The real role of local sports media
Or, why the heck did Brent Axe get fired?
It is not the media's job to cheerlead for the local sports teams.
I can’t believe we still have to say this out loud in The Year of Our Lord 2023, but here we are.
A few weeks ago in my neck of the woods, Brent Axe was fired from his gig as a drive-time talk host on ESPN Radio Syracuse because he was too negative about the home team.
From Syracuse.com’s Chris Carlson, quoting station owner Ed Levine:
I had a problem with the content of the show … I’m an SU fan. I’m sorry, but I bleed Orange. I’m not going to apologize for that, and I think a fair reading of the Orange is appropriate. I understand (Galaxy has) a business relationship (with Syracuse), that Coach (Jim) Boeheim and I are personal friends and he’s an investor in my company.
I understand and acknowledge all of that. We’ve called it pretty fair, and I would argue we’ve been tough on SU when the on-field or off-field events warrant it. I just think over the past six months it took a different tone and became overly dark and negative. I don’t think that’s what Syracuse fans want to hear.
So, we’re going to set aside the fact that (now former) SU coach Jim Boeheim was a part owner of one of the media outlets that covered him and his program. That’s a … let’s just say, that’s not normal and very weird.
But back to Levine’s quote. I mean, I guess I give him credit for saying the quiet part out loud and not hiding behind some generic platitudes. And I got some Twitter reply bros pointing out that a company’s owner can hire and fire who he wants. Which, sure? But Levine demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of a media company’s relationship to the institutions it covers — particularly in a market like Syracuse.
The fundamental underpinning of independent sports media is that it reports fairly and accurately on a team’s successes or failures. If a team stinks, or isn’t playing up to potential, it’s intellectually dishonest to tell the audience anything else. As for what fans want? Well, having gone to Syracuse and knowing many lifelong SU fans, this is not a bunch that expects love poems and rose bouquets from the local media during a middling season. Fans want accuracy, fairness, and honesty.
Syracuse fans got that from Brent Axe. He's smart. He cares. He's curious. He is literally everything fans want in a local sports host.
Netflix for News 2.0
Earlier this year, The Buffalo News ran an excellent investigative journalism series.
Written and reported by award-winning veteran journalists Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck (the team behind American Terrorist), the series looks at the cold case of the murder of a Buffalo monsignor in the 1960s.
The series itself is fabulous, and worth your time. But what makes it noteworthy for our discussion here is the way it’s presented.
It’s an 18-part series.
Here’s the thing, though: the stories are relatively short. Between 600-800 words, which is the length of an average newspaper story.
The stories read quickly, with momentum going from one day’s story to the next. It feels like a podcast.
Or a Netflix show.
This series popped into my mind earlier this month, during the IACS Summit on Communication and Sport. In the session where I presented my research into Ted Lasso and Trent Crimm, Xavier Ramon and Christopher Tulloch from Pompeu Fabra University and José Luis Rojas-Torrijos from the University of Seville, presented some of the early findings of their fascinating study into L’Equipe Explore, the documentary/longform arm of the French newspaper’s sports department.
The post-presentation discussion centered in part about the state of longform sports journalism. Thomas Horkey pointed out that readership data consistently shows that most readers don’t finish long stories - and in fact, rarely get far at all. To combat this, one of the strategies Ramon, Rojas-Torrijos and Tolloch said L’Equipe is doing with Explore vertical is exploring are shorter videos and stories with more entry points, more episodes.
The researchers said it was a Netflix model.
Which immediately made me think of The News’ series on the murdered monsignor.
Thanks for reading Sports Media Guy! Subscribe to receive new posts.
We’ve been hearing about Netflix for the News Industry for about a decade or so now. The idea was more prominent in the early days of digital media. It was a vague idea, to be honest. The idea came from a business model standpoint - print was dying, Netflix was thriving, so how can we make one like the other? In hindsight, it’s such a weird thing to discuss, because Netflix’s business model is a pretty straightforward subscription model. But this is the era that also saw creating an Uber for Journalism (explain that one to me.)
But if we move away from economic models and start thinking about it from a story point of view, there’s something interesting there. The idea of making stories shorter and bingeable. Of course this doesn’t work for every story, but it’s a storytelling model that could work for a lot of the longform stories news outlets do.
This doesn’t mean dumbing them down. The Buffalo News series is a masterclass in reporting and writing. But instead of running it as one larger 14,000-word Sunday story (or two 7,000-word features), they broke it up over 18 days. Same content, but much more manageable and accessible for their audience.
What I’m Reading
I’ve said this several times, and I’ll keep saying it — Will Leitch is the writer I want to be when I grow up.
Admittedly, it’s a weird thing to say, given the fact that Will and I are just a few years apart age wise. Will has been a guest speaker in my classes more times than I can count and a multiple-time guest on The Other 51. But I’ve always admired the way he writes, the way he thinks, the way he carries himself in the world. He’s a good writer and seems like a really good dude.
I was lucky enough to get a pre-publication proof of his upcoming novel, The Time Has Come, and it is a sensational book. It’s a story driven by the characters, all of whom are compassionately and realistically developed. One of the early chapters, about the aging manager of a rock club, could stand as a short story on its own. The book is heartfelt, funny, and a brilliant love letter to Athens, Georgia.
It’s worth your time and money, and you’ll hear more from Will in an episode of The Other 51 later this spring.