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Everything I Know About Sportswriting in 2018 I Learned From College Football Websites

And there are five simple lessons. Heed them or whine at your peril.

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As we approach the first big Saturday of college football, I bet you’re wondering two things: (1) How soon can I call for my offensive coordinator to be fired? (2) What does the Rivals or 247Sports site I pay $9.95 a month to subscribe to have to say about the future of sportswriting, a profession buffeted by political attacks, questions about who will pay for it, and a changing values system?

Let’s start with the second question.

College football websites are just anachronistic enough to seem like the future. For me, they’ve always been the present. There was a period when I was subscribing to four University of Texas–themed sites at the same time before I was bailed out by consolidation and expiring credit cards. I can still hear my wife’s toneless reading of our Mastercard statement: “Bryan, are you still using”

I was and I am. And lately, I’ve begun to think of these sites as accidental laboratories for the future of the whole business. College football websites have been grappling with questions about paying for content and writer-fans that the “mainstream” sports media is just getting around to thinking about. Here are five of them:

1. How Will a Sportswriter’s Job Change?

A question you hear a lot is: “Are people willing to pay for sportswriting?”

College football websites—one of the few media entities that get people to pay for anything—have been grappling with a related question: “When sportswriters leave big media companies and go to smaller, self-sustaining sites, what happens to them? How does the job change?”

If the college sites are any indicator, what happens is you lose the Olympian distance between writer and reader that was a holdover of the newspaper era. You become the reader’s friend.

College websites used the Patreon model of sportswriting before Patreon existed. Writers hawked subscriptions. They answered technical questions about posting on the message boards. They answered subscribers’ questions in live chats and mailbags. They held fundraisers for sick subscribers. They had meetups at bars.

Instead of writing in the starchy, old-school voice of the newspaper, many of their articles read like a really well-researched email to a friend.

You’re starting to see this change hit mainstream media, too. On one side, you’ve got newly-hired Athletic writers penning a personal essay about their job change and asking you to subscribe to the site. On the other, you’ve got Paul Kuharsky, ESPN’s former AFC South writer, rethinking the beat job on his eponymous site. For readers willing to pay an annual fee, Kuharsky will take you out to beers, play golf with you, and bring you into his “circle of trust.” This—minus the golf foursome—is what college sites have been doing for years.

In the old days, the college sites printed weekly inside-dope columns that included a line asking readers “not to let this information leave the board.” Twitter brought that to an end, but the spirit lives on. At a college website, sportswriting doesn’t mean reading what the writers deliver on stone tablets. It means being part of a small, exclusive club, and, to some extent, having the writer work for you.

2. Will Sportswriters Embrace the Show?

If you’ve never subscribed to a college football website, it’s important to understand why they gained a foothold nearly 20 years ago. An offshoot of the old newsletter tip sheets and 900 numbers, college sites embraced high school recruiting.

Recruiting had long been a major subject of newspapers, which produced rankings and signing day recaps and reported on the movements of the big prospects. Websites changed the game by printing more news—daily versus weekly developments, say. But they really changed the game by turning recruiting into a year-long (later, years-long) melodrama that the message board would watch together like a series from Peak TV.

A newspaper editor might have asked, “Is flood-the-zone coverage really necessary for a three-star safety?” But the websites saw no shame in doing this. Their editors realized that recruiting was becoming its own self-sustaining universe, one that was almost as interesting as the actual football games.

Sportswriting writ large—hell, journalism writ large—has come to the same conclusion. If you’re an NBA writer, you don’t just cover the season and the top few picks in the draft. You cover the draft workouts and summer league and the post-midnight parts of the free-agent signing period. You invest each of these moments with nerdy, unironic meaning: “Who ‘won’ summer league?”

Movie and TV coverage operates the same way. Critics are invested in the full life cycle of the art form: the deal signing, the casting announcements (see Episode IX this week), the trailer, the awards show, the awards nominations, and, somewhere within the content stream, the actual movie or TV series. Again, each step is treated with utmost seriousness: “I really love what I’m seeing from this trailer.”

Politics has its own content superstructure, from the close readings of Donald Trump’s tweets to the live studio show devoted to a House special election in Montana. I even see media news coverage trying to adopt the melodramatic style, teasing a magazine cover that’s going to come out the next day or hyping the “poaching” of a print reporter.

Some of the writers at college websites used to flash a moral streak when it came to recruiting. This was especially true when it came to the signing ceremonies—the moment the recruit, knowing all eyes were on him, might screw around or swap out hats before making his decision.

With a few notable exceptions, I rarely see such protestations anymore. A fraught signing ceremony is great for business, as is the celebration or “meltdown” that follows on the message board. College writers basically made the same decision NBA writers made after the, uh, Decision. They stopped worrying and learned to love the show.

3. Will Sportswriters Push Away the Next LaVar Ball?

In January, there was a minor freakout when ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman embedded with LaVar Ball, and (from Lithuania!) printed Ball’s blasts against Lakers coach Luke Walton. Ball seemed to have hijacked the proper model of NBA reporting, which as we all know is a reporter quoting an anonymous “source close to the process.” Goodman later apologized for the wall-to-wall coverage.

Bobby Burton, who runs Texas’s 247Sports site, had a nice chuckle about this. For years, sports dads—along with sports brothers, cousins, high school coaches, and skills instructors—have been stock characters on college websites. They slag the coaches with a gusto that Ball could only dream of. Once, an overzealous dad whined to Burton about his son’s recruiting ranking. The dad was and still is a college assistant coach.

