Sportswriters Leave Publications Behind

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Tuesday, November 20, 2007 2:06 PM

Some how, some way, somewhere, the late Will McDonough is smiling.

McDonough, who died far too soon in 2003 at age 67, was the long-time NFL writer for the Boston Globe and a genuine television pioneer. He was the first real newspaper guy to double dip as a reporter for a major network sports division at the same time he also was producing news stories, features and columns for the Globe's sports pages.

More than anyone, he blazed a trail to the television position now referred to as an "information specialist." All the NFL's network partners have them, with McDonough initially breaking new ground reporting on all manner of on- and off-field NFL activities for CBS and later NBC. With few exceptions, hardly anyone has ever done it better.

I bring up McDonough's name mostly because of a trend he helped start back in the early 1980s. The migration of print sports reporters moving on to television sports divisions started off as a drip-drip-drip process, but has since transformed into a Niagara Falls-like torrent of very good newspaper people heading into what many of us remaining ink-stained wretches often describe -- perhaps with some envy -- as the dark side.

For example, readers of The Washington Post no longer have Tony Kornheiser to amuse them over their morning coffee, at least not with those entertaining 800-word columns he used to regularly produce for both the Sports and Style sections of the paper.

He's become a Goliath on ESPN, teaming with fellow Post columnist Michael Wilbon on the justifiably popular "Pardon The Interruption" show five nights a week, and now finally making his presence felt for the better in his second season as an analyst on Monday Night Football after a first year of decidedly mixed reviews.

But this is not about my friends and colleagues Tony and Mike, who, by the way, thankfully still manages to find the time in between PTI and ABC/ESPN obligations covering the NBA to write a terrific sports column several times a week for those of us still hooked on strong, fact-based opinions on newsprint.

It's about that continuing trend that's also been creating a seismic shift in the world of sports journalism -- the ever increasing number of sportswriters leaving their often circulation challenged newspapers and magazines for the far greener pastures of television and the Internet.

It seems as if virtually every week another big name, another mega writing talent has decided to leave their publication behind, usually for far more money and exposure. The major news this fall involved the defection of long-time Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly to ESPN, where he'll likely write for the so-called worldwide leader's web site and magazine, but more important, almost certainly show up on any number of television productions, as well.

A few weeks ago, ESPN announced that it also had obtained the services of Mark Fainaru-Wada, one of the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the Barry Bonds on steroids story and wrote "Game of Shadows," a groundbreaking, best-selling book on the subject, as well. He'll join a huge stable of former newspaper writers now toiling for the web site and surely will become involved in investigative reporting on air for shows like Outside The Lines and E:60.

Last week, at least there was some good news for discerning readers of smart, sophisticated sports writing. Apparently, N.Y. Times sports columnist Selena Roberts is not about to jump into television, praise be, but over to Sports Illustrated. She reportedly will be one of several rotating writers who will fill the back-of-the-magazine void left by Reilly's departure to ESPN.

Roberts's decision to go to SI also was noteworthy on another front. I've always made it a point to look at the magazine's masthead, which lists all the editors and writers on the staff, the better to see the comings and goings at a publication I've been reading since the magazine first came off the presses in 1954. I started paying even closer attention when a long-time female friend decided to take a buyout a few years ago when SI, like so many publications these days, began downsizing its staff (and diminishing the product, as well).

I had always heard from women who had worked at the magazine, my friend included, that the place was not exactly female friendly. Looking at the masthead, you'd have to wonder how a woman could have a female friend there at all, because there just weren't that many on the staff to begin with. Rather, more often than not the place was more akin to a boys-will-be-boys fraternity where several past editors even had memberships to exclusive all-male golf clubs.

In the latest edition of the magazine, among the top ten editors on the masthead, every one is of the male persuasion. Among the 26 senior writers -- the most glamorous, high-profile writing jobs at SI -- one woman is listed. Not until you get to the category of writer-reporters or reporters -- the lowest grunt scribes in the magazine, many of whom hardly ever get a byline -- at least there are eight women among the 20 staffers listed.

