Baffoe: Recent Online Sports Media Changes Are Troubling

By Tim Baffoe–

(CBS) Do you know what imposter syndrome is?

If you’ve accomplished anything worthwhile, you’ve at least experienced it without maybe knowing it was an actual thing. (If you’re a useless phony, this doesn’t apply.) Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first described it in 1978 as, “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, (people) who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” and that those people constantly fear exposure of their self-perceived phoniness.

That’s me, most of the times I write a piece here, most of the times I do a radio, TV or podcast appearance. That’s me most of the times I have to speak in a faculty meeting or at some teacher seminar.

“This is it,” I think. “I’m going to write or say something so dumb in its basic-ness that people will cease to respect my acumen and figure out I drank my way through college while being just good enough to BS my way to a degree. Someone’s going to ask me about some sports blind spot of mine or about some canonical novel I haven’t read, and I’ll be exposed as inferior.”

So, yeah, I suck. But my imposter syndrome creeps up even louder when people I’m absolutely sure are better at this writing thing than I are told by their employers that they have become expendable. In April, it was ESPN’s latest periodical round of cuts that had begun in late 2015 with the dissolution of the great Grantland and gutting of many of ESPN’s writers at online hyperlocal affiliates. Then Sports Illustrated laid off some writers and editors at the same time it was hammering out plans to increase video content on its website, part of some 300 people losing jobs under the Time Inc. umbrella.

Days later, it was Yahoo Sports getting rid of writers and editors  over the course of May through June, along with eventually 2,100 people there and at Huffington Post as they were acquired by Verizon. Then it was Vocativ losing its entire editorial staff in a shift to video content on the site. On Monday, Fox Sports announced it had eliminated its entire digital writing staff in favor of 100 percent video content on its site.

Plenty of better writers and thinkers keep finding themselves out of work, which worries me, as eventually the rock I hide under has to be turned over. But I’m also bothered intellectually by a theme in these sports media layoffs.

More and more, there seems to be a shift away from good writing and toward snippety pieces or just outright video. I then forget my insecurities and become insulted that so many sports sites or their parent companies are increasingly choosing to invest in the junk food equivalent of media. Video content is hardly my bang. I’m a reader, and I want to be challenged by great writing, including sports.

If an online article has a video at the top like this one probably does, I mute it. Video has a place, and some of it is done really well — see the stuff SB Nation does, for example. But it’s supplementary for me or, again, “junk food” — fun in small doses, but it should never dominate one’s diet. And I’m not alone, as Reuters Institute recently published its annual report on digital news.

Per NiemanLab: “One of the more surprising findings from last year’s report was that most people really don’t like getting news from online video. This is still the case.”

screen shot 2017 06 21 at 11 07 19 am Baffoe: Recent Online Sports Media Changes Are Troubling

(Image via Reuters Institute)

Is this shift toward video a product of America getting exponentially dumber in this brave new world of extreme willful ignorance involving yelling about ESPN’s (hardly) political agenda, undermining media across all genres and wet farting #FAKENEWS at any piece of information that’s displeasing to morons? I want to think so, because it’s an easy — albeit, depressing — answer that at least validates the dystopian novelists that I teach.

The embarrassing and grossly misinformed protests of the New York Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by people who kept exposing themselves as too lazy and stupid to actually read things of any worth were emblematic of how we as whole devalue reading and critical thinking. But data above doesn’t necessarily suggest that’s why we’re heading this direction of talkers and visuals doing the heavy lifting instead of writers.

What I know is that a place like Fox Sports values its screaming fever swamps of Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock and Skip Bayless — whose regressive television shows will now be the predominant content of the website. I know Vocativ ditched really good sports journalism for whatever it is I’ll never return to its site for. I know my online consumption of the ESPN brand is increasingly less because too many of its great online writers are no more.

Via the New York Post last month, NFL bigfoot Ed Werder talked about his layoff at ESPN in relation to sacrificing quality.

“Here’s why I was concerned: Our good friend Mort (Chris Mortensen), who was a good friend, after the season had told me that his understanding was these cuts were going to be made and the quality of work was not going to be a consideration,” Werder said on the Doomsday Podcast, a Cowboys news program that he co-hosts. “It seemed to me that quality work should be the only consideration. If it’s not any part of the consideration, then I kind of find myself a little vulnerable under that criteria.”

And that’s way worse than me thinking I’m not good enough. If we don’t value intelligent and creative people producing great writing, sports and otherwise, what are we as a society?

Ron Jaworski, another ESPN victim, also spoke on the Doomsday Podcast.

“People want more,” he said. “They don’t want a bunch of people on TV screaming at each other, ‘You’re right’ and ‘You’re wrong.’ They want intellectual conversation, and they want to see why teams win and why teams lose. And the tape shows that, and networks and producers don’t use enough of that.”

Hell yeah, Jaws, now you’re speaking my language. Problem is that he and I aren’t the dominant audience. Andrew Bucholtz notes at Awful Announcing regarding “embrace debate”-style shows:

That doesn’t mean they should be constantly promoted or that every network decision to emphasize them is correct (there’s a good argument that ESPN moving First Take to the main network in place of SportsCenter has really hurt them overall), but the ‘people want news and analysis, not debate’ argument is just as flawed when Jaworski tries it as when Jeff Pearlman blamed ESPN for keeping Stephen A. Smith and laying off others.

Yes, there are many who don’t want debate, but they’re not necessarily going to watch ESPN in those morning time slots regardless of what’s on. And enough people tune in to those debate shows to justify their existence (from a ratings perspective, at least). ‘People want more intellectual conversation’ is  a nice thought, but it’s not necessarily reflective of the reality of sports studio programming in this day and age.

Which is depressing. Maybe it’s some middle child whining by me as older sibling Print Newspaper has moved away and little sibling Online Video Media screams loudest for the attention and here I am stuck lonely with my inferiority complex. But maybe we all need to support more good writing. Subscribe to The Athletic. Frequent The Ringer and Deadspin and Baseball Prospectus’ main site and its local affiliates.

Just read, people. Not only will you lift up the collective (and hopefully keep good people employed), but you’ll also ease my worries of being exposed for the hack I probably am.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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