New media Sports Guy rises as old media sinks

Bill Simmons, the 'Sports Guy'A few weeks ago, New York Times did an interesting profile of one of my favorite writers, Bill Simmons, better known as ESPN’s “Sports Guy.”

It includes some interest background on the early days and his rise to becoming a model of a new breed of columnist that broke a lot of the conventional rules of the news business:

At the time, Mr. Simmons was 28, making $50 a week as a contributor to America Online’s Digital City Boston, he recalled in a recent interview. “My goal was to make the welcome screen,” he said.

Barely a decade later, he has proved that prediction true: He is the Sports Guy on ESPN.com, where his column has an estimated 1.4 million page views a month; his weekly podcasts have been downloaded 21 million times this year via iTunes; and his new book, at 700-plus pages, “The Book of Basketball,” reached No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list last week.

That Mr. Simmons is perhaps America’s most famous sports columnist, with a salary said to put him among a tiny elite of sports commentators, is a tribute to his undeniable work ethic and fascination with his subjects: sports, popular culture, lists, himself, basketball, his friends and family, and his readers.

Perhaps most interesting was how his early struggles to make a career as a writer pushed him to the web:

“I tried to break in conventionally — but it didn’t matter how good you were, you had to wait 10 to 12 years to get a column,” he said in an interview. He wrote for a while and even spent a year bartending before giving the Internet a shot. “The Web site was a way to get out all the frustration of not having a column.”

Over the years, the Internet has prevailed over print — in July he stopped writing his column in ESPN’s magazine. “I got bored with the space of it,” he said, “of having to write 1,200 words, and with a deadline six days in advance. It is impossible to write a great sports column six days in advance.”

Simmons’ approach and style reflect his roots on the web. His stories are punchy, timely, light, and filled with pop culture references and hyperlinks. When he wants to, he writes long: his columns can run anywhere from eight to 20 pages, depending on his whim. He devotes columns to “mailbag” question and answers from readers. His podcast (“The B.S Report”) rivals his column for popularity. He tweets a lot.

But it’s not just a matter of using the right tools and and media. It’s also clear that Simmons has a passion and love for his work. I think this makes a difference. When you read his column or listen to his show, it’s evident that he’s having fun.

Simmons uses the full range of modern media to build a community of readers and listeners. He’s a good example of a modern approach to journalism and writing that breaks many of the established “rules.” He shows that the newspaper business may be shrinking, but the market for good, smart writing remains strong.

Check out the rest of the NY Times profile here.

Fine writing in unexpected places

One idea my instructors at Johns Hopkins hammer home is the notion that to be a great writer, you need to “read like a writer.” More and more, I see what they mean. I read newspapers and magazines differently these days, dissecting paragraphs and words as I go, noticing small bits of writing technique and style that work well.

Ty LawsonThis short Sports Illustrated article on the national champion North Carolina Tar Heels is a good example. I printed it out to read after my Tar Heels won the title, and finally got the chance to read it today. Unlike many articles written about the championship game, this piece by Tim Layden looks beyond the score and tells the story of North Carolina’s season and the different challenges faced by some of its key players. Layden crafts some deft bits of writing in this piece, like this:

On the afternoon of the championship game, Lawson was so nervous that he could barely touch his pregame meal of chicken, steak, rice and potatoes. But hours later he went out and devoured Michigan State with a game-high 21 points, eight steals and six assists, with just one turnover

It works well not only because it is witty, but because Layden did his homework to be able to describe, with detail, the meal Lawson couldn’t eat, and contrast it with his stats from the game. Structurally, he builds two lists of four items and runs them parallel to each other.

Layden also does a nice job blending direct observation and reporting with analysis. He shows scenes that lead the reader back to the outcome of the game:

By 11 the next morning Williams and his assistants were huddled in a private room at the team’s hotel, studying video. They cued up Michigan State’s emotional upset of Connecticut, breaking down the Spartans. They did this, as always, with the sound off. A day later they would silence the Spartans more forcefully.

It’s a small thing, but connecting the observation that the UNC coaches studied the game film of the Spartans with the sound down with the way the team silenced the crowd and their opponent the following night is clever. Layden didn’t just report the game like countless other sports writers; he told the story with narrative and metaphor. Just because an article is a sports story doesn’t mean it can’t be good writing. Layden proves that in this piece.

Read the rest here.

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