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National Sports Journalism Center

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Oh, to be 21 and doing it all for the first time . . .

For those people who believe newspapers and magazines are at death’s door, it makes no sense that more and more universities are creating sports journalism classes. Isn’t that a waste of The College Fund for Which Mom and Dad Scrimped, Saved & Ate Ground Chuck All These Years?

No, it’s not.

It’s the most fun a kid can have.

If the kid grew up transfixed by sports and media – thinking of Will Leitch, thinking of Erin Andrews – what could be more fun than a career that actually pays you to be what you’d pay to be?

But cynics rise on their hind legs and howl at the mention of a "career." Why would anyone believe there’s a future in sports journalism?

The better question is, How could you not believe it?

There is more sports news than ever and an audience hungry for that news. Warren Buffett, who knows things about making money, once said, "Nobody ever built an audience without making money from that audience." Exactly how everyone will make good-old-days money has yet to be determined, but, in my complete faith in the capitalistic system, I believe people of the Buffett entrepreneurial stripe will figure out a way to get filthy rich. Then they’ll pay us pennies and we’ll be happy as long as there’s relish for the press box hot dogs.

Anyway, I did some reporting on this subject after seeing a 2007 survey by Penn State’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. The survey reported that 155 universities offered at least one sports media course. The list included the traditional stalwarts, Missouri, Northwestern, Syracuse, Columbia, as well as schools such as Marist, Southern California, Maryland, Bradley, Boston University, Utica, Eastern Illinois, and Oklahoma State.

Two major sports journalism initiatives began in 2009. First – and you know this because you’re on its website — Indiana University established the National Sports Journalism Center. Based at the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis campus, the program immediately enrolled 107 students. IUPUI this fall will offer a master’s degree program in sports journalism. Second, the University of Texas at Austin created the Texas Program for Sports and Media.

"Sports is a microcosm of life – with the volume turned up," said Steven Ungerleider, co-chair of the Texas program’s advisory board and consultant to the U.S. and International Olympic committees. (Borrowing the "volume" line from the wonderful sportswriter, Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register.) "It involves virtually all of us, as athletes, coaches, spectators. It’s integral to teaching ethics, standards, and principles that touch every aspect of our lives."

Of the many reasons a man would want to be 21 again, number four or five on my list would be today’s full palate of journalistic choices. When I was 21, a reporter/writer interested in sports could work for a newspaper or magazine – end of story. Today’s students have newspapers and magazines (for a while, anyway) along with hundreds of outlets from the big boys at ESPN.com, AOL’s Fanhouse, Yahoo! Sports, and CBSSports.com to newspaper websites, blogs, and niche blogs reporting on every aspect of SportsWorld. Today’s 20somethings see sports journalists on television, hear them on radio, read their blogs, follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook.

"Sports journalism isn’t dying, it’s transforming," said Tim Franklin, once the editor of The Baltimore Sun and now director of the NSJC. "When I meet with students, they’re excited about the future. They will have a different career path than we had. But when they look around, they don’t see the abyss. They see a changing, but dynamic, landscape. . . . It’s absolutely exploding on the Web, on mobile devices, and on cable. Independent sports blogs are estimated to have brought in several million in ad revenue last year. There are now more than 50 regional sports networks, with all the major sports leagues, teams and conferences building out their digital operations."

The best news I hear is that today’s students want what students have always wanted: lessons from the past that will get them ready for the future. To them, it doesn’t really matter if that future is in newsprint or iPad pixels; maybe they’ll shoot video, maybe they’ll write SEO-smart blog posts. But they’re in classrooms to learn the most important stuff, "the nuts and bolts" – to quote Malcom Moran of Penn State.

Moran left a 29-year career as a sportswriter to run Penn State’s Curley program. He recalls taking students on a tour of Major League Baseball’s dot-com headquarters. There they were surrounded by 21st century media- production gadgets. "If you’re over, say, 26," Moran said, "you probably don’t have much experience with this stuff. But students today have grown up in much more technologically-savvy way. The assumption is they have mastered, or are mastering, these new tools. So they’re excited."

Still, an MLB producer said that the new tools of the trade – he called them "the toys" – run second to the basic building blocks of journalism. "When they’re looking at interns or entry-level candidates," Moran said, "their emphasis is still on the ability to tell a story."

At Stanford, another reformed sportswriter, Gary Pomerantz, fuses the past with the present. "I not only acknowledge the different forms of new media," he said, "I incorporate them into what we do." His class assignments have included video projects and, last month, everyone tweeting from a Cardinal basketball game.

After 28 years as The Washington Post’s sports editor, George Solomon teaches at the University of Maryland. He calls it "the responsibility of journalism schools" to prepare students for careers different from those of even a decade ago.

"But those careers," he said, "should be as rewarding and satisfying, with standards in keeping with those set by giants of the past such as Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jim Murray, and Sam Lacy. If our students ask, ‘Who are those guys?’ it’s our job to tell them."

Lillian Carter, the mother of President Jimmy Carter, was nearly 90 years old when she said she would give $10,000 "if I could read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for the first time." Meaning she’d read it a hundred times, each time thrilling but never the same as the first time. And that’s another good reason for a guy to be 21 again. To be in a sports journalism class and, for the first time, read Dan Jenkins.

Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," 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 inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.
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