It was cranky old Dick Young speaking with the volume turned up.
"SLIM!" the New York Daily News columnist said. "YOU DON'T BELONG HERE."
"Dick, I don't belong in hell, either," Slim said, "but that's where I'm going."
The question before the house today is a variation of Slim-you-don't-belong-here. It comes from veteran journalist Ron Sirak, whose resume includes the Associated Press, the New York Times, Golf Digest and Golf World. As preamble, Sirak provided part of a recent Twitter exchange in which English golfer Ian Poulter scolded Stephanie Wei, a freelance reporter and creator of her own blog, WeiUnderPar.
Ian Poulter: @stephaniewei You wanted to interview me at US Open while I was in players lounge. It's called a players lounge for a reason. Intrusive…
Stephanie Wei: @IanJamesPoulter Didn't know it was players lounge. I'm sorry for rookie mistake, but it was only 2nd event I'd covered. Cut me some slack.
An admitted neophyte, Wei yet had a working press badge for the nation's biggest golf tournament. Sirak asks, "Does this mean anyone with a laptop is eligible to be credentialed to the U.S. Open?" He also sees a larger question. Sirak, the next president of the Golf Writers Association of America, thinks it's past time for the GWAA, and others organizations, to determine "who is a journalist and who should be credentialed."
Once, answers to his questions were simple. You may not have been Edward R. Murrow, Alistair Cooke, or Herbert Warren Wind. But you were a journalist if you reported for a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast outlet. You were likely to receive credentials to a major sports event. Now it's more complicated. We are in a media revolution so profound that all previous definitions are outdated, if not useless. That much became clear when I read the U.S. Golf Association credential guidelines with an eye to seeing where Wei fit.
The USGA provides no room for an unaffiliated neophyte when it declares: "To simultaneously provide the best competitive environment for the players and the best possible working environment for media at the USGA Championships, media credentials will be issued only to personnel regularly employed by and on assignment from newspapers, golf publications, golf Internet sites, radio and televisions stations, networks and wire services, as determined by the USGA in its sole discretion. . . ."
I traded e-mails with Wei. She wrote, "To answer your question – which is completely fair – about why I had credentials in the first place (honestly, I wasn't sure if I'd get them before I spoke to the media director last year), my site reached the USGA's criteria for receiving credentials. I average 150,000-200,000 page views a month and that number is consistently growing and I'd made a name for myself in the golf community by the time I'd applied. Also, the fact that I grew up playing junior golf (including USGA events) and on my college team probably didn't hurt, either. . . ."
From Pete Kowalski, of the USGA's Media Relations department: "To confirm, we have several criteria for Websites to pass muster on. In addition to pages views, among others we track original golf content, consistent news coverage in content and affiliation with a legitimate news outlet. We also check with industry wide Media Relations partners to see if they have been credentialed at other events. In our less than scientific method, (Ms. Wei) provided enough evidence that she was indeed covering golf. As a rule, we annually review our credential criteria and try to see where and how the business is evolving. Indeed, there were other Websites with similar ‘newness’ to Ms. Wei’s site (from Europe in particular) who were given U.S. Open credentials as writers."
Wei is 28 years old, a native of Seattle. She knows the game. A 2005 graduate of Yale University with a history degree, she played there three years and was the team captain her junior year. Burned out on golf, she considered law school but opted for the corporate world of law, finance, public relations, and business development. Finally, in November 2008, realizing she missed golf, and for the fun of it, with maybe a hope it could help get a job when the golf market rebounded, she started WeiUnderPar. To her surprise, the blog became her life.
"It kept evolving and growing," she says, "until, suddenly, I was not just a blogger, but a writer." In the last two years, while running her blog and reporting for it with interviews and video, she has done freelance work for the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Mediaite.com, and ESPN.com. Her steadiest employer is Sports Illustrated; she has done one major feature, ghostwritten first-person pieces, participated in the magazine's roundtable discussions, and reported from PGA Tour events. "At the moment, " she says, "I'm doing the jobs of five, 10 people, but since I'm not heavily funded, that's the way it goes for now."
So, to return to Sirak's question: is Wei a journalist?
She thinks so. "I follow journalistic ethics. I gather information through reporting – talking to sources, such as players, officials, whoever – and then bring golf-related news to the public."
Among those surprised by such words is Wei herself. In November 2008, she had no idea it would turn out this way. She had no experience in journalism and no training. She had never covered high school football in a snowstorm. She had not been struck blind by coffee-smeared copy turned in by spelling-challenged misfits. She had never heard the primal screams of a parent outraged that Little Joey had been left off the All-Neighborhood soccer team. In short, she had not paid her dues the way the way some high-falutin' journalists had.
But y'know what? Today there is another way to do it. You only have to be brave, smart, and a little silly. Then, instead of waiting for the future, you can create it by paying dues of another kind. Be brave enough to quit the corporate world. Be smart enough to know what makes you happy. Be silly enough to think you can build a small business without once having an entrepreneurial thought in your head. Do you want to pay those dues? Do you, Mr. Ink-stained Wretch? As it happens, that's what Stephanie Wei did. And now, in this revolution that has left Old Media sports writing gasping for its very life, Wei suddenly finds herself a member of the New Media inventing sports writing all over again.
She's not Dan Jenkins, young, with hair, in a skirt. Wei's blog reports are superficial and predictable. She's a golly-gee-whiz fan and it shows. (Go to her blog, catch the video tour of Jason Day's motor home.) At the Masters this year, advertised by the Wall Street Journal as part of its "team…on the ground in Augusta," Wei had no press credentials; instead, she contributed to WSJ.com by cadging daily tickets from friends, spending time at the course, then returning to her residence to watch play on TV and write – which, cheesy as that is, is not much different from the way a couple hundred other journalists did it while sitting in the Masters press room. For all that, she is a blogging machine who posts all the day's important golf news, adds commentary, reports and writes, and runs the business side, too. And she already has credentials for the Open coming up next month at Congressional.
Back to Sirak's question: Who's a journalist? He asks because he believes journalism today faces a challenge "to bring the ethical standards of print to new forms of delivery — websites, iPad, and social media — rather than let those new forms of delivery establish a lesser, more relaxed ethical standard." Yes, he says, the new delivery systems "have brought a greater democracy to communication by giving everyone a voice, but not everyone with a voice should be considered a journalist."
I hate answers that aren't answers. But when Sirak asks who's a journalist, I say it depends. If a "journalist" is only a highly skilled veteran decorated with a hundred combat ribbons, it's a small club growing smaller. Even my hero, Red Smith, said he was happy to be known as a reporter. "I'm just a working stiff," he said, "trying to write better than I can." If a "journalist" is anybody reporting anything, however superficial, however predictable, then the verdict is in. Everyone with a laptop is a journalist.
For me, the more important question is the question that has been asked of every reporter forever. Can we trust what the guy writes? Is she responsible and fair? Does he verify his information? If a reporter/writer can provide positive answers to those questions over a long period of time, yes, she's the kind of journalist I aspire to be. If the answers are negative, he won't be around very long, anyway, because, like golf pros who chase pars, a reporter who makes enough bogeys loses his card.
I'd suggest three things to veteran sportswriters made cranky by the arrival of the New Media. 1) Welcome the newbies, they're keeping press rooms full; 2) Congratulate them on leaving the law to have fun and tell the truth; and 3) teach them the lessons of behavior we learned the hard way. After all, I have it from a reliable source that Stephanie Wei is not the first sportswriter who ever walked into a room where she was not allowed. Remind me to tell you sometime about the great old Kentucky basketball coach, Adolph Rupp, in a shower, nude.
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 at email@example.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.