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Generalist columnists: a vanishing breed. Probably for good reason.

Jun 23, 2014, 8:55 AM EDT

press hat

This isn’t about baseball, but it does touch on what we do around here and at the NBC “Talk” blogs in general. If you don’t care for my media analysis you may want to just skip this one.

Dan Shaughnessy, who I’m pretty sure most of you loathe anyway, wrote a World Cup column. As Deadspin notes, however, it’s basically the same, recycled World Cup column he has been writing every four years for the past 24 years. Really. And, since it’s Shaughnessy, of course, it’s an ankles-deep-at-best dismissive gripe of a column.

I’m not much of a soccer fan myself — I’ve been following the World Cup with some curiosity but from a pretty far distance — but the column and the topic is nonetheless of significance to me. Not because it’s a basis for Shaughnessy-bashing (that’s sort of beside the point here) but because it shows the limits and, often, the absurdity of the old newspaper model of the generalist sports columnist.

To be clear: there are still a lot of excellent generalist sports columnists. I think we happen to have the best one in the business working for us here.* But for the most part, having one person serve as the voice and/or expert of your publication for all sports is outmoded and obsolete in this day and age and does little to serve readers. Or, at the very least, the readers you want to serve.

The amount of information and content available to even the most casual fan of any given sport is pretty staggering. Anyone more-than-moderately interested in a given sport has the means to watch a ton the actual games or events. This is true be it for big sports like football and baseball or more niche sports like cricket or equestrian events. Seriously: if you’re in Iowa and you want to watch The Ashes or, say, the FTI consulting WEF Grand Prix, you can with minimal effort. Likewise, if you are into cricket or show jumping (or football or baseball for that matter), there is no end of pre-and post event analysis, stats, profiles, and anything else you can imagine being produced about it, be it from primary sources (leagues or sanctioning authorities releasing information, produced or otherwise) or from specialized media.

This state of affairs robs the general columnist — at least most of them — of their raison d’etre. If they are writing one to three times a week there is little they can tell the enthusiast of a given sport that which they haven’t already seen. If they are writing in 800-word columns, there isn’t much room for the depth of analysis enthusiasts would find useful. Your content can come a few days after the fact if it’s useful and your content can be short or shallow if it’s quick, but old and short doesn’t serve anyone.

Looking at that Shaugnessy column, I find myself wondering who it’s supposed to serve. Certainly not soccer fans, who probably don’t wish to be informed about why the sport they love is dumb. But even if Shaughnessy wasn’t using his column inches to bash soccer, what is he providing for Boston Globe readers? Filler for the hard copy, I suppose. And raw meat for that certain breed of misanthrope who wants to nod their head along with him as they get off on his negativity. Maybe Shaughnessy has a large enough constituency where that works for him and the Globe, but I’m guessing he’s rare in that regard. For the most part, the generalist who neither works fast nor works in depth is caught in the increasingly vanishing middle-ground of sports media.

We certainly don’t go deep very often here at HardballTalk. Well, we do on some narrow subjects with which we are idiosyncratically obsessed, but it’s not like we’re doing 5,000-word breakdowns with graphs and stuff. But we do work quickly, providing a digest of what’s going on to baseball fans who want to quickly get updated about what’s going on. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, for example, does not update 35 times a day, but he is an absolute expert when it comes to baseball and provides in-depth stories about the people and events which shape it. FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and other similar sites provide all of the in-depth, hardcore analysis anyone could reasonably want. The same general setup can be found in football (Florio, Peter King and whoever crunches football numbers), basketball and everything else.

All of that serves the fans who want to know a lot about the sport. In this increasingly specialized age, it’d be journalistic malpractice not to serve the fans who want to know a lot about a sport. The business model of media (and sports in general) does not reward those who seek out the dabblers and tourists who aren’t going to spend a lot of time reading or watching content and who lack the commitment to put up with the little barriers like ads, commercials and, occasionally, pay-walls that help us keep the lights on. We have to give those readers and viewers what they want and have to avoid providing content which makes them wonder, well, what was the point of that?

