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Don't Cry For Me, Tony Barnhart, or, Content Is King

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Part of SMQ's "Farewell Week."
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I only knew him from television, not his newspaper (or its Web site, or his blog), and I didn’t think a lot of his last book, but news of Tony Barnhart’s impending departure from the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week revealed him as apparently the most respected name in his particular corner of the ink-and-paper business, which moves just that much closer to its inevitable demise.

The arthritic consequences of the hand-wringing over this particular subject, the much-heralded "death of newspapers," has never ceased to mystify. The business of the news is not dying but evolving, and not by very much, unless you consider a computer screen an altogether different animal than a broadsheet. It is, of course, in all the best ways: no frustrating folds, no flipping to the back of the section to finish a story (ideally -- the division of online stories into several "pages" is unnecessary and unwanted and should be ceased immediately), no paper cuts, no ink stains. All of the good things are still there in front of your face.

People may be worried about newspapers as they’ve existed for the last several centuries -- the big ones, anyway; shortly after I started SMQ and for about the next year, I worked in a non-sports capacity at a small, locally-owned daily that is in no danger because it a) has been family-owned for more than 100 years,and b) is the only outlet in the world, print or otherwise, that cares specifically about the government, economy and culture of the 30,000 people in its circulation range -- but nobody is worried about Tony Barnhart. His prospects are better than ever, in fact, because Barnhart is a talented, respected professional with contacts and traction among the people he covers for a living -- coaches, players, athletic directors, recruits. This is not exactly a shrinking beat. Readers are still interested in those people, and as long as Barnhart provides competent access and insight to them in a unique way, he’ll be a sought-after commodity on your TV, computer screen, iPod, whatever. Worthwhile content -- the things people actually subscribe to newspapers to read, or used to -- is only shedding its skin.

Say, mack, you heard’a anything comin’ down the pipe?
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Beat writers are worthwhile; they’re being snapped up by some of the most nefarious, monolithic media giants on earth, and as long as people remain interested in the games, the people who provide the definitive reports on those games will be paid. And rather than wind up in a landfill before the month is out, those reports will live on forever, where literally anyone can access, read and compile them. Beat reporters do things most bloggers can’t do: call up coaches, talk to players after practices, report on useful news like injuries, arrests, lawsuits, suspensions, and departures and, if they’re good, know how to have a good time in the process. In whatever form he takes, long live the beat writer. We’d be lost without them.

The columnist is a guy who watches the game, does some more esoteric reporting -- his function is rarely to break news, but instead to provide unique insight and analysis -- and tells readers what he thinks. When I was in newspapers, briefly, I made no overtures to joining the sports department, because I did that in college, as an occasional stringer for local papers and on the student newspaper. I sat in the press box, and it was cool, for a while, just long enough for me to realize how much more fun it is to be in the parking lot before the game, or in the student section, especially, and what a total waste of time it is to sit in a room to wait for coaches and players to emerge from a far more emotional room, put on their media faces and give canned answers to awkwardly-posed, obvious questions whose only purpose is to fill the [insert quote here] part of the "inverted pyramid," like they taught you in journalism school. So you don’t look stupid, anything that might elicit "no comment," which is everything you’d actually ask if you saw the same person in a bar, is avoided like the plague (Brian Cook, obviously, never went to journalism school). John Gasaway probably said it better when he bid adieu to his outstanding hoops blog last year:

For decades the sports columnist, by virtue of their profession, enjoyed three effective though not total monopolies:

1. The ability to see the games
2. The ability to reach readers
3. The ability to talk to players and coaches

What we've seen over the past 20 years is the total breakup of monopoly number 1 by cable and satellite. Even more dramatic has been the antitrust action brought against number 2 by the internet over the past 10 years. Today the professional columnist is left with only monopoly number 3. And while it's true this realization can on occasion trigger a frightened yelp like that coming from a stagecoach manufacturer circa 1910, this state of affairs in fact doesn't faze most sportswriters.
Another way for sportswriters to greet the present is even more obvious: if you have a monopoly on access, don't do penance. Use it. Please. In three seasons of reading MSM fare as a blogger trolling for good stuff, I still feel that perhaps the single best piece I came across was a feature by Mike DeCourcy and Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News in December 2004. That month Illinois played Wake Forest in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and basically DeCourcy and Veltrop each took a team and trailed them for a few days leading up to the game. The resulting article, posted a day or two after the game, was filled with fascinating details to be found nowhere else: how each coaching staff broke down the game tape, what they told their players about the opposing team's weaknesses, the stats that each coaching staff kept on their own team, what each player's assignments were, etc. All gold.

I'm baffled as to why we don't see more reportage like this. You have a press pass. Trail these guys!

...the larger point is that giving anyone—columnist, blogger, or free-lance blueberry inspector—the abilities of former monopolies 1 and 2 should enable them to run rings around anyone limited to merely number 3 where analysis is concerned (again, as distinct from coaching searches and the like).

Columnists, give us what we can't get ourselves. It's interesting to us and in your best interest.
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[Emphasis Mine]

As I’ve said before, writing is writing. The one-sentence paragraph, like many blog posts, is a form of particularly bad writing. The likes of the AJC and L.A. Times might be in their death throes, or might be merely finding their way through the darkness toward the light of a happier, more profitable future in harmony with the virtual reality. But whoever hires Tony Barnhart to provide content for computer screens will certainly tell him, "don’t change a thing."