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An optimistic outlook of sports journalism’s future and why Bob Costas sets the bar for interviewers

Three questions…

1) Is sports journalism doomed?

2) Are sports columnists doomed?

3) Is there a better interviewer than Bob Costas?

The answers…

1) Not in this century.

2) Not in this century.

3) Not in this century.

Now, elaborations…

1) The question of sports journalism’s future came up in conversation with a friend and on the message board, Sportsjournalists.com. My friend, once an accomplished sportswriter, was all gloomy after speaking to a dozen students in a sports reporting class. He had asked, “Who’s your favorite sportswriter?” The answer came back, Bill Simmons.

That should have been no surprise. Across the last decade, Simmons has risen from the obscurity of his own blog to national notice on ESPN.com and now is editor-in-chief of his own ESPN website, Grantland.com. Good grief, his Twitter feed has over 1.6 million followers. Still, the mention of Simmons put my friend’s knickers in a twist. He believes that Simmons is, as Simmons once wrote of Roger Clemens, the anti-Christ.

So he cross-examined the students and learned they liked Simmons’ stuff because it is written from a fan’s perspective. These were young, talented, ambitious students in a private, elite university’s school of journalism. Yet they named as their favorite sportswriter a man who has never reported a big-time news story. These best and brightest opted for an obsessed fan’s expressions of agony and ecstacy. “A generation from now,” my friend said, his tone a long, low moan, “there will be no journalism.”

I suggested he take a chill pill.

Journalism has been here since the first Cro-Magnon reporters came back with news of long-toothed tigers in the neighborhood. People need news, want it, demand it. Journalism is here to stay.

Simmons is just playing a different game. He’s not about gathering and publishing information. He’s an essayist. He brings his worldview to ideas, events, characters. The irony of my friend’s distress is that he criticizes Simmons when the best of traditional sports columnists have always turned the same trick – with one difference. They have enriched their little essays with reporting done on the scene in accordance with Red Smith’s first commandment: “Be there.”

Simmons’s way — working at a remove from athletes, coaches, and the usual run of a reporter’s sources — is not my way, nor is it my friend’s. But it’s self-defeating to see his success as a sign of the apocalypse. A believer in the power of journalism works with the confidence that new readers created by the Internet will come to appreciate the value that a reporter’s work brings to an essayist’s thinking. Simmons himself understands that; his website is shaping itself into a destination for all genres of sports writing. A couple weeks ago, I wrote this for Grantland.

2) The question of sports columnists’ viability came up after my recent column on The New York Times decision to live, at least momentarily, with one columnist rather than the five it once used. The message board, Sportsjournalists.com, summarized one set of opinions under the topic title: “Columnistosaurus.”

One user said it was only common sense that young writers would migrate from newspapers to the digital world because, primarily, it was easier work with greater opportunity for becoming Bill Simmons-rich-and-famous. Besides, he wrote, “Young folks read so much online, and they see these 5,000-word paeans to whatever, and think: ‘I want to do that.’ Then they see that the columnist at their paper has another 15 years and they think: ‘Don’t want to wait. Can’t wait.’ Smaller dailies aren’t much different and are, in fact, worse; it’s a like a Supreme Court appointment at some of those. You might grow up in the town, set your heart on staying there, and write like Thomas Lake . . .” But the dinosaur keeps the job.

The correspondent then directed a sentence to me: “It’d be neat if you identified 20 people under 40 — at newspapers — who ought to have their own columns.”

He seemed to be suggesting that young people with talent had already abandoned newspapers. (Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that newspapers have their own websites. Young talent today has many ways to express itself even in a building once home only to ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.) So I asked four well-connected friends who know these things to help me make up a list of 20-under-40 at newspapers who could be columnists.

In an hour, I had 27 names.

In a day, my list carried 45 names.

The best thing about the list is that it came together so quickly, proof that talent is at work. The list’s weakness is that it’s so big-city heavy with an East Coast bias. It’s certain to have left out dozens of future stars. Also, some of these people may be over 40, some may be columnists, and some have moved out of sports. Still, the list was instructive because the people on it – if I trust my sources, and I do – are young, good, and committed to journalism, be it done in newsprint or on a website.

Alphabetically: Kent Babb, Kansas City Star; Rachel Bachman, Wall Street Journal; Judy Battista, New York Times; Amalie Benjamin, Boston Globe; Greg Bishop, New York Times; Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times; Sam Borden, New York Times; John Branch, New York Times; Jerry Brewer, Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Scott Cacciola, Wall Street Journal; Nathan Fenno, Washington Times; Mike Garafolo, Newark Star-Ledger; Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal; Rachel George, Orlando Sentinel; Israel Gutierrez, Miami Herald; Chico Harlan, Washington Post; Baxter Holmes, Los Angeles Times; David Haugh, Chicago Tribune; Patrick Hruby, Washington Times; Lindsay H. Jones, Denver Post; Adam Kilgore, Washington Post; Michael Kruse, Tampa Bay Times; Michael Lee, Washington Post; Stefanie Loh, Harrisburg Patriot-News; Juliet Macur, New York Times; Rick Maese, Washington Post; Brady McCollough, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Sam Mellinger, Kansas City Star; Jeff Miller, Orange County Register; Ben Montgomery, Tampa Bay Times; Brian Murphy, Boise’s Idaho Statesman; John Niyo, Detroit News; Bill Oram, Salt Lake Tribune; Steve Politi, Newark Star-Ledger; Eric Prisbell, Washington Post; Jason Quick, Portland Oregonian; Ian Rappaport, Boston Herald; Josh Robbins, Orlando Sentinel; Eli Saslow, Washington Post; Dave Sheinen, Washington Post; Ethan Skolnik, Palm Beach Post; Brian T. Smith, Salt Lake Tribune; Dan Steinberg, Washington Post; Barry Svrluga, Washington Post; Pete Thamel, New York Times.

3) Bob Costas long has been television’s best sportscaster. The gap between him and whoever’s second became even wider the night he interviewed Jerry Sandusky. On NBC television, with a network audience in the millions, speaking to Sandusky’s disembodied voice by telephone, Costas did an interview extraordinary in form, content and tone. It was a textbook example of the craft that is the foundation of all journalism. Costas summarized the news, asked open-ended questions with follow-ups, moved quickly to new topics and somehow expressed rage and incredulity without raising an eyebrow, let alone his voice. Only Costas could have done it.

Only Costas would have had allowed the silence that followed his shortest, most chilling question: “Are you a pedophile?”

Sandusky said nothing. The temptation for an interviewer would have been to ask the question again. Instead, Costas said nothing until, at last, Sandusky said, “No.”

Then, Costas: “Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?”

Sandusky: “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys?

Costas: “Yes.”

Again, silence. Again, Costas waited. He gave Sandusky no relief, no way out of an answer to a closed-end question.

“Sexually attracted, you know, I enjoy young people,” Sandusky finally said. “I love to be around them. But, no, I’m not sexually attracted to young boys.”

Yeah, right.

Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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