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What’s in a Courtesy Title?

The legendary sportswriter Frank Deford wrote an amusing column for National Public Radio last week poking fun at the Wall Street Journal for using courtesy titles in its sports coverage.

Addressing “my dear stock market friends,” Deford had this advice: “If you’re going to write about games, you don’t call players ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ In sports sections, or sports TV, or sports Internet the world over, nobody –– not even fancy-pants team owners –– gets to be a Mr. or Mrs. Or a Senor or a Herr or a Mademoiselle. … Having the Journal cover sports is rather like having Miss Jane Austen write them for you, with Mr. Darcy batting and Mr. Bingley pitching.”

Deford then has entirely too much fun jovially blasting away at fish in a barrel: Grantland Rice’s Four Horsemen become “Mr. Struhldreher, Mr. Miller, Mr. Crowley and Mr. Layden,” bringing that carved-in-stone classic crashing to earth, while Howard Cosell trumpets “Down goes Mr. Frazier! Down goes Mr. Frazier!” (The Journal blogger Jason Gay answered Deford with an entertaining post of his own proposing that the Journal follow Deford’s lead, henceforth referring to Reggie Jackson as “October” and the Mets’ mascot merely as “Met.” He also gave Deford the uber-modern nickname “F-Def.”)

I’ve been there: I was the editor and later co-writer of the Daily Fix, which began life in 2001 as the Online Journal’s daily rundown of the best sportswriting online, long before the Journal had a dedicated sports section, let alone beat reporters traveling with New York teams. And so almost immediately I ran into the question of courtesy titles.

They stayed in the Fix, but we did come up with a mildly subversive way of adhering to Journal style. A note in the Journal’s style guide directed writers to “use Mr. except with famous men of history: Washington, Brahms.” (Brahms?) So we decided the likes of Jason Kidd would be Mr. Kidd on second reference, but Michael Jordan – a famous man of sports history, to be sure –would be simply Jordan. Decisions about who deserved this honor were actually pretty easy: Anyone we had to argue about didn’t. (We would later make allowances for nicknames and miscellaneous goofiness: Pedro Martinez, LeBron James and Terrell Owens were Pedro, King James and T.O. on second reference.)

Actually, for me the weirdest aspect of courtesy titles at the Journal wasn’t Mr., the various ways of tackling women’s courtesy titles, or the instructions to refer to young boys as “the young Mr. [Whatever]”. It was that people who’d been knighted should be referred to on second reference by their first name and “Sir.” So unless the Journal’s changed style since my time, on second reference Nick Faldo should be “Sir Nick.” Yes really.

But what of Deford’s contention?

In his first paragraph, Deford welcomes the Journal to “what has long been characterized as the toy department” — a name no less demeaning even if used by so decorated a sportswriter. Following style for courtesy titles in one section of the paper but not in another sends a message that the two sections are to be regarded differently — and the lack of courtesy titles suggests sports is to be taken less seriously, that it’s still the toy department. Courtesy titles stop at the sports section’s door in the New York Times — a distinction I found disturbing as a young sports fan hearing the siren call of journalism, and still find odd today.

While sports reporting was once basically promotional material with a literary bent, it’s become far more serious in recent generations: Business, legal matters and medicine have all become key parts of the beat, blurring department boundaries and making the question of when to use courtesy titles more difficult. Is a story about Nolan Ryan buying a stake in the Texas Rangers a sports story, or a business story? What about a story examining LeBron James’s prospects for free agency and endorsements? How do you classify the Duke lacrosse case? Steroids? The controversy over concussions in the NFL? Does James’ courtesy title appear and disappear between one section and another? What happens when an article about James appears in multiple departments on your website? Consistent style is a way out of this trap.

On the other hand, seeing sports as different isn’t necessarily to demean it. It’s watched differently, thought about differently, and appeals to a different segment of your audience — or a different audience altogether. We’d probably snicker at a Boeing investor who wore Boeing shirts, cleared his schedule to listen to Boeing earnings calls with friends and blogged obsessively about each day’s Boeing product news, but this behavior is considered mildly eccentric at worst when exhibited by sports fans. We understand that sports is not just news but also entertainment.

Moreover, it’s not as if the Times’ superb coverage of the NFL and brain injuries has been taken less seriously because of a lack of courtesy titles. And the Web has atomized content: People once read an entire publication, but now it’s primarily single articles and blog posts that are found through search and passed around through email links and social media. That’s fragmented news brands, transforming them from bundles of news and information into loose amalgamations of special reports, blogs, outposts for popular writers and lots and lots of individual articles, videos and info-graphics. To appeal to their niche audiences, those smaller brands must be different — one-size-fits-all style is increasingly a relic of the age of bundles. Compared with the other challenges that come with such a fundamental change, courtesy titles are a minor issue.

But they’re an issue nonetheless. The simplest way to put it to rest, of course, would be to do away with courtesy titles in all news departments. They’re a remnant of an age when commerce and the doing of newsworthy deeds were considered the provinces of gentlemen. We no longer expect that, any more than we expect people to leave calling cards or doff top hats. Though should I ever do something that gets me knighted by an English ruler, I’ll change my position with startling speed. Because who could resist being Sir Jason?

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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