Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The evolution of MSM sports writers during my lifetime and how they can still be relevant to well informed fans

When I was a kid in early 80's I couldn't wait for the weekly TV guide to come out in the Edmonton Journal.
I would quickly flip the "sports" section and look at ITV on Wednesday night to see who was playing the Oilers on the weekly televised game.

Tim Spelliscy would host the game and that was our weekly look at the most dominant franchise in the NHL.  The rest of the time we'd have to listen to the radio or hope the Oilers were playing the Leafs or Habs so we would get a Saturday night game to watch.

Once in a while they'd throw us peasants in the colonies a bone and show WIN vs EDM on CBC.

That's it.  One night of live viewing a week.

If the Oilers were playing in Vancouver or LA, then game didn't start until 8:30pm, but I didn't even have to ask my parents to stay up late, it went without saying.

The day after the game I'd read the write up in both papers.  Terry Jones, Jim Matheson, Cam Cole and Dick Chubey.

They'd have quotes from the players and coaches as well as summary and their take on the game.  I needed them to follow the Oilers.  They were the conduit through which most of my information flowed.


Now every game is televised.  Stats sites have(or had)  real time (or close) shot attempt differentials and TOI.

Post-game scrums with players are up on the Oilers site shortly after the game and you can watch the coach's post-game presser live.

The piece in the paper with the summary, player's quotes and coach's quotes contain no new information for the fan like me who has already consumed this info via watching the game and then the post game presser and scrums.

I don't think that my type of fandom is the norm.  There are plenty of people who still approach the morning write up as new information.  I do think my type of fandom is growing, and a significant number of hockey-writing consumers simply don't need the MSM at all for this type of information.

So how does the MSM stay relevant for a growing percentage of their potential audience?

1)  Give us what we can't get anywhere else.

Good case in point was Jim Matheson's piece on how the Justin Shultz contract negotiations are going.

(note, html link stuff not working, will figure it out soon)

Matty has connections inside the Oilers and gives us a view on how the negotiations are going on the Shultz contract and drops the name Subban as a comparable.   Matty also drops a corsi comparison between Shultz and Subban. You *know* that came right from Oilers HQ.

While it's funny that this wasn't a piece in the Journal, but a blog piece on their website, the point still stands.  Matty gave a view into the team that only someone with connections to the team could provide.

This is the cornerstone of the MSM.  Access to the team.

While most of the time MSM writers don't actually do anything with this access, they need to use it more often to provide content that we can't get anywhere else and stay relevant for the fan base.  What's the point of having access if you aren't going to use it?

2) Ask questions of the players and coaches that are relevant.

This one is trickier because I think the MSM needs to increase their knowledge of hockey tactics, specifically which ones the team they cover are employing.

I actually don't have high hopes for this one.  Many of us are on twitter during the games and often a member of the Oilers media will tweet out an opinion on the game which garners 123214 responses saying "what game are you watching?"

Often during the post game presser I'd like a specific tactical question asked and all we get is "tough game eh coach", or "your team got out hit"

The MSM needs to "raise their level of compete" and "get in the corners and grind it out" if they are going to remain relevant to a growing percentage of their audience.

They need to understand the game they cover in a deeper and more technical way because their audience is getting smarter about the sport and more technical, as well.

We know this can be done.  James Mirtle, who is a beat writer for the Leafs is a good example of smart hockey journalism.  Scott Cullen of TSN writes very interesting pieces.  The list is growing longer.

3) The worm turned, get over it.

Often the more combative MSM members (Simmons, Cox etc) would appeal to authority in their fight against the relevance of fancy stats in hockey--  i.e., if this stuff was any good then all NHL teams would be using it.  My favorite moment was Simmons yelling at Tyler Dellow on the radio "so you think you're smarter than 30 NHL GMs!?!?!?!"

Now that there has been highly publicized hirings of some fancy stats compilers and analysts I hope this is just put to bed.

The authorities hired these guys.

Yes Virginia, there are some interesting and relevant things that shot-attempt data can provide.  Let's all move on.

As we saw earlier even an old dog like Matty can drop a corsi comparison into a piece.  Readers want this stuff and if the sports writers come to understand it and become more conversant in it, it will only help them.

So to sum up, I think its shapes up this way for the MSM

1) use your access to inform us of stuff we can't get anywhere else;
2) increase your knowledge of hockey tactics and some fancy stats stuff so you can become the hockey expert that your readers need you to be.

You can't claim to be the "voice of the fans" and then ignore what a growing number of the fans want.


  1. I'm on board with all 3 of your points - great post!

    A sort of 1B that I would add is "give us narrative that humanizes players and/or tells us compelling stories." There is a Chris Bosh article at ESPN ( that exemplifies this for me. There is no way a blogger could write that piece and, to me, stories about athletes as people are a big part of my enjoyment of sports. I think this is especially true for youth as they discover the magic and still look up to these guys, but articles like this still have a place in modern sports reporting - a longer, more in depth, antithesis to the two paragraph article.

    Gregor is also great for this (but to much less depth), when he interviews players for OilersNation. He is having conversations and creating a narrative that we simply cannot.

    Caffeine has completely garbled my writing ability this morning, but I'll reiterate - great post!

    1. Excellent point Murat.

      Long form journalism is so rare I forgot about it. Heh.

      Agreed all points.

  2. Great article.

    Ironically, it's getting a bit tiresome to see tweets by the MSM with the purpose of stirring up the dirt or pushing unpopular agendas in order to get clicks and pageviews.

    Although when camp starts and we have actual hockey stories to report, that will be lessened, we can only hope.

  3. I sure do miss the old ITV games on Wednesday nights. Remember me and my dad yelling at the TV when Paul Coffee had a give away. Seem to remember Gretz's 5 goal game to hit 50 in 39 games against the Flyer's being on ITV too?
    Great article today

  4. Hey WG,

    I had this exact thought this morning reading Matheson's piece on Fedun signing with SJ.

    It gave us the "why" behind the story and shows where the traditional MSM narrative still has relevance and resonance.

    Those of us who like the analytics like them because they give us more of the "what" than we could previously know. But this still leaves room for the "how and why" that we all went to the paper for.

  5. Thanks for the kind words all.

    Matheson seems to have had a renaissance this summer. He's hit a few out of the park.

    I hope the others follow suit.

  6. As a former MSM guy myself, I think you've pretty much captured the essence of the challenge facing these guys.

    The smart ones will adapt...the others will perish.

  7. I used to be a 2-3 paper addict in the '80s when ITV Sports Night (w/Darren Dutchyshen) first gave me those nightly highlight updates. Before that you might not see the goals scored in a non-televised game until the next day. Sports Night used to come on at 11:00 and TSN didn't do their highlights until midnight. Dutch was more fun to watch anyway.

    Woodguy has pointed out what would help the MSM (in particular, the "newspaper" guys) carve out a relevant niche. They still might be doomed in that format, however, as newspapers seem to be headed for oblivion. A paper needs a website to be relevant, but posting content there is direct competition for their hard copy edition. I am sure DSF will correct me on this if I am wrong, but what from what I have seen paywalls don't help much.

    That leaves the sound bite network content for the immediate results and the new hybrid-media-blogger to provide the quality background product.

    1. Pretty much nailed it. I recall our sports department wanted to keep leading their 6 pm sportscast with the previous night's Oiler highlights even after they had already been available on those newfangled sports channels for nearly 24 hours. Took years to wean them from their old habits.

      As you've pointed out, the newspapers are in tough unless, as Woodguy says, they use their access to provide coverage that is not available on any other platform and, to do that effectively, they most certainly need to step up their game.