When I read 800 words of shallow rambling which appear ten days after an event begins, I have to wonder who that’s serving other than the guy who is being paid to write the 800 words of shallow rambling.

*Joe is a rare one, in that he can write in depth and insightfully about many sports and, if he were told tomorrow that he had to be, say, just a baseball guy or just a football guy or just a golf guy, he could do it and be at the top of the business in any of them, I reckon. Also: being on the web instead of in a newspaper means that he can write at whatever length his story requires. All of that said: he’s a better baseball columnist than just about any baseball-only guy working today. Put less politely, Joe is a freak, in the best sense of the term and stands as the exception which proves the rule.

  1. aresachaela - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    Omg… WC…

    /faints

  2. [citation needed] fka COPO - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    Looking at that Shaugnessy column, I find myself wondering who it’s supposed to serve.

    Pretty much my entire thought. I mean, I’ve unfortunately met many NY fans who agree with NYP/NYDN posts about how ARod is the devil/unclutch/etc, but does anyone enjoy Shaughnessy’s writing?

    • 18thstreet - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:16 AM

      I honestly do not understand the point of writing a piece about something one doesn’t enjoy. I mean, I don’t like ballet. I’ve never given it a chance, but it doesn’t seem that interesting to me. I also don’t like opera — same deal. But there ARE people who like ballet and opera, and I’d never insult them by saying “the thing you are most interested in is boring to me.”

      It’s common courtesy.

      • binarymath - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:42 PM

        Good insights by 18th street. Few words, many thoughts…

        And if it is “bad” to write a column about something YOU don’t enjoy, isn’t it “worse” to write a column about someone you don’t like who just wrote a column about something THEY don’t enjoy?

        If cream rise to the top, it really isn’t necessary to push the water to the bottom.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Jun 23, 2014 at 1:51 PM

        And if it is “bad” to write a column about something YOU don’t enjoy, isn’t it “worse” to write a column about someone you don’t like who just wrote a column about something THEY don’t enjoy?

        No, because this isn’t a one-off for Shaughnessy. Read the deadspin link. He’s done the same/similar column for the last 25 years. So Marchman, and by extension Craig, aren’t just doing the same thing Shaughnessy is doing.

      • 18thstreet - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:02 PM

        AHHH!! I read the deadspin piece.

        Why? WHY??!!

        I love the idea that soccer is inferior because the players don’t use their hands. Also, soccer will never be as popular as hockey because, um, something something.

  3. bostonfrogs - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    What you say is true to an extent, but love ‘em or hate ‘em, columnists like Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, Bryan Burwell, Woody Paige, and even Dan Shaugnessy have always been worth a read due to their distinctive writing styles, if not the content of their material. Good writing is good writing anywhere, and with daily newspapers disappearing at the rate of the average rainforest, the last thing the industry needs is an increase of generic, bland articles guaranteed to offend and inspire exactly no one.

    So, if Shaughnessy truly is among the last of a dying breed within the industry, then that’s a shame regardless of what anyone thinks of his opinion on soccer.

    • lukedunphysscienceproject - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:54 AM

      That would be an excellent comment if you had just left Shaugnessy off the list.

      • SocraticGadfly - Jun 23, 2014 at 10:58 AM

        And Albom. Never been a fan of his.

      • paperlions - Jun 23, 2014 at 1:45 PM

        Do people actually like what Lupica or Burwell have to say? I can never make it through anything either of them writes do to either horrible premise/argument (Lupica) or just plain boring empty perspectives (Burwell).

      • yahmule - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:05 PM

        While we’re kicking these guys, Paige is horrible, too.

      • lukedunphysscienceproject - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:31 PM

        I’m not a particular fan of anyone on that list. The reason I separate Shaugnessy an put him on his own pedestal of hackery is because at least the others try to write original stuff once in awhile, he just regurgitates the same columns over and over, as the Deadspin piece pointed out.

        I am, of course, basing that on old information. I haven’t read anything from any of them for a long time. Maybe they’re all mailing it in Shaugnessy style these days.

