Slightly off-topic: The death of the general sports columnist?

I almost never resort to these types of posts, but it's the offseason and we're nearly out of daily topics to discuss. 

If you follow the Bullets Forever Twitter page, you probably noticed I posted a link to this New York Observer article forecasting the end of the general newspaper sports columnist.  The piece quotes a New York Times editor who says they are asking their beat writers to take on a larger role in the news-gathering process, writing analysis pieces, blogging and Twittering in addition to the work they already do.  Spencer Hall, editor of Every Day Should Be Saturday, the preeminent college football blog on the Internet, has a really good take on this article at The Sporting Blog that you all should read

This "revelation" of sorts shouldn't be particularly surprising.  The general sports columnist institution has been dying even before the advent of the Web, with all the best voices going to TV.  Then, you add to that the explosion of the blogosphere, which I've always felt made columnists superfluous, not beat reporters, and there's just not much of a need for a general sports columnist anymore.  Hall makes a really good point in his post: no matter how strong a writer may be, asking them to stretch or condense their thoughts into an 800-word or so article to fill newspaper space doesn't work when the Web allows you to write as little or as much as you want.  Hall's right: readers don't think in 800-word snippets. 

The more germane issue to Bullets Forever, though, has to do with this idea of niche-based opinion and "informed" opinion.  Selena Roberts tried to defend her institution in the article, but in the process fails to do so.

"That thoughtful, reflective, reported opinion that we used to see has basically vanished," said Selena Roberts, a writer with Sports Illustrated and a Times columnist from 2002 to 2007. "This leaves the reader, especially since the reader is going to the Web for the analysts’ point of view, with a shallower perspective of what’s going on."

The problem with this point of view is that the columnist isn't the only one with access anymore.  Bullets Forever was on the ground during Summer League, and sites such as Blazers Edge and Bright Side of the Sun have as much access to their organizations as their city's beat reporters (in the case of the Phoenix Mercury, probably more).  This also raises the issue of whether access is really essential to being a strong niche-based writer.  So much of sports can be analyzed simply by watching the game and thinking about it, and the information you may get from the players, coaches and GMs is just a supplement to your analysis.  How much more informed about the Redskins is Mike Wise than Hogs Haven?  The answer is ... probably a little, but not significantly. 

And that's one of the good columnists.  There are tons of general sports columnists out there that essentially act like bloggers, pontificating without really getting first-hand access.  Those guys would be well-served to find a new outlet, narrow their focus and essentially "join us," if you will.  The good ones -- guys like Wise and J.A. Adande -- have realized that the only thing that separates their skills from the best bloggers is access, so they use it to explore different angles to the conventional storylines.  Those are the only guys who we may truly miss from having no general newspaper columnists.

In the meantime, though, the best sports columnist will find another medium or narrow their focus.  They'll have more freedom to write as much or as little as they want.  They won't go away.  They'll just find another venue for their skills, and we the readers will all benefit.

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