not be about justifying what we do or making ourselves a crucial part of the story. Instead it should be a selfless duty to disseminate information as we observe it. My readers are not interested my experience; they want to know about the teams I cover.

    I believe, as it seems Craig does, that the many types of sports reporting (PFT/HBT…., Deadspin, Fangraphs, daily print, etc.) can coexist – but ultimately it’s the consumers that decide. And those consumers, take for example detroitfanatic, make that decision with their actions, not what they claim to want. While detroitfanatic calls this blog’s contributors “pretend” journalists in his comments, clearly he came here to consume what they provide.

    • ufullpj - Jun 26, 2012 at 7:52 AM

      Good post, and good points.

      And for the record, when I was still a young reporter, I worked in some awfully small media “markets” as well – when you’ve got daily deadlines and monthly news – that can be a challenging scenario. Hats off to you – you’ve got a much harder job than many folks realize.

  23. bigleagues - Jun 26, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    What Frank DeFord is really saying here is that he is still bitter about The National Sports Daily going under.

    Of course, there were a gazzillion boxscores and statistics in that publication as well – which is why guys like me bought it.

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