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Inside and Outside the Press Box

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for discussions of how to behave in the press box.

First came Esquire’s Chris Jones, who weighed in on his personal blog, Son of Bold Venture, with a 16-point Young Reporters’ Guide to Press Box Decorum and Etiquette. Jones’s first three rules, described at intensities ranging from “succinct and very clear” to “gleefully over the top and also very clear,” were all variations on “Don’t cheer in the press box.” That post resonated with my colleague Dave Kindred, who began his exploration of the issue with his own 10 reasons why cheering in the press box should be verboten.

Kindred explored a recent case in which 20-year-old Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500, becoming the youngest driver to do so, and crossed the finish line to raucous cheering from the press box. For one of those cheering scribes, it was a fateful decision: Thomas Bowles lost his gig freelancing for Sports Illustrated, events he describes here.

In defending himself, Bowles writes that “I took those ethics courses in journalism just like everyone else; I understand the importance of impartiality in reporting. But last time I checked, where you’re supposed to be judged is whether that actually shows up on paper. … Bayne’s victory was a ray of hope for a sport beaten down the last five years, a 30 percent ratings decline for this race alone from ’05-‘10 spurring more criticism and negative storylines than the careers of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan combined. I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself.”

Bowles goes on to write that it “[t]urns out the modern, professional media is ignorant of a changing culture beyond their control, one where ‘just the facts, ma’am’ is increasingly replaced with the instant gratification of ‘just the facts, ma’am… and here’s how I think those facts should get interpreted. What do you think?’ It’s a place where the ‘official’ media claim to follow the rules, then give us their opinion seconds afterwards on verified Twitter accounts while hanging ‘off the record’ with the athletes they cover during the week.”

As I’ve written many times here, I think some of the habits, rituals and rhythms of traditional sportswriting have lost their usefulness and stopped connecting with readers. When it comes to commodity news, scoops are all but worthless, and reporters should quit chasing them and focus on smart analysis instead. Wall-to-wall highlights shows and web video have made too many game stories wastes of time and effort. To remain must-reads, smart sportswriters are getting good at aggregation, summarizing and providing links to their competitors in a way that would have been heresy a decade ago.

And yes, there are sportswriters who have been so beaten down by the grind of travel and the vagaries of young athletes that there is no fan is left in them – I decided not to become a beat writer in part because I didn’t want to become the guy who’d groan and hit delete when his boyhood team hit a game-tying home run with two out in the ninth. These guys don’t cheer in the press box, but one worries whether they ever cheer for anything anywhere else. I cringe whenever I hear a sportswriter say his or her only rooting interest is for a quick game, because there is no message more effective at crushing the aspirations of our profession’s next generation.

But for all that, when it comes to cheering in the press box, I’m firmly on the side of the traditionalists. In this case, in fact, I wouldn’t use that label at all: There are ample reasons not to cheer, whether or not the clapping echoes in your written work.

To my mind, Bowles conflates several things in defending himself. Offering interpretation of facts, soliciting reader opinion about them, or writing an opinion column isn’t the same as cheering for an athlete or team during the action. As for cheering for a league or sport, that’s just the same problem moved a rung or two up the ladder of abstraction. Appearances matter: Hearing that a sportswriter was cheering in the press box is confusing for athletes, coaches and members of an organization, the same way seeing a writer in team garb or high-fiving someone in the locker room would be confusing. There are rules of the road against such things not just because they honor journalistic values (which I agree can get awfully high-horse), but because they prevent misunderstandings in professional relationships that can be dicey to begin with. It’s the impartiality after a thrilling win that allows sportswriters to ask the tough questions and write the unsparing columns after a devastating loss; you discard it at your peril.

I think the no-cheering rule should apply to anyone who’s in a press box or locker room: beat writers, visiting scribes working on profiles, indie bloggers with passionate allegiances, or writers paid by a team or league to provide straightforward accounts of games and team news. It isn’t that indie bloggers need to curb their rooting interests to be considered sportswriters; rather, it’s that the press box and the locker room should be reserved for sportswriters who agree to conduct themselves in an impartial manner. This is a segment of journalism and sportswriting that we don’t want to lose or blur.

That said, this debate is a sideshow to the larger challenges facing sportswriting. The competitors for the mainstream media are increasingly people who may not ever set foot in a press box. If teams credential indie bloggers, can they sit in the stands and cheer? Who will teach them what’s allowed and not allowed in the clubhouse? What about writers employed by the teams themselves? What happens when organizations seek to control the message and keep reader eyeballs by giving in-house writers first crack at the news? What happens when athletes do the same by saving their postgame comments for their own Twitter feeds? And so on.

No, you shouldn’t cheer in the press box. But we need to remember that the press box no longer defines sportswriting’s boundaries, and can no longer contain the issues sportswriting faces.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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