by John Walters

This Is The End?

“Print is dead”

—Norman Pearlstine, early 1990s

I used to walk past a newsstand just like this one on my way to catching the downtown 1/9 train every morning on my way to work (first, at Sports Illustrated and then later at NBC Sports, The Daily and eventually Newsweek). If the tabloid newspaper (one of three available to me in NYC) had a photo and headline juicy enough (“Headless Body In Topless Bar!”), I’d purchase it for the ride to midtown or, later, Wall Street.

Now, if someone had told me back then that I could have all of the stories in all of the publications pictured above available in a device that I could hold in one hand, I’d have probably thought, That’s bonkers! But also, HOW COOL! Would I have realized, though, the calamitous effects such an advance would have on my industry?

The trouble with the internet, social media and devices is not that everyone has access to reading news. The trouble is that everyone has access to providing it. Just in the past 24 hours I’ve seen death-knell moments for my industry, particularly sports writing:

° News that Barstool Sports, founded by Dave Portnoy— a brilliant and tireless businessman but not a journalist—was sold for $551 million. Meanwhile, just one week ago Sports Illustrated laid off a dozen or so editors, including all of its beat editors.

° Yesterday my friend Bruce Feldman’s piece on Jalen Carter, the former Georgia nose tackle who should be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, ran on The Athletic (a site that, estimably, is attempting to thrive by having readers pay for its content directly). Then, this morning, someone with a Twitter feed called “NFL Rookie Watch” parroted Bruce’s original content without crediting him. It was left to Bruce, who likely has better things to do, to call the tweep out for it. But there will be no repercussions, other than shame, which let’s face it, went out of fashion with lemonade on the front porch.

° This morning someone on Twitter named David Zabinsky produced one of those threads about something cool you may never have heard of (“Sealand”, a “country” comprised of two people). Then he mentioned that if you liked this story, you should follow him. This thread is in the vein of those written daily by Joe Pompliano and Kendall Baker, each of whom have built massive Twitter followings by showering their followers with cool nuggets of info.

About half an hour later Zabinsky tweeted….

In other words, this story was written by Dylan Taylor-Lehman and Zabinsky simply lifted that author’s work. I don’t know if Pompliano and/or Baker work this way, honestly. What I do assume is that someone from “Narratively,” or the author him/herself, contacted Zabinsky and was none too happy about having his/her hard work lifted without credit being given.

As a journalist, the idea of reproducing someone else’s work and sharing it without ever giving them credit…well, that’s tantamount to a Catholic priest standing up in front of the congregation on Sunday and announcing that Jesus was a fraud. In short, why even call yourself a journalist? Or even come close to the enterprise?

°Finally, yesterday the Cronkite School at Arizona State University (not to harp on this—I’m about to harp on this—but this is a school named after a newsman who not only did not attend ASU but never even himself finished college) awarded its annual Cronkite Award to Gayle King of CBS This Morning. Last year’s honoree was Al Roker, who at least was candid enough to acknowledge at the luncheon that half the reason he’d won was because they knew he’d pay for an entire table or two (at whatever the cost is). The award/luncheon functions primarily as a fundraiser/self-promotional tool. I’m not sure what message Cronkite is attempting to send to its journalism students other than “Just be famous, baby.”

It’s weird. The year is 2023 and many of the best writers with whom I worked at Sports Illustrated, names such as Steve Rushin, Tim Crothers, Alexander Wolff, Austin Murphy and Jeff MacGregor, to name a few, writers who are still close to their primes and should be the elder statesmen of sportswriting today, are either minimally writing or not writing at all. Sports Illustrated really does not even have dedicated office space these days (there is a common work area shared with non-SI folk). Your coffee table at home is your desk.

I’ve thought a lot lately about a kindly old man named Jeremiah Tax. Born in 1916, Tax came to his professional peak just as Sports Illustrated was launching into orbit in the late 1950s. He became a writer for SI, then an editor (at the time, all editors were first writers, because it was believed—correctly—that an editor needs to understand the grind), and later an executive editor. Jeremiah Tax was one of the top names on the masthead when SI was in its 1970s prime.

By the time I arrived in 1989, Tax was in his early seventies. Retired. Kind of. Except that he’d still take the train in from Long Island one day a week and, not unlike Gandalf, roam the halls to provide sage advice to reporters and editors alike. The “Tax Man,” as we called him (because at SI we witty folks never failed to Use Your Allusion, I & II, as I just did again here), was never an intrusion. He was a warm and welcome presence.

This small, kindly old Jewish (am I allowed to say that?) man with a warm smile would pop his head into your office (yes, even at the age of 22 I had my OWN office in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper… something the top editor there no longer has). He’d be holding paper copy of the story you were fact-checking (or, if times were flush, had written), and a pencil. He’d ask if he could sit down and, once welcomed, would ask if it was okay to go over with you some concerns that he might have. Questions that had popped up in his mind. The Tax Man was so friendly, so grandfatherly, that you were only too happy to welcome him in.

Why did Jerry Tax do this? To get out of the house? Perhaps. But also, I’ve come to believe, because the culture of SI was so important to him. The wise elders pass on their knowledge to the next generation(s). It’s what takes place in any thriving family or company.

That was the Sports Illustrated I stepped into in 1989.

Today, SI and most of legacy media only thinks of the moment. The editorial decisions are made by men a level above and a floor removed (speaking figuratively these days) from the folks who are actually on the ground writing and editing. These same generals are “earning” (because I must wonder, How exactly are they earning their salaries?) exponentially more than the infantry who are on the front lines (writers, editors) and their solution to any lack of growth (not lack of profit, lack of growth) is simply to cut staff… even if 10 staffers probably don’t combine to earn the salary that one of them does.

