A long, long time ago, when writers puffed on cigars in the press box and sipped scotches with their sources, the best sports journalism lived in print. And nobody did it better than The Boston Globe.
The greatest sports staff ever assembled, argues Kevin Armstrong of Sports Illustrated — despite the many objections from others — consisted of future Hall of Famers and Pulitzer Prize winners: Ray Fitzgerald, Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Mike Lupica, Lesley Visser, Bud Collins, Leigh Montville — hell, even John Updike hacked out gamers on deadline. Armstrong's long, lauding tribute to The Globe's erstwhile years is chock full of the type of anecdotes any journalism junkie would devour:
• Visser stealing a piece of discarded paper from Fitzgerald's typewriter.
• Bill Parcells saddling up next to McDonough, who juggled regular calls from Al Davis and Pete Rozelle.
• Lupica talking about himself as a "student manager," not even "junior varsity."
• A nocturnal Updike sipping tea and munching on toast after his Opening Day gamer went to press.
• Gammons and Ryan as college-aged interns, sifting through the phonebook, bitching about whose name would be first on co-bylines, musing about everything but the athletes. "Ryan would write about umpires," said Clif Keane. "Gammons would write about wars and symphonies, and you'd need a third f—-— guy for game talk."
But the profile is disheartening, not because it's nostalgic or because it reads like a eulogy for a long-dismantled staff. This, rather, is a postmortem to high-end, influential newspaper journalism, to the idea that guided The Globe's staff: "Get us space, money and get out of the way." As Armstrong writes, The Globe's staff "is sure never to be duplicated in an industry that today is bleeding talent." It was told to re-invent form, to take risks, to cover games as theater writers review Broadway. The missives now are different: Blog, shoot video, tweet, repeat. And don't forget your furlough.
The irony here is that this story, which depicts the profound effect a newspaper can have on a city and all of its parts, will forever live in cyberspace, never in the form of a printed clip. Instead of running in the magazine, the 4,000 words were this week's installment of The Bonus, SI.com's weekly long-form feature. (Also on SI.com this week: The Twitter Craze!)
In fact, the sports magazine of record still has not sufficiently addressed the changing nature of sports journalism — a topic which could, realistically, fill an entire issue. In a week, baseball will be the only major sport in season, and it might be time for SI to turn inward, free up a stable of the magazine's best writers and let them inform their readers why the magazine they're reading might not be around in 10 years and how it's changed in the last five. SI has shown, on occasion, that it can be a paragon for sports media evaluation — think about the way Steve Rushin, in 1994, explained how sports had gotten where they were, all in 22,000 words. That type of journalism — enterprise, explanatory, investigative, finding and pursuing the subtle stories and knocking the obvious ones over the Monster — is really the best way to honor the glory days of any respectable sports staff.