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The journalism world we dream of
Thoughts on increasing diversity in sports journalism; Also, Nate Silver's leaving
Sports journalism is a man’s world.
OK, so, breaking news, right? Even if you know next to nothing about the sports media industry, you probably already guessed this was the case. Both anecdotally and by looking at the data, this is true.
According to survey data released by Pew earlier this month, 83 percent of sports journalists were men, while just 15 percent were women. That is by far the largest gender gap of any beat in the industry.
This isn’t new news by any stretch of the imagination. Two years ago, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports published the 2021 Associated Press Sports Editor Racial and Gender Report Card, and the industry received an F grade for hiring practices for gender equity. The TIDES report was a little more granular in its gender/racial breakdowns by jobs than the Pew survey (which just identified respondents as journalists, rather than editor/assistant editor/reporter/columnist). But the basic numbers are the same — about four out of very five sports journalists are men.
We’re past the point of identifying this as a problem. We know why diversity in sports media matters. We know that we all have to do better - from sports editors to sports fans to educators. Truth be told, we’ve known this for a generation. We’ve been asking the same questions and making the same points since at least the mid-1990s, and we’re still here.
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But I want to approach this from a little different angle, because to me, this points to a larger question we have in journalism education:
Do we prepare students for the journalism world they’ll be entering, or do we prepare them to build a better one?
(And no, you can’t say both. It’s true, but also a cop out.)
From a practitioner standpoint, we teach students the basic skills and concepts they will need to get a job in the industry, right? Skills like writing a lede, inverted pyramid, how to interview sources, but we also inculcate them with the idealism that underpins traditional journalism — say, the importance of objectivity. But is objectivity the ideal we should be teaching students?
I can argue that college is a time to introduce students to new ideas, new skills, to get them to read widely and think deeply and practice in a space that allows for growth and mistakes. But I can also see the argument that students are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for this education, and that investment should provide a return in the skills that editors actually need. And does the editor of a news organization care about a reporter thinking about objectivity vs. subjectivity when the local school board meeting needs to be covered?
Do we prepare students for the world we dream about, or the one we live in now?
What does this have to do with gender diversity in sports journalism? So, I look at this question as someone who directs a relatively new graduate program in sports journalism. The students in our program are overwhelmingly men. That’s not a criticism. It’s a fact. I’m not giving away secrets by saying that.
Increasing the gender and racial diversity of our graduate student body is one of my main professional goals. Again, not a secret. Journalism education is better when it reflects a wide range of lived experiences.
At the same time, I live in the real world of trying to build a program and build enrollment, and you do that by taking the mountain to the people. And that means advertising and recruiting people who are traditionally interested into sports media.
Which creates the never ending circle of more white men entering the program and the profession.
That’s the challenge I face - how to build a program that is diverse but also large enough to sustain itself.
That’s the challenge we all face - how do we build a profession that is more diverse, that more accurately reflects our audience and introduces them to diverse experiences and viewpoints, at a time when jobs are scarce and disappearing by the day.
Do we perpetuate the journalism world we live in, because it helps the students we have? Or do we build a new one for the ones we dream about?
Nate Silver and Branded Journalism
In my dissertation nearly 10 years ago, I wrote:
The mid-2010s have brought about a rise in what can be called branded journalism — journalism websites and organizations with the public face of a high-profile journalist. Examples of this include 538.com, a data-journalism project led by Nate Silver, a former blogger at The New York Times who gained fame for his election forecasts, and Vox.com, an explanatory- journalism site led by Ezra Kline, formerly of the Washington Post. In the sports world, Bill Simmons, the popular ESPN.com columnist, started his own site, Grantland, in 2011, which hosts his column and podcast and features commentary on sports and popular culture.
I remember at the time thinking this was a really important point, maybe a breakthrough for future research into the future of journalism.
And … welp.
Ezra Klein is still an important voice, but Vox quickly became more than just his own project. RIP Grantland. Simmons, of course, launched The Ringer, but that site feels like a fully formed media company and less a Simmons-branded joint.
Silver and his site had the longest run of the three but announced this week that his contract would not be renewed with Disney (part of the company wide media layoffs). Clare Malone tweeted that Silver’s projection model would no longer be licensed to 538, rendering the site moot in a lot of ways.
You’ve probably got your opinion on Silver already. I still use a chapter from his book, The Signal and the Noise, in y classes. His work for The Times in the 2012 election is still an instructive example of the contrast between the general media tenor of an election (a close call) contrasted with data (showing a likely big Obama victory) where the data were validated. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how “the future of journalism” was depicted and discussed in the first two decades of the 2000s, and Silver’s success in 2012 helped fuel a push for more data-oriented newsrooms.
But the 2016 election seemed to be a line of demarcation for Silver, his work, and the site. He didn’t get it wrong, but he wasn’t clearly right like he was in 2012, and the messiness of the prediction, the general misunderstanding of probability models and his defensiveness combined to make for bad vibes.
I remember hearing an anecdote Silver told on the 538 podcast years ago about walking into a lunchroom at an event and have a table full of New York Times staffers ignore him, like it was high school (I think he actually said that). Silver seemed genuinely offended by it, and fair enough. But part of him always felt like that guy upset that the cool political reporters never embraced him — and that colored my reaction to his blaming the Times’ coverage of the Comey letter in 2016 for Clinton’s loss (rather than, say, a model that gave Clinton a nearly 3-1 chance to win the election.)
He lost me for good when he started trying to apply his statistical models to COVID restrictions and honestly seemed more worried about being able to go to brunch than anything else.
He’ll land some place. 538 will continue in some form.
And the idea of branded journalism …
Man. I really thought I had something there.
Podcast recommendation - Two Kids and Broadway Star
Allow me a proud dad brag for a second?
My daughter and her best friend have been hosting their own podcast for nearly three years now. It’s Two Kids and a Broadway Star, and I’m super proud of what they’ve done and how awesome it is. They connect Broadway stars with theater kids, get advice, hear stories, and support charities of their guests’ choosing.