    • DJ MC - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:59 AM

      Good writing without good content is like cotton candy. It might taste good, but it is still simply empty calories that do you very little good when you eat too much.

    • gloccamorra - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:30 PM

      I’ve always assumed the generalist newspaper guys who lasted the longest weren’t the best writers, but had photos of the editor or publisher in a manila envelope.

      I remember one Boston guy who covered the Red Sox and always mentioned how many times Ted Williams called him a fathead, covered the Celtics and always mentioned where Red Auerbach got his cigars, Covered the Patriots and always mentioned the team’s glory year in the AFL, covered the Bruins and always complained you can’t see the puck on TV, and dabbled in other sporting events like the Olympics, and thought it a great thing to refer to marathon winner Abebe Bikila as “Atta-baby Bikini.”

      Posnanski is the exception that proves the rule that most of the generalists weren’t very good and included a bunch of cranks. It reminds me of the line “In order to find your prince, you have to kiss a lot of toads.”

  4. jc4455 - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    It is a little difficult to feel bad for dying newspapers when they do things like employ dinosaurs and recycle content like this.

  5. whatacrocker - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:35 AM

    Posnanski used to be good, but he’s running on fumes these days. All the great ones lose it eventually, and he is pretty far into that process.

    • whatacrocker - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:46 AM

      Yep, yep, bring on the thumbs down. I forgot that one is not allowed to criticize Joe Posnanski.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:58 AM

        Or people think you are wrong? Couldn’t be it…

      • clydeserra - Jun 23, 2014 at 10:26 AM

        yeah, no.

        He is a must read, whatever the topic.

      • slappymcknucklepunch - Jun 24, 2014 at 12:55 AM

        It’s not that you are not allowed to criticize
        Joe Poz, its that you do not know the difference between tool Dan and brilliant Joe. That’s why you are looking at – thumbs
        down.

      • SocraticGadfly - Jun 24, 2014 at 6:04 PM

        Sorry, but when Posnanski was bringing out that bootlicking bio of JoePa, then got all defensive when people actually pointed out, er … certain facts that Posnanski continued to choose to ignore, even though the bio had not yet gone to press, he lost a lot of respect from me. (And he hasn’t gotten it all back.)

        So, for somewhat different reasons than you, Crocker … but, thumbs up.

    • asimonetti88 - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:16 AM

      He hasn’t really changed his writing style or topics at all.

      • asimonetti88 - Jun 24, 2014 at 1:20 AM

        I meant this in a good way… why fix what’s not broken?

    • DJ MC - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:00 PM

      Citation needed.

    • 18thstreet - Jun 23, 2014 at 1:31 PM

      Dude just spent a billion words writing a Bruuuuce for the hell of it. Whatever the opposite-of-fumes are, that’s what Poz is running on.

  6. ripwarrior - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    Or one can just aggregate news all day. Where can I sign up for that gig??

    • Craig Calcaterra - Jun 23, 2014 at 10:26 AM

      Sorry it’s taken. And your dismissivness of it notwithstanding, it serves a purpose and provides a service many readers want.

      • ripwarrior - Jun 23, 2014 at 10:41 AM

        Why are you getting all bent out of shape? Really, where do I sign up?

    • clydeserra - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:27 AM

      you sign up here:

      http://www.theinternet.com

      now, spend about a year typing to no one, then someone from a well read site will link to you because you are smart and funny. At that point, others link to you and you get a pretty good readership.

      Eventually a niche blog will have you put up a daily column and in a few years, presto! a big media company will give you a space and you can quit your regular job.

      Its that easy. (except the part about you being smart and funny, i doubt that if you haven’t figured out how getting jobs work yet)

      • ripwarrior - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:14 PM

        You are awful at singing and dancing. You also look dirty and very poor.

  7. shaggylocks - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    It’s a shame Dan can only trot this column out once every four years. It seems to me that it would only need a few tweaks to be a completely serviceable Olympic swimming column.

