By Murray Chass

August 26, 2009

This is a column about a column. Put another way, this is a eulogy for a column that is dying after 82 years. It is the Sports of the Times column of The New York Times. The Times seems intent on killing the column before the newspaper itself dies. It’s like parents, knowing they are going to die, killing their children because they won’t be able to live on without them.

The problem with this warped thinking in the case of the newspaper is the demise of the column and the thinking behind the act will help hasten the newspaper’s demise.

The New York Observer signaled the Times’ misbegotten plan in an article last week. The Times has said nothing about such a plan, but then the sports department of the Times rarely informs readers of developments with its section.

John Koblin of the Observer reported that a Sports of the Times columnist, Harvey Araton, had left the sports department and moved to a new features department, and “a once proud species ambled closer to extinction.”

The species had reason to be proud. It has produced three Pulitzer Prize winners – Arthur Daley, Red Smith (below) and Dave Anderson – and was considered a jewel of the Times. Newspapers are changing in the age of the Internet, but why would the Times want to hasten its demise by eliminating a staple that attracts readers and prompts them to buy the paper? You don’t see the Times killing off Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd.

Two years ago, the Observer noted, the Times had five sports columnists. “Six,” Araton corrected in a telephone interview, amending the number. “I always looked at it as six until Dave Anderson retired to emeritus status, Selena Roberts left and you left.”

For those who don’t know, I should acknowledge here that from January 2004 through May 2008 I was a baseball columnist for the Times, not a Sports of the Times columnist, which I never wanted to be, but Araton included me in his count because, he said, “You wrote more than any of us. Football technically may be the No. 1 sport, but baseball is the No. 1 writing sport.”

However the baseball columnist is counted, when Anderson retired after writing columns for 36 years (he writes 18 columns a year on a contract basis), Roberts went to Sports Illustrated and I accepted a buyout from the Times, three columnists remained – Araton, George Vecsey and Bill Rhoden. Now Araton reluctantly is out of sports, and Vecsey told the Observer that at age 70, “he’s about ready to retire.”

Which is why, at least for now, he is still writing sports columns and not working from a desk in the features or fashions department. But none of his departed colleagues have been replaced and none apparently will be.

“There will be no replacements,” the Observer reported.

The general sports columnist “is part of a bygone era,” the Observer quoted the Times sports editor, Tom Jolly, as saying. Jolly is big on using bygone eras as an excuse for his highly questionable changes.

“The Sports of the Times is a great brand, and I hate to see that brand disappear, but it clearly is changing,” Jolly told the Observer. But the change is only in Jolly’s mind.

His comment about columns being part of a bygone era was familiar to me because I had heard it before. Jolly tried that approach with me when he told me in March 2008 (along with the news that my assignment would be changing) that the Sunday baseball notebook I had written for 23 ½ years was being eliminated.

He explained in an e-mail that “it no longer makes sense to run a weekly notebook. the notebook concept was born at a time when the sunday paper was the place to catch people up on what was going on around the nation, especially on news and events people may have missed. but at a time when the paper is shrinking – literally – and the internet is growing, a weekly notebook has become an anachronism.”

Jolly (at right), however, did not know what he was talking about. He was not present when I began writing the notebook in August 1984 and had no idea why it began. The Olympics were on at the time, and the sports editor, Joe Vecchione, wanted something besides the Olympics in the Sunday paper and asked me to write a baseball notebook. It had nothing to do with readers catching up with anything. It never has in 25 years.

Jolly also said readers didn’t want to read 1,400-word notebooks anymore. But as soon as I left the Times, he replaced the live, original notebook with 1,400 used words that were regurgitated from Web site blogs. As for no one wanting to read the notebook, readers of this Web site have proved differently.

According to the Observer, Jolly’s idea to replace the Sports of the Times columns runs along similar lines.

The Times sports section will have fewer general sports writers writing columns, the Observer said, and instead will have beat writers “provide expertise.” And this: “He wants them to blog, he wants them to use Twitter and he wants them to write analysis pieces.”

One of those analysis pieces on the Yankees gave the Yankees beat writer, Tyler Kepner, license to use the word “I.” To see the word “I” in any kind of piece written by a reporter is about as shocking a development as a reader can read in the Times. Suddenly Times reporters are writing in the first person. The next thing you know Times beat writers will be cheering in the press box.

Jolly, the Observer said, has based his thinking on blogs, talk radio and cable programs, saying “there does seem to be a pretty good craving for expert analysis – the real insight of someone who is there.”

Is he saying that because the Sports of the Times columnists are not “there,” where beat writers are, that they can’t provide analysis? On the contrary, they are in a more advantageous position because they are not buried in the trenches and can see matters more objectively.

A good columnist does his homework. When Anderson (at left) was a columnist and I covered the Yankees, he would always talk to me before writing a column about the Yankees. If he needed to know something, I would fill him in.

The Times would be better off and their readers better served if the beat writers worked harder at developing news stories that other papers don’t have. The Times’ beat writers seldom, if ever, seem to unearth exclusive news, which newspapers strive for. The exclusives are usually found in the Daily News or the Post.

But Jolly, working for a newspaper desperately trying to stay alive, has heavily bought into gimmicks and is abandoning sound newspaper practices.

“Tom was the Sunday editor for maybe three years in the 90s,” said a person who worked for the Times in the ‘90s. “I never thought of him as a journalist.”

Araton said that Jolly has “made it clear that he would like writers of specific sports to write analysis pieces,” adding, “I think that would be a mistake to do away with general sports columns entirely. You need the wall between reporting and opinion. It’s clearly a quandary for reporters who have to maintain a relationship with the people they cover.”

Araton (at right), a Times columnist for 14 years, said Jolly approached him in May about a change in assignments.

“It was put to me that given the fluid nature of the industry and the newspaper that there were some opportunities and Tom asked me if I would consider doing anything different at the paper,” Araton related. “Initially I was taken aback, but when I met with one of the managing editors, they explained to me what it was. I wasn’t envisioning leaving sports at that point, but in the last couple years I did consider leaving sports. It was presented to me as a six-month posting and I thought it might actually be interesting.”

Araton, 57, said he didn’t know what would happen after his six-month stay with the feature group, either for him or for the columnists generally. “Tom has said however many times there are clearly going to be fewer than before,” Araton said.

The Times is not the only New York newspaper shedding columnists. Earlier this year Newsday, the Long Island paper, lopped off Johnette Howard and Shaun Powell.

The Times could have more sports changes coming. An employee in the sports department said there are rumblings that the newspaper in the future will not cover all of the Mets and Yankees games. That indeed would be a shocking and sad development.



Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.