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Travels Along the Journalism Spectrum

Last week I spoke to a Hofstra journalism class taught by my friend John Jeansonne, the veteran Newsday writer. His students listened while sitting at their computers (which some of them used to ask me about points I’d made or tried to make in these columns), and were well-versed in everything from blogs and Twitter to their college print paper.

At the beginning of class, I gave them a brief tour of my rather odd succession of jobs and duties, in hopes of demonstrating that while they may imagine a straightforward career path, the reality will likely have many more twists and turns.

When I was 20, I was about to become an intern with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and I thought I knew what the future held: I’d parlay college-age internships into a job learning the basics of beats and reporting at a small-town paper, move up to a regional, and try to jump from there to a major metro. It wasn’t a bad plan – I had a good starting point, and thousands of reporters before me had left the road clearly marked. But it didn’t happen. Yes, I did my college-age internships at fair-sized metro papers. But then things got strange.

I worked for a monthly trade publication (about indoor air quality, no less); wrote a so-far unpublished novel; freelanced; jumped to a financial newspaper’s Web site and spent time as a copy editor and rewrite guy and reporter and technology editor and editor with vague portfolio and tech columnist and sports columnist and blogs gurus and member of business and design and development teams; blogged about sports as a hobby; wrote Star Wars books; became a software marketer who blogged about digital journalism; and wound up (for now) as a freelance writer and editor and consultant.

Whew. Good luck trying to find a pattern in all that. I’ve gone back and forth between Web and print, writing and editing and consulting, reporting and opinion writing. Which led to a lively discussion with John’s journalism students about opinion blogging vs. reporting (not that blogging and reporting are necessarily separate), and what the definition of a sportswriter was.

We didn’t settle that, but our discussion did help me realize something: Journalism, whether it’s about sports or anything else, is no longer marked by clear divisions or bright lines. It’s become a spectrum, one that ranges from investigative journalism at one end through aggressive beat writing to less-aggressive beat writing to column writing and blogs. And there’s never been more freedom of movement back and forth along that spectrum. Indie blogs are now a farm team for blog networks and mainstream-media blog outlets, and within news organization the walls between print and Web are coming down or at least interrupted by lots of gates.

Back in August, I wrote about finding myself credentialed at Citi Field for my work with Faith and Fear in Flushing, the Mets blog I’ve co-written with Greg Prince since 2005, and how I was puzzled to find myself there. A couple of years ago, that wouldn’t have happened: As a blogger, I would have been on the wrong side of a bright line. But things are changing. Yes, there are fits and starts and advances and reversals, but the clear trend in sports is that writers no longer need to be part of an established media organization, and certainly not a print entity, to be given credentials. The questions to be worked through are primarily ones of logistics, not philosophy: Is there room in the press box? How can reporters with print deadlines get priority?

I find this worthy of applause – people ought to be judged on the quality of their work and (if we can be hard-headed about it from a team’s perspective) the potential audience they can reach, not on what medium they fit into or their professional backgrounds.

But for all that, I confess to some unease.

I was 35 when Greg and I started Faith and Fear, with more than a decade of experience as a journalist behind me. Yet for all that, I’ve written things on our blog that I regret, and that I doubt if I’d have written if I had to look the person I was writing about in the eye. If I’d been 20 in 2005, I’d have had less of a foundation underneath me, and inevitably made more mistakes.

Blogging is solitary and seductive. Once you get up a good head of steam, your own writing and arguments are intoxicating. This is true of any medium, but when you’re an independent blogger you’re alone — and even editing yourself wisely is no substitute for another pair of eyes. With a blog, publishing is instantaneous — but Google is forever.

But let’s not blame technology. On some level, I thought of these worlds as separate. There was my more-formal journalism and my blogging about the Mets, and the two were unlikely to meet. But when I found myself credentialed at Citi Field, I realized that had only been true for a time. Those worlds have blurred together, becoming part of the same spectrum. I now move back and forth along it, and many a writer after me will do the same.

Which is where I thought I had a useful word of advice for Jeansonne’s class. Whether you’re crafting an opinion piece, column or blog post, you should be accountable for what you write. But in addition, realize that you may write at the blogging end of the spectrum now, but find yourself at the reporting end later – and later may be sooner than you think.

When that happens, your previous work won’t be assessed as something separate and unconnected to whatever it is you’ve started doing. It will be seen as part of the whole, and you’ll have to answer for it. How that goes will depend on the choices you made in the early going, when you thought nobody was watching.

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.on 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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