Recently, two twin brothers, D’Onta and Armanti Foreman, played for the Longhorns. (D’onta now plays for the Texans.) While they were on the field, their father, Derrick, carried out his own public war against Texas coaches on Twitter. (“Can ARMANTI get a freakin PASS???” was a typical in-game tweet.) After both sons graduated, Foreman père did not train his sights on NFL coaching staffs—not entirely, anyway. He started his own Longhorns podcast.

College writers know that when a Ball-like dad shows up, you don’t write a think piece. Dads are supporting players in the show. They can also be excellent sources. The media model they’re hacking is one that was set up by the university to prevent anything interesting from being said by anyone. The dad—however vainglorious and in the tank for his son—is often the most quotable person in the program. A reporter listens to the material and sees if it’s useful. Otherwise, it’s entertainment.

4. Will Sportswriters Be Fans?

I’m always amused when a sportswriter claims that colleagues have suddenly become fans. Show me a famous sportswriter from the print era, I will show you that that writer or his or her friends used the F-word at some point.

What’s true is outside the confines of newsprint, fandom can be expressed more directly. In some cases, it’s become a sportswriter’s bit. The writer—seeing the shiny content machine above—thinks “how can I miss a chance to root out loud?”

Aside from a few old-media refugees, college football websites have almost always been run by fans. The mistake outsiders make is thinking that “fan” means “homer.” Fandom, in fact, exists on a broad spectrum. On the college websites, you can still find the classic see-no-evil writer who sounds like the school’s radio play-by-play announcer. You can also find someone like Robert Heard, who took a bullet from Texas tower sniper Charles Whitman and wrote his Inside Texas newsletter about the Longhorns like he was seeking his own kind of supreme revenge. (Heard’s Inside Texas heirs are very good and quite a bit friendlier, at least at tailgates.)

When sites are run by fans, a funny thing happens. Fandom becomes a battleground between them. One site’s proprietor says a competitor is “in the tank.” The other site’s proprietor says the first competitor is “too negative” and has “lost all perspective.”

Fandom is also used to delegitimize the sites of competing schools. I have never heard a Texas A&M site that was not described as lacking the highly-calibrated fandom of Texas sites. Which brings me to my final point …

5. Will Sportswriting Be Us vs. Them?

One of the more interesting pieces of media writing I’ve seen this year came from Guerin Emig, a columnist at the Tulsa World. The World, like a lot of newspapers, has been laying off reporters. Emig noticed that readers were cheering on the grim reaper. A lot of sportswriters used to be benign, friendly figures, but now the mere idea of working in the mainstream media has become suspect. “Sports writers,” Emig wrote, “have become ‘them.’”

Us vs. Them—real, hardworking Americans vs. a venal media elite—is a longstanding critique of political writing. It has recently become more pronounced in sportswriting. I first saw mainstream sportswriters become “them” on college websites. Though the criticism predates Donald Trump’s blasts against the media, it strikes several of the same notes.

To be clear, when I talk about hating mainstream sportswriters, I’m not talking about hating a First Take host who’s courting a reaction. I’m talking about reporters being attacked because they were mainstream.

Take Kirk Bohls, the columnist at the Austin American-Statesman. Bohls is the model of a smart, reliable, hardworking newspaper columnist. Yet on the message boards, Bohls has been burned at the stake again and again. One of his crimes was voting for Reggie Bush for the Heisman Trophy in 2005. The fact Bush won in a landslide hardly mattered. Bohls was said to be sticking it to UT by voting for someone other than Vince Young.

Bohls is not alone. Many mainstream reporters come in for the same attack. The criticism is virtually identical: They have an “agenda.” They are sticking it to the home team in a bid to prove they’re “objective.” “The ‘us vs. them’ crowd believes we write these stories because they are salacious,” Emig wrote. “Because they generate interest and web hits, and web hits are the only thing keeping us in business.”

As the biggest mainstream outlet, ESPN comes in for near-constant slagging. Lately, we’ve seen ESPN attacked publicly by Ohio State protesters carrying “ESPN = Fake News” signs. On message boards, these kind of attacks are leveled even when there’s not an Urban Meyer–level crisis. The only time someone on a message board likes ESPN is the Saturday Tom Rinaldi happens to do a piece about their team’s quarterback.

These days, the idea of sportswriters as “them” has escaped the message boards. You see it in Boston radio, in Clay Travis, in the constant broadsides about sportswriters’ politics.

What happened? Part of the message board critique of the mainstream media was right. A lot of reporters treated newspaper jobs like endowed professorships. They got lazy instead of hustling to find the next thing.

Another part of it comes from being in a clubhouse of writer-fans. It’s like watching cable news. Suddenly, objectivity seems not only suspicious but impossible. The message boards develop certain stock villains: Kirk Herbstreit, Paul Finebaum … I could keep going, but eventually I would list everybody.

As his mentions filled with Meyer-related bilge, AP college football writer Ralph D. Russo despaired, “The majority of fans just root for the colors.” Meaning, the larger values of news are meaningless next to the idea of whether the news affects one’s alma mater positively or negatively. My advice to Russo, along with everyone else in sportswriting: Don’t worry—they hate us all equally. We are all “them.”