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Journalism an anachronism as a profession — and yet, still worth pursuing

Where is sportswriting today? It is on to 20 years since Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine published an article under the headline, "The Death of Sportswriting." The author, Alan Richman, once a sportswriter himself, did a lover’s lament for days when there were giants in the press box. These were men (all men) whose work mattered in the big-city papers and national magazines. But now? In today’s fragmented media world of blogs, websites, dot-coms, and Lord only knows what other literary vehicles rattling along the information superhighway – in this world, is sportswriting alive?

I certainly hope so because I’m about to lurch into the halls of academia to teach it. Hearing that news, a great old friend hurried to his typing machine to lodge a mild protest. He had read my Washington Post-in-crisis book, "Morning Miracle," including the epilogue in which I advised the young, ambitious, and curious: Be a reporter, chase the adventure!

"Come on, Dave," he wrote. "How can you in good conscience encourage journalism as a profession? Might as well show the next generation of icemen how to grip the blocks with their tongs."

Journalism as an anachronism is a common refrain these days. Even a sports journalists’ message board recently carried a thread asking, "Should we lie to journalism students?" The Sportsjournalists.com poster believed we should tell the truth to anyone so naive as to consider a career in journalism, the truth being that the industry is swirling counter-clockwise at an ever-accelerating speed into life’s stinkin’ black hole.

Well, there is truth and there is the whole truth. The whole truth is there’s nothing new in the idea that journalism is a bad career choice. In a few golden years, through the 1970s and ‘80s, newspapers were monopolistic money machines that rewarded employees generously. Otherwise, the daily journalism industry has been built by people who tolerated high stress, low pay, and poor working conditions in exchange for what money couldn’t buy. Wendell (Sonny) Rawls Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winner, explained it to me the day he quit our paper in righteous anger. He wouldn’t look for a job. "I can get a job," he said. "I want a mission."

I wanted to be Red Smith. I wanted to write the World Series and the Kentucky Derby. I wanted to see Notre Dame against Southern Cal. I wanted to be at big fights and the Final Four. I wanted to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing unimagined things. The first time I saw the jockey Steve Cauthen, he was asleep in the hay of a horse stall, 16 years old, a babe in a manger, later a Hall of Fame rider. I saw Julius Erving fly as Dr. J, and I saw Julius Erving become the first black man who ever willingly set foot in Necaise Crossing, lost in Mississippi’s piney woods, down from New York for a white teammate’s funeral.

Tom Callahan knows what sportswriting gives you. Right after Sparky Anderson’s death this month, Callahan called me. "I ever tell you about the day Sparky wanted to kill me – and then saved my life?" During Anderson’s run at the front of the Big Red Machine, Callahan wrote five columns a week for the Cincinnati Enquirer. One day in December 1977, at baseball’s winter meetings in Hawaii, Callahan carried his golf clubs into an elevator. There Anderson said, "Playing golf today, Tom?"

"Sparky, that’s why you’re Manager of the Year!" Callahan said, sardonic as ever. "Yep, Sparky, you see me on an elevator first thing in the morning in Hawaii, and I’m carrying golf clubs, and right away you put two and two together and calculate that I’m playing golf. Yes, sir, Manager of the Year!" In case he had not provoked the skipper quite enough, Callahan said, "Nothing gets by you, Sparky, you should be Manager of the Year every year."

Callahan already had checked with the Reds’ general manager, Bob Howsam. No trades would be made, Howsam assured the columnist, nothing more than maybe a minor leaguer, no news this day. Before he could get to his car in the hotel parking lot, though, Callahan turned and saw Anderson hustling after him.

"Tom," he said, "don’t go play golf."

He didn’t, which was good, because, an hour later, Callahan was in the room when Howsam announced that the Reds had traded a minor leaguer and pitched in $1.75 million for the Oakland Athletics’ star pitcher, Vida Blue.

There is no need to lie to journalism wannabes when every sportswriter knows there are times, many times, times in Mississippi and Hawaii, when he would pay to do what he does. To the Sportsjournalists.com question about lying to the young and innocent, let's listen to Kevin Van Valkenburg, who not long ago heard all the discouraging words — and flat ignored them. He's now 32 years old, a feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, good enough that his work has appeared in the annual anthology, Best American Sports Writing.
"You know what else is a really difficult profession?" Van Valkenburg wrote on the message board. "The law. And sales. And medicine. And finance. And technology. And education. Acting. Stand-up comedy. Screenwriting. Architecture. Real estate. Owning a business. . . . Life isn't really that much more miserable for journalists. . . .Don't you think there are plenty of lawyers who dreamed of arguing civil rights cases in front of the Supreme Court and instead end up working as the fourth ranking deputy district attorney who has 60-hour work weeks and a back-logged case load that never feels manageable? Or doctors who wanted to be heart surgeons who end up working in the local ER to pay off massive med school debt, spend 15 years there, and end up getting divorced at 43?

"Yes, the low pay and weekend hours of small-town journalism suck. But I know people with magazine jobs who are miserable and lawyers making $170,000 a year who are miserable. How many middle managers out there make awful money and hate their jobs, but feel trapped by debt and family obligations? A ton. Is journalism any worse than working in one of those jobs? . . .

"I tell kids these days that the media industry is like anything else — it's really hard to get ahead, even if you're super talented and super connected. And you have to be prepared for that. The newspaper industry is slowly dying, but that doesn't mean journalism is dying. The landscape is just shifting, and we don't exactly know where yet. You have to know how to market yourself, and you have to be bold enough to do it, because just doing good work is not enough. . . . you might need to pitch freelance magazine stories on the side, work on them at night and weekends, get less sleep, sacrifice your romantic life.

"The message you should try to get across to kids is how hard you have to work in any job if you want to get to a place where you're happy. . . .If you want it bad enough, you have to take risks and sacrifice. The ones who don't have their heart in it will figure it out quickly enough that they don't want to live in Nowhereville, USA and make $24,000 at age 28, much less 38. . . .And the ones who are determined to make it against all odds, no matter what obstacles are in front of them, will stick with it. At least until they become alcoholics."

Ah, how sweet it is, Van Valkenburg's last sentence, a pinch of cynicism to leaven the sentiment. Now, as full complement to that perfect sportswriterly touch, I recommend a Wright Thompson piece. Done two weeks ago for ESPN.com in advance of the Breeders’ Cup, it puts us in Zenyatta’s mighty presence. As long as sportswriting produces stories like this, we’re OK.

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 inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295. 
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