But, the worst offshoot of all of this is the lack of continuity at SI or any legacy media workplace. There is no Steve Rushin occasionally roaming the halls to offhandedly provide wisdom and insights to the Gen-X’ers and Millennials who sorely need it (and who often don’t believe they do, which is Exhibit A of why they sorely need it).

I recall Thursdays and Fridays at SI where the coolest hang would be the Scorecard office. Jack McCallum, the editor and as affable a person who ever worked at SI, had a larger office and was a natural as a host. Rich O’Brien and Steve Cannella (two distinctly different generations from Jack and each other) also worked on Scorecard. They’d be seated on the couch. Jack would be holding court, the banter would flow, and the occasional guest (Merrell Noden? Alex Wolff? Franz Lidz?) would stop by. Overtly, ideas were being tossed about—this was organic Slack, farm to table—and laughter was being shared. More subtly, the way that it happens at a family’s Thanksgiving table, the rites of being part of the SI family were being passed down to the next generation.*

*Thinking deeper on that Scorecard office, it was SI’s unofficial Algonquin Round Table. Whenever an out-of-town writer would visit the 18th floor, he (unless it was Sally Jenkins) would pay the obligatory visit to either Mark Mulvoy or Peter Carry (our top two honchos) or both, and then also to his primary editor. With those out of the way and time to kill before lunch or happy hour, he’d plop himself into the Scorecard office to partake in the banter.

McCallum, O’Brien and Cannella (the last, the youngest, is now the top name on the magazine masthead) all had similar traits: personable, far from self-absorbed, kind but, if attacked, could be caustic. Team players. The Scorecard office was a litmus test of not only a writer’s (or reporter’s) wit but also general character. Would you do a road trip with this person? Some visitors were simply so entertaining and funny–Rushin topped them all, but Franz Lidz was simply so out there—while others, such as Noden or Bill Nack, were passionate and deep thinkers but, again, never took themselves too seriously. As a young reporter, you understood not to stay past your welcome time and to listen more than talk. That room was like the cool kids’ quad in every dorm in America.

True story: one day an editor walked into the Scorecard office with a fax (!) he’d just received. It was a pitch from someone associated with his beat, an idea that he did not believe merited a stand-alone story in Si (in its print-only era) but that “might make a nice Scorecard item.” Jack & Co. were used to being handed off an editor’s hand-me-downs (this allowed the editor to tell the pitch man that he had not outright rejected the pitch). After the editor left the room, and this was an editor everyone liked, Jack took the fax, gave it a cursory read, and then stuck it down the back of his pants, mimicking the act of wiping his tush with the fax.

The fax may still have been in Jack’s trousers when the editor returned. Turned out there was a phone number on the fax that he needed. Could he have the fax back? Thinking quickly, Jack told the editor that he’d not been in the office. He must’ve given it to another editor. Rich and Steve quickly backed him up. The editor looked confused for a moment, but it was three against one. And editors were always rushing from one office to another. He bought it.

That story is about 30 years old and I remember it. I don’t know if anything that happens at anyone’s home coffee table in media today, whether it happens on Zoom or in Slack, will be remembered 30 days from now.

Is this why legacy media is dying on the vine? It’s more of a symptom, an example of what we are losing.

But don’t get me wrong. I lament what we are losing, but I’m also extremely grateful that I was at least around to experience what there was. We had quite a time. I truly feel badly for the twenty-somethings who are coming up in the journalism world today, who equate being a talented journalist with owning burner phones and breaking trades and transitions on Twitter. That’s important, too, to a degree, but the moment you break that news there’s a David Zabinsky who’ll retweet it and within minutes no one will remember that you had it first. Or care.

I’d love to have been some young reporter’s Jerry Tax. We all need them. But now all the Jerry Tax’s are playing pickleball. There’s no office to visit.

Dollar Quiz

  1. What year did Custer’s Last Stand (itself a misnomer) take place?
  2. Who threw the last complete game in a World Series (you can provide pitcher or team or year and I’ll take it)?
  3. Name a god who had the same name in Greek and Roman mythology.
  4. How would you spell “rat” in military lexicon?
  5. Why did income tax begin in the U.S.A.?

8 thoughts on “IT’S ALL HAPPENING!

  1. 1. 1876, just a few days before the Centennial.
    2. I’m gonna kick myself when I learn who it is.
    3. Apollo
    4. Don’t know.
    5. To pay for the Civil War.

  2. 1. 1876
    2. Jack Morris; Minnesota Twins; 1991 World Series (pitched 10 innings)
    3. Apollo
    4. Romeo Alpha Tango
    5. Lincoln started the practice to fund the Civil War (not sure the exact year)

  3. Gave up my subscription to SI in May 2020, a subscription that had been in my family since 1971. I still have boxes & boxes of back issues, which I suppose I should try to sell online…if anyone would even want such things. I don’t think I can take them with me to the Senior home. They’re a fire hazard.

  4. 1. 1876. The US government actually kept it quiet until after the Cemtennial b/c it did not want to dampen the celebratory mood.
    2. Johnny Cueto, KC Royals, 2015
    3. Apollo (we’d accept Hercules, who was half-mortal)
    4. Romeo Alpha Tango
    5. To finance Civil War (Lincoln signes into law in 1862)

    • So, you’re saying that Republicans are responsible for the first tax raise?

      Also – this entire post is damn-near perfect. Really feel like you captured the romance of print journalism. Ever thought of writing a book on it? Could be either fiction or non-fiction. Could be really interesting.

  5. “…their solution to any lack of growth (not lack of profit, lack of growth) is simply to cut staff”

    The best line in a missive full of them. I hate this industry now.

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