So maybe with the addition of Roberts -- surely she'll go in as the staff's second senior writer -- and perhaps more talented women to come, there's some hope for a little more gender equity in the SI ranks. Then again, this also is a magazine that, sadly, hardly covers any female sports in the first place, but does do a land-office business with its annual skin-deep swimsuit issue. So maybe Roberts will just be an exception, albeit a very welcome one, and that would be a great shame.

Now, back to the broadcast business.

Much to its credit, at least ESPN has made a serious effort to recruit women and minorities to its burgeoning electronic and print empires. And unlike its major network counterparts, which seem to believe a woman's place is literally on the sports sidelines, they man/woman meaningful positions as anchors, reporters and occasionally in the virtually all-male bastion of play-by-play announcing. ESPN even has an ombudswoman, former N.Y. Times sports editor Le Anne Schreiber, keeping her discerning eye on a network that's main demographic is men between 18 to 34.

Among all four network pre-game NFL shows, there's not a female on-air studio analyst in sight, unless you count Fox's Jillian (Barberie) Reynolds, who does game-day weather reports at NFL game sites. She's clearly on the set for all the wrong reasons, judging by her typically provocative attire. (This past Sunday, she wore a dress that seemed to be made of aluminum foil, prompting Howie Long to say that Terry Bradshaw wanted to wrap a sandwich with her).

But we digress.

The number of print reporters making a major impact in other mediums has never been higher. There's a great upside for all of them, if only because web sites and broadcasting companies have put them all in much higher tax brackets. The downside, of course, is that the shrinking newspaper business keeps losing the very good people who made their publications worth reading in the first place.

The best of the print-to-broadcast and occasional double-dipping crowd?

I've always been partial to the folks I used to bump into when they were all young and hungry newspaper beat writers, people like ESPN's Sal Paolantonio (Philadelphia Inquirer), Ed Werder (Dallas Morning News) and Chris Mortensen (Atlanta Journal Constitution). ESPN's Rachel Nichols, a former Post reporter, also has done fine work for ESPN, and so has Fox's baseball insider, Ken Rosenthal (Baltimore Sun), following in the giant footsteps of ESPN baseball juggernauts Buster Olney (N.Y. Times), Tim Kurkjian (Washington Star) and Peter Gammons (Boston Globe).

The best of the best?

My personal choice would be the double- and sometimes triple-dipping Peter King, the main NFL writer at Sports Illustrated who also is a regular on the smartest pro football highlight show on television (HBO's Inside The NFL), as well as the information man on NBC's Sunday night NFL pre-game show.

In addition to his TV work and producing lively, insightful and information-packed features and columns for his day job at SI, King also somehow finds the time every week to write his signature Monday Morning Quarterback blog/column for the magazine's web site.

It's a 3,500-word must-read, all-encompassing review of the previous week's NFL developments, along with his own intriguing observations on some of his other favorite subjects -- the Boston Red Sox, his wacky travel adventures, tales from his daughter's high school softball team and all things latte/coffee -- the good, the bad, the swill.

I don't know where King finds enough hours in the day to get it all done, particularly the website tour de force that appears in my e-mail inbox every Monday morning by 9 a.m. He explained to me how he puts it all together a few weeks ago during a lull at the NFL owners meetings in Philadelphia, but I became exhausted just listening to him.

By the way, I know that King also was a big fan of Will McDonough's work, still another reason that some way, some how, somewhere, our pal, the late pioneering newspaper/television man, is still smiling.

E-Mail of the Week

Thank you for your recent articlew on the cancelation of the Feldman and Maloney show. I listen to WTEM at work every day and was shocked to see that their show was pulled without any explanation or warning. I was left wanting more information about what happened and why a mediocre national show should trump a very good local show. Unfortunately, that never came from the folks at WTEM. My hat is off to you for illuminating this situation. Prior to the switch, I listened all day to the lineup at 980. Now I find I stop listening when the Dan Patrick show comes on. Is there any chance they'll bring the show back to focus on teams and people that local folks care about?

Brian Sinclair

Arlington, Va.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at or

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