Tattoos, Page Views, and the Best of American Sportswriting

By Jason Lisk

David Whitley wrote about tattoos and Colin Kaepernick a few days ago, setting off an explosion of ink. Was the article a success? Well, I haven’t seen the internal metrics for Sporting News, but the guess here is that it is among the more trafficked items on the site recently. In the common parlance, it got the page views. Hey, I viewed it, you may have as well.

I don’t want to focus on the content of that piece here, though. I want to draw parallels and comparisons with another “not like it used to be” piece from a few weeks ago that I never got around to discussing, but has been lingering in the back of my brain.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Wilbon was talking about his role as editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2012.

"There’s not as much good stuff as there used to be. Don’t get me wrong. I turned down some good pieces. But I know what it used to be. There’s not enough stuff that compels me. The volume (of quality writing) is not close. We’re all chasing the same story. Most of it I don’t care about. Where’s LeBron going? Even the great writers aren’t as great as they used to be. They’re smarter. They may be good reporters. They may get information we care about, but they’re not as good at writing. I’m not as great as I used to be. You’re too busy trying to get it posted before Yahoo! does. It’s all a rush to get it posted, to be first."

The first reaction is to get off Wilbon’s lawn. There’s certainly is some of that response that can be made. Just like quarterbacks used to look more similar, sportswriters did as well. I am not referring to appearance, but rather the path and delivery of both the writer and the product. I, along with plenty of other writers, am a testament to that, having not come up through the “beat” but rather an alternative career path that taught us different skills. It’s a more diverse milieu. Fewer quarterbacks look like Johnny Unitas than in those good old days; fewer sportswriting pieces look like Frank DeFord in “Sports Illustrated.” Those of us who were drawn to the Bill James’ style weren’t being catered to by the garbled-nonsense, flowery-language crowd. Maybe you have a particular interest or like a particular style. Chances are, you have a better chance of satisfying it today.

If Wilbon is looking for the past, sure, he’s not going to find things the same. I’ve got a bit of an obsession with looking at old articles–I used to regularly write Friday Flashbacks that went back in time to highlight sports stories from years past–and I can say from scouring sports pages that the quality of writing is probably better now on average. More diversity, more analysis, more funny stuff. Some of that older stuff may be dated, and so it doesn’t translate. I get that, and actually enjoy the charm of it. Not everyone, though, wrote like Frank DeFord in his prime. So, yeah, if you compare the average writing today to Red Smith, you will bemoan it.

Those profile and long form pieces that everyone pines for? Well, let’s get back to page views. Page views are like RBI’s: maligned but educational, and also context-dependent. One of the best and worst things now, compared to thirty years ago, is that we can get immediate feedback on how many people are interested in a topic or article. Instead of wondering whether anyone actually cared about that feature on the high school athlete or if they were just buying your product for the coupons, you can better measure that now.

Of course, one of the downside of page views, or its close cousin the television rating, is that quality does not always equal page views on an individual basis. We love to rubberneck. That’s just as true on Al Gore’s internet superhighway as it is on your local one. It was no surprise that Skip Bayless came out in defense of the David Whitley piece. That’s probably the most honest position Bayless has ever taken.

It would also be a mistake to assume these “trolling” pieces are an invention of the page view era. In the past, it was Letters to the Editor, a far less exact piece of information, but one which could show you how relevant you were. Better to be relevant and hated than ignored. Whitley and Bayless are not new to the game, and they are not inventions of an internet page views era. We all “troll.” Not like the grumpy creature controlling bridge passage, but like the angler searching for the best spot. Throw lines out, see what gives bites. Some of us would prefer not to destroy the environment while doing it, but we all are motoring along searching for bites.

Wilbon had some other salient points. The quality of writing is affected by the speed of delivery. No doubt that is true. Look, if we had two weeks to deliver a product, we should cut out the clichés and turn a phrase better than if we have five minutes. The market also doesn’t dictate the supply and demand of letting most writers take two weeks to deliver one piece. I’m as amazed by the number of people who deliver quality writing on short notice as anything, because it is not easy.

Today, there is more writing, both good and bad, on a variety of topics. The good news is–you decide. You may not think so, but you have more power than ever. We always have this debate about whether it is better to call out bad writing (thus bringing more attention, and more page views) or ignore it. I think you call out idiocy if you see it. What you should do more of, though, is acknowledge and promote the good. Share, pass it on. I’m going to try to do more of that, even if I don’t write about it in full length pieces. Drown out the bad. It’s the best of times, and it is the worst of times. You decide how you want to view it.

[photo via US Presswire]