    • gloccamorra - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:40 PM

      Hey, don’t knock swimming. Equestrians, runners, and gymnasts wear too many clothes.

      • tedwmoore - Jun 23, 2014 at 8:15 PM

        Today’s swimmers wear more clothes than most runners.

      • gloccamorra - Jun 24, 2014 at 1:46 PM

        Yeah, the swimmers wear those one piece things, but they’re gossamer thin and form-fitting, and sometimes they split! I’m still waiting to see swimmers adopt former swimmer Donna DeVarona’s suggestion and swim in the nude.

  8. rbj1 - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    The only joy associated with the curly haired boyfriend is in bashing him. That is a sport in and of itself.

    • slappymcknucklepunch - Jun 24, 2014 at 12:58 AM

      Surprised by the thumb-harpies, I completely agree.

  9. schmedley69 - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    Agree with this completely. The general sports columnist needs to go.

    Stephen A. Smith was a general sports columnist for the Philly Inquirer about 10 years back. His baseball-related columns were laughable. It was obvious that he was purely an NBA guy and had no clue about baseball. One year the Phillies were in the wild card race late in the season and they had a 3 game series against the Reds, who were bad at the time. Stephen A. wrote a column saying that the Phillies had better sweep, because “they were only playing the Cincinnati Reds.” He went way overboard in insulting the Reds, and they saw the column and used it as motivation and went on to knock the Phillies out of the wild card race. After winning the series, Reds players were quoted as saying “We’re only the Cincinnati Reds!” I was furious that a loud mouth idiot who knew nothing about baseball actually had an effect on a pennant race. Still hate that guy to this day.

    • asimonetti88 - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:13 AM

      As a basketball fan, I can confirm that even as a basketball-only guy, he’s still a loudmouth idiot. It wasn’t just the fact that he was writing about baseball.

    • yahmule - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:10 PM

      And the incredible thing is the guy has fans. I try not to be a snobby elitist jerk (not very hard, I admit), but when I see someone get really excited to hear Stephen A Smith (or a similarly obnoxious buffoon) it just confounds me.

      • Kevin S. - Jun 23, 2014 at 4:52 PM

        The thing is, ESPN pairs him up with Skip Bayless and thus he gets to look like the voice of reason.

    • ditchparrot19 - Jun 23, 2014 at 5:06 PM

      Has anybody ever seen Stephen A. Smith and Woopi Goldberg in the same place at the same time? I believe it’s the same person playing both roles.

  10. clydeserra - Jun 23, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    I don’t think there is a need to fossilize generalist, more there is a need to stop intentionally exposing the public to curmudgeons like this asshat.

    No one cares if he doesn’t like something, but, if I need a tidy explanation of what is happening in a sport or thing that I don’t follow, its nice to have a columnist that I can trust to tell me generally what the rules of the tournament are and who are players to look out for.

    This guy has an opportunity to do that, but chooses to be a dick. Really, he should have lost his job in 1990 for that column.

  11. asimonetti88 - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    “The same general setup can be found in football (Florio, Peter King and whoever crunches football numbers), basketball and everything else.”

    I’m trying to think if there would be a “saber” analyst in football. I mean in basketball you have(had) guys like John Hollinger, Basketball Prospectus, Dan Feldman over on PBT… but in football? You still measure guys by yards, touches/catches/passes, and TDs… Or maybe I’m just missing new stats in football.

    • DJ MC - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:02 PM

      http://www.footballoutsiders.com

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:37 PM

        This x1000. Their Monday morning column “Audibles at the Line” is 10x better than MMQB. Also ex-FO writer Mike Tanier now writes for SportsOnEarth and is a great read.

      • asimonetti88 - Jun 23, 2014 at 1:22 PM

        Nice! This is very interesting site, thank you for showing it to me

  12. hojo20 - Jun 23, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    I enjoy the general columnist, it’s like an sports ombudsman for the entire city. If you don’t like Shaughnessy, don’t read him.

