Yeah, obviously people aren’t reading the print versions as much. You look in airports and trains and how many papers are left at newsstands everywhere you go. I’m still going to read newspapers as long as I can get them. But the power of journalism, this unbiased coverage of our country, of these sports, people with no axe to grind, standing up for the little guy, asking the questions the fans would want to ask, that is never going to change. There is always going to be a market for that, I hope.
That was Bob McGinn, whom the MMQB’s Peter King dubbed “the dean of NFL beat writers” in an exit interview last summer when McGinn decided to leave the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after 38 years covering the Green Bay Packers. It’s one of the most important interviews related to football I’ve ever read, and I circle back to it often.
I’m doing so today in light of the news that the Chicago Tribune, the biggest newspaper in the third-largest market in the United States, will no longer employ full-time beat writers to cover the Chicago White Sox or the Chicago Blackhawks.
This is unusual. It is also novel. It is not surprising.
On August 25, 2015, St. Louis Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher gave his regular Monday press conference to the assembled media after the Rams’ second preseason game which they had played two days prior losing 14-27. The first question addressed the Rams listless offense led by starting QB Nick Foles who had gone 3/7 for 18 yards throwing an interception in the process.
His answer was indicative of everything wrong with how Fisher used his media appearances.
Go back a year from now, two years from now, three years from now – you guys all asked me the same questions. ‘What’s up with your offense?’
Our offense is coming. It’s coming.
Fisher was pointing to his first three Rams teams’ offenses as a reason to justify faith that the 2015 St. Louis Rams’ offense would be fine.
He was pointing to the 2012 St. Louis Rams’ offense which finished 25th in points scored. He was pointing to the 2013 St. Louis Rams’ offense which finished 30th in yards gained. And he was pointing to the 2014 St. Louis Rams’ offense which finished 28th in yards gained. He was referencing those offenses all of which were in the bottom quartile of the NFL in each of those seasons to suggest that concerns about those offenses in the preseason had been unwarranted. That those offenses weren’t, by pretty much any measure, very bad.
His reference to his upcoming offense was similarly inaccurate.
The 2015 St. Louis Rams’ offense was worse than all three preceding seasons finishing last in yards gained.
The question, in retrospect, is one of intent. Did Fisher actually think those offenses were sufficient? Did they achieve his aims? Did the 2015 offense live up to his expectations?
He wasn’t asked any of those questions on that Monday or at any point that season.
The Rams left St. Louis and that media group behind five months later.
The first time I saw the term “Gurdle” was when St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports reporter and columnist used it in October 2015:
Last month, Rams General Manager Les Snead confusingly suggested at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine that the Rams themselves had coined the term. It was innocuous enough. Snead was likely ignorant of the fact that the term had been around for years as tons of fans had used it since Gurley’s rookie of the year-winning season. He doesn’t even have an official Twitter account, so he likely hasn’t seen those fans’ comments.
Less innocuous was the Los Angeles Times’ beat writer covering the Rams, Gary Klein, passing it along unchecked.
Les Snead said Rams have nicknamed Todd Gurley’s hurdling move as Gurdles.— Gary Klein (@LATimesklein) March 1, 2018
This was an aside from Snead that could have been easily corrected either in person or online. That the major newspaper’s beat writer for the team was either ignorant or misleading with something as innocuous as this, as easy to correct as this should call into question how the team will be covered when things are much more difficult to assess, when they require more fortitude to challenge.
Like when Snead suggested that re-signing members of the Rams’ secondary to long-term contract was “Priority A” prior to seeing all four ultimately leave the Rams and sign long-term contracts elsewhere. Like when Snead and Fisher both lied multiple times about the Rams not knowing who they were going to draft with the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Like when the Rams were “expected to consider” using the franchise tag on WR Sammy Watkins. Like when, after using the tag on S Lamarcus Joyner, the Rams were “actively” and “aggressively” trying to re-sign Watkins who would in the end sign a three-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Any of those were more important than correcting Snead’s misattribution of a nickname. Any of those could have used clarification or explanation in the name of #journalism.
I won't be surprised if in five years, traditional beat writers are the exclusive domain of outlets like The Athletic, and newspapers have feature writers and columnists but not beat writers. https://t.co/SfhEREmE3c— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) March 22, 2018
That’s Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith laying out a potential future where beat writers no longer cover teams, where the actions and words from teams and there officials are no longer clarified or explained by full-time employees of local newspapers.
That should, as a fan, worry you. And McGinn explained why in that interview I mentioned above:
Teams want to play the games and cover the games; they want to do both. All these team websites are just a pox on our business. All the coverage is slanted. It’s all pro-team and the people who cover, who work for a network one way or another that is paying the league billions of dollars to broadcast games and be partners, everything they say I take with a grain of salt. It’s left all to beat writers and magazine guys apart from these teams, and networks who have independence, to dissect the game and look at things with an unbiased eye. We’re journalists. These people on these networks aren’t journalists, to a large degree. That means a lot. We know how to be fair, we know how to source and we know how to ask questions.
As fans, we deserve to have questions asked and get real answers.
The reality is that most of the language behind those questions is a result of media exposure in the first place. Reporters have copy to file and they have to ask the basic questions that a lot of time just invite filler. Look at Rams Head Coach Sean McVay’s comments when asked about re-signing Johnson just a few weeks ago. It was just filler. But that’s part of the job.
Snead said just last week that there’s a “timeline” for re-signing star DL Aaron Donald. What does that even mean? Why did the Rams sign OLB Alec Ogletree to a multi-year deal and then trade him four months later? Why did the Rams need to see CB Trumaine Johnson play in Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense before signing him to a deal, but didn’t need to do so for the draft pick and free agents they signed last year? What was it they saw that they didn’t like? What role does Snead even have in contract re-negotiations? What about McVay or Phillips?
The majority of Rams fans have no idea who Tony Pastoors is or what he does. They couldn’t tell you how good of a job Cornerbacks Coach Aubrey Pleasant did coaching up cornerbacks last year.
The bottom line is as fans, we have a pretty poor grasp on what’s going on most of the time. And that’s why it’s very easy to foresee a future in which beat writers don’t exist.
If the best we can get out of our team is just to hold a microphone up to the head coach or the general manager every once in a while and just pass along whatever they say without any actual analysis or criticism or clarification? Let the Rams do it themselves. Myles Simmons can ask the boilerplate question as well as any media can.
But if we’re supposed to be educated as fans, if there’s any shred of what McGinn alluded to going on in the name of “journalism” that is supposed to source and ask questions, we’re going to have to see a hell of a lot more of it if the beat writer is to survive as a job.
Otherwise, they’re all going to get Gurdled.