An Obituary on the Sports Page
Growing up in central New Jersey, my family subscribed to the Asbury Park Press, which had a few more frills than the usual local newspaper, including several terrific sports columnists. Stephen Edelson’s beat was football; the late Bill Handleman knew everything about horse racing; Elliot Denman, a former Olympian, was the go-to guy for amateur athletics. My favorite was Joe Adelizzi, an apple-cheeked, bearded fellow with an acerbic wit. His writing ability was so casual it felt like he was talking about the NBA Finals with you over bagels and coffee.
At first, reading Ray Didinger's One Last Read: The Collected Works of the World's Slowest Sportswriter, made me nostalgic for the days when the local columnist was a reader's link to the sporting world. Didinger did just that for nearly twenty years with The Philadelphia Bulletin and later the Philadelphia Daily News. His collection features a wonderful mix of insight, reporting, and crisp prose. This is not a guy who made his living making proclamations in bold print. Aside from writing about the Philly teams, he covered Olympics, Super Bowls, and wrote profiles of tragic figures like Jake LaMotta and Jim Tyrer. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would have made time for Didinger's columns.
After I finished One Last Read, the happy haze of childhood memories gave way to cold realism. When Gannett bought the Press in the late 1990s, the new ownership slowly bled the paper of its hometown flavor, casting aside Adelizzi and company in favor of columnists from Gannett’s New York paper, the Journal News, which covered the same teams as the Press. Now, newspapers across the nation are struggling to survive, and more sports sections are losing their soul like the Press’s. Gone is the coverage of international events, the long profiles on subjects not relevant to the paper’s circulation. Talented sportswriters are flocking to the Web with its happy financial outlook and worldwide readership. If you have a favorite hometown newspaper columnist, it’s almost a certainty that he or she will be writing for whatever online sports behemoth (ESPN.com, FanHouse) is hiring next. Maybe they'll end up accepting a buyout or—if they decide to stay where they are—get reassigned to a different beat altogether.
We all know that newspapers are on the verge of extinction. That’s not what bothers me. It’s this: The distinct possibility that columnists like Didinger—talented, versatile writers who represent a city’s voice in the sporting world—are already gone.
“I think their job descriptions have changed with the times,” says veteran sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, author of Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty. “Just look around: there’s no need for someone to roam the nation, because in 2010 the nation is at your fingertips. Right now, sitting here in New York, I can find out what the columnists in Montreal, Detroit, Moscow, Salt Lake [City], etc. are thinking. In two seconds. Nowadays, the game is different. Papers want immediacy and impact and bold statements. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, because it reduces the craft. But it is what it is. [It’s] certainly not the writers’ faults. I’m sure I’m not alone in pining for the old days. But there's not much we can do. Sadly.”
Will Leitch, author of Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball and a contributing editor to New York magazine, is not as mournful about the demise of the sports columnist, especially when it comes to their role as rabble-rouser.
“I think they’ve been replaced by the team-specific blogger and, more to the point, their commenters and readers,” says Leitch, also the founding editor of Deadspin, the popular sports blog. “We used to have to sit and wait for the morning’s paper to see what people other than us thought about our local sports franchises. Now, I’m talking to hundreds of others while the game is actually going on. I think the people who remain relevant are people like Bernie Miklasz [of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch], who makes the Web a major part of what he does. But this sitting back and being the voice of god on the mountaintop? Those days are long gone. I think everyone but the actual columnists can agree it’s for the best.”
Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports’ national columnist, says great columnists exist at newspapers of all sizes, but included two caveats: There are fewer of them because they tend to cost more, and the columnists’ terrain is usually limited to local sports. (Note: The Press columnists I’ve recently seen just cover high-school athletics.) “So, the quality of the writing might still be there, but the breadth of what that writing focuses on is limited,” he says.
“I think the decision by newspapers, particularly mid-sized ones, to cut budgets, staff, and scope of coverage make the future difficult,” Wetzel adds. “Even in 2004, the Summer Olympics was staffed by columnists at almost every mid-sized paper. By 2010, the biggest papers still covered it and often not with a columnist.”
I wanted to get Didinger's take on this changing landscape, and he was happy to talk to me . . . before he took part in an online chat on CSNPhilly.com, part of Philadelphia’s Comcast SportsNet, his current employer. After nearly thirty years in newspapers, Didinger left the Daily News to become a producer at NFL Films in 1996. His time at the Philadelphia papers was never a “steppingstone” to a bigger job, Didinger says. He turned down offers at other publications and only went to NFL Films because it was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to make movies. “That was the single biggest gamble I had taken,” Didinger says.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, and a graduate of Temple University, Didinger had what he called “the perfect job”: He got to write about the teams he followed as a kid. “I understood the fan’s mindset because it was in my DNA,” Didinger says. “. . . One of the advantages of being a sportswriter in Philadelphia, I had a mental archive of the city’s sports history that was tremendously helpful."
By becoming a sports columnist, Didinger got the “ultimate” prize for a sportswriter in the 1960s and early 1970s. Sports radio and the Internet were decades away from becoming forces. ESPN came along in 1979, but didn’t reach mass appeal until the mid-1980s. Didinger saw no future beyond column writing. And he doubts that colleagues, such as future ESPN personalities Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, did. “At one time, we were schleppers in the press box, and I don’t know if we had any grander vision than that,” he says. “And I was fine with that.” In fact, Didinger was prepared to be a sportswriter until the newspaper “handed me a gold watch and sent me to the press box elevator.” Opportunities in television and radio came later and through the invitation of others. “I didn't seek them out,” he says. The offer from NFL Films, he adds, “was really out of left field.”
Though he’s no longer a daily presence on the sports pages, Didinger reports that he’s very happy in his current career. He still writes extensively about pro football—what he’s best known for—for CSNPhilly.com and will soon cover the Philadelphia Eagles’ training camp. Didinger sees himself as a writer, even though people usually compliment him for his TV and radio work. “I don’t know if there are a whole lot of people who read me in the paper,” he says, “and I hear less and less of that.”
Even if Didinger still wrote his column for the Daily News, it’s doubtful that he’d have the same impact as before. It’s phenomenal to have so many choices in obtaining our news and views on sports. But that means a city can no longer claim a sports columnist for its own, even if the writer decides not to retreat to the Web’s bounty of riches.
“The real opinion shapers were the newspaper columnists,” Didinger remembers. “They set the sports agenda.” Or, like Jim Murray at the Los Angeles Times and Shirley Povich at the Washington Post, they became institutions. “They were just so entrenched there, and they had staked out their territory, [so] that they were never going anyplace,” he explains. “If you were a sports fan, they were a part of your consciousness as [much as] the players and managers.
“The whole landscape has changed, so as a result that role and that guy has changed,” Didinger adds. “There's something sad about that.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.