  13. APBA Guy - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    When I was a kid, I grew up with a generalist columnist named Shirley Povich (Maury’s dad), who wrote a column for the Washington POST called “Good Morning”. The thing about the generalist that I took away was that he was supposed to be the best writer on the sports page, not necessarily the possessor of the most detailed information.

    When Tom Boswell took over it became clear that for generalist columns to work, not only did you have to be the best writer, you also had to have writing skill beyond a certain benchmark. Povich had it, Boswell-who’s baseball and golf work could be very good-did not.

    And I think that’s the thing: the bar for generalist writing is pretty high. That’s why Posnanski is highly regarded, and Shaughnessy is not. Pos is an excellent story teller, Shaughnessy is not. For me, it’s that simple.

  14. yahmule - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    IMO, there has never been anybody like Jim Murray. This was the column he wrote about the loss of an old friend.

    OK, bang the drum slowly, professor. Muffle the cymbals and the laugh track. You might say that Old Blue Eye is back. But that’s as funny as this is going to get.

    I feel I owe my friends an explanation as to where I’ve been all these weeks. Believe me, I would rather have been in a press box.

    I lost an old friend the other day. He was blue-eyed, impish, he cried a lot with me, saw a great many things with me. I don’t know why he left me. Boredom, perhaps.

    We read a lot of books together, we did a lot of crossword puzzles together, we saw films together. He had a pretty exciting life. He saw Babe Ruth hit a home run when we were both 12 years old. He saw Willie Mays steal second base, he saw Maury Wills steal his 104th base. He saw Rocky Marciano get up. I thought he led a pretty good life.

    One night a long time ago he saw this pretty girl who laughed a lot, played the piano and he couldn’t look away from her. Later he looked on as I married this pretty lady.

    He saw her through 34 years. He loved to see her laugh, he loved to see her happy.

    You see, the friend I lost was my eye. My good eye. The other eye, the right one, we’ve been carrying for years. We just let him tag along like Don Quixote’s nag. It’s been a long time since he could read the number on a halfback or tell whether a ball was fair or foul or even which fighter was down.

    So, one blue eye missing and the other misses a lot.

    So my best friend left me, at least temporarily, in a twilight world where it’s always 8 o’clock on a summer night.

    He stole away like a thief in the night and he took a lot with him. But not everything. He left a lot of memories. He couldn’t take those with him. He just took the future with him and the present. He couldn’t take the past.

    I don’t know why he had to go. I thought we were pals. I thought the things we did together we enjoyed doing together. Sure, we cried together. There were things to cry about.

    But it was a long, good relationship, a happy one. It went all the way back to the days when we arranged all the marbles in a circle in the dirt in the lots in Connecticut. We played one-old-cat baseball. We saw curveballs together, trying to hit them or catch them. We looked through a catcher’s mask together. We were partners in every sense of the word.

    He recorded the happy moments, the miracle of children, the beauty of a Pacific sunset, snowcapped mountains, faces on Christmas morning. He allowed me to hit fly balls to young sons in uniforms two sizes too large, to see a pretty daughter march in halftime parades. He allowed me to see most of the major sports events of our time. I suppose I should be grateful that he didn’t drift away when I was 12 or 15 or 29 but stuck around over 50 years until we had a vault of memories. Still, I’m only human. I’d like to see again, if possible, Rocky Marciano with his nose bleeding, behind on points and the other guy coming.

    I guess I would like to see Reggie Jackson with the count 3-and-2 and the series on the line, guessing fastball. I guess I’d like to see Rod Carew with men on first and second and no place to put him, and the pitcher wishing he were standing in the rain someplace, reluctant to let go of the ball.

    I’d like to see Stan Musial crouched around a curveball one more time. I’d like to see Don Drysdale trying to not laugh as a young hitter came up there with both feet in the bucket.

    I’d like to see Sandy Koufax just once more facing Willie Mays with a no-hitter on the line. I’d like to see Maury Wills with a big lead against a pitcher with a good move. I’d like to see Roberto Clemente with the ball and a guy trying to go from first to third. I’d like to see Pete Rose sliding into home headfirst.

    I’d like once more to see Henry Aaron standing there with that quiet bat, a study in deadliness. I’d like to see Bob Gibson scowling at a hitter as if he had some nerve just to pick up a bat. I’d like to see Elroy Hirsch going out for a long one from Bob Waterfield, Johnny Unitas in high-cuts picking apart a zone defense. I’d like to see Casey Stengel walking to the mound on his gnarled old legs to take a pitcher out, beckoning his gnarled old finger behind his back.

    I’d like to see Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali giving a recital, a ballet, not a fight. Also, to be sure, I’d like to see a sky full of stars, moonlight on the water, and yes, the tips of a royal flush peeking out as I fan out a poker hand, and yes, a straight two-foot putt.

    Come to think of it, I’m lucky. I saw all of those things. I see them yet.

    • tmc602014 - Jun 24, 2014 at 7:39 PM

      Those days! Murray could put you in a world and show you it’s less obvious attractions in just a few words. Then you would slow down – actually read slower – so you could savor his tale like a kiss melting on your tongue… I miss the LA Times of my youth, which always started with a search for Jim Murray.

  15. mikhelb - Jun 23, 2014 at 3:12 PM

    “it’s basically the same, recycled World Cup column he has been writing”

    To be fair… soccer is basically the same every 4 years:

    The favourites hardly have changed since the 70’s, with Germany, Brazil, Argentina being in the top tier every single world cup, and for a good reason, they are amongst the most accomplished teams.

    Followed by Holland (Netherlands), Spain, France, Italy and England but those mainly when the World Cup is being played in Europe.

    The lowest tier includes other American teams non-called Brazil nor Argentina, be it the US, México, Paraguay, etc.

    So… does he write the same column every 4 years? so what? It is far better than to write the same column every week about how a young baseball player did something people didn’t like, but is worth being “defended” by Craig, or how a columnist dissed Puig and Craig didn’t like it, ergo the columnist is an idiot, etc. Clickbait is what are called those types of columns nowadays.

  16. tedwmoore - Jun 23, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    Shaughnessy is a hack and an easy target, but I do not think his example need define the industry. Sports are about more than the minutiae of individual contests, rosters and rules, all areas where the specialist thrives. Sports are also a vehicle for compelling personal narratives, they can be morality plays as well as conduits for national and regional pride, they are corporate products vying for shares of the entertainment market, and they feed the entire range of human emotion. These are all areas in which generalists can shine (specialists too, of course). Mr Posnanski is a brilliant example of this, and with him around, why choose Shaughnessy as your target and fret over the existence of the generalist? To borrow from another genre of generalist reporting, Joan Didion was not an expert on the production of rock albums, nor was she an expert on political affairs or electioneering, but her reports on these subjects are well written, thought provoking, entertaining and, yes, informative, even if not exhaustive of their subjects. PES use in sports, amateurism in college athletics, public financing for stadiums, the history and structure of amateur recruitment in the Dominican Republic…these are all richly textured topics for discussion, topics that could benefit from an interesting

    • tedwmoore - Jun 23, 2014 at 3:58 PM

      Premature submission. Oh well, probably should have put in a full stop well before I did.

  17. moogro - Jun 23, 2014 at 8:20 PM

    There have been a lot of talented general writers in Minnesota. Maybe it’s because they all dabbled in writing about nature or fishing or whatever Minnesota has to offer, but it seemed to keep them fresh. I don’t see that as much in other cities, where everything skews so cranky all the time. Just one example: Klobuchar could make the Vikings almost as interesting as the Iditarod, but both were illuminating about Minnesotans and how we see ourselves.

  18. tmc602014 - Jun 24, 2014 at 7:46 PM

    I miss The National Sports Daily. Twenty some years ago it put in one place a large number of good writers, some specialized and some general, who stimulated and widened my appreciation for sports. Perhaps growing up in LA and reading Jim Murray and Jack Smith I became accustomed to columnists who could evoke a feeling and a response and always a laugh and a little pathos.

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