Vince Doria: Panel on careers in sports

Vince Doria, the former ESPN executive and 29-time Emmy Award winner wrote a letter, given below, in reference to The Ohio State University Sports and Society Initiative panel on careers in sports, October 28, 2016.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you today because of a prior commitment. The Sports and Society Initiative is both an ambitious and valuable effort to examine the connection between sports, our society, economy and culture, and I’m gratified to be a part of it.

I know we have a number of students from the School of Journalism in the audience, and I’m encouraged that so many of you are considering this career path, particularly given the shifting landscape, and the decline of the newspaper industry.

I graduated from Ohio State with a degree in journalism, and worked as a print journalist for 25 years at newspapers, including The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer; and then for 23 years in television at ESPN.

Over that time, I saw an amazing evolution in the journalism industry. In the early ‘70s, the portals of news and information were essentially controlled by large newspaper industries, with an ordered process of presenting that information on a daily basis, in a timely, scheduled manner. Newspapers were expensive to produce, and the product landed on your doorstep not when the news happened, but when the newspapers’ production process dictated that arrival. And people were reasonably satisfied with that.

Radio and television were certainly in the mix, with the ability to bring breaking news to listeners and viewers with greater immediacy. But with a few exceptions, those platforms devoted a small portion of their daily product to news and information, relied heavily on newspapers to do much of their reporting, and could not provide the depth that print journalists often produced.

That began to change with the arrival of cable television and talk radio, which recognized a market for 24-hour news, sports, and information. It recognized, too, the potential attraction of opinion and personality.

Television and radio executives knew that boots-on-the-ground reporting was both costly and time-consuming. Relying on breaking news, enterprise and investigative reporting, would make it difficult to produce a daily product that was fresh, particularly one that filled 24 hours a day.

But they could TALK about news and sports 24 hours a day. They could discuss and debate it, with different personalities, different takes ad infinitum. You didn’t necessarily have to produce original reporting, but you could certainly talk about the stories that were being reported. It was a reliable process, and, the biggest attraction, fairly cheap to produce. You paid the people to talk, they often filled several hours a day, your costs were controlled. Contrast that with a newspaper or television entity that might pay a reporter for several weeks, fly him around the country, spend thousands of dollars for an investigation that might ultimately prove to be a dry a hole, and at best provide several minutes or column inches of information over a day or two. Easy to see where the cost efficiency existed.

I was lucky enough, at ESPN, to work for a company that has tried to do both. If you consume the product on television, radio, or on line, you’ll note there is plenty of talk. But you’ll also note with programs like Outside The Lines, E:60, SportsCenter, ESPN The Magazine, much of and associated sites, there is a real attempt to produce timely, news-breaking and in-depth journalism.

Part of that is the commitment the company and the people who work there have made. But certainly part of it is the financial success of the company that has made that commitment viable.

The game-changer in recent years, of course, has been the growth of the Internet, and the explosion of social media. Suddenly, the large media companies no longer controlled the flow of information. Anyone with a laptop, an iPad or an iPhone could get into the information business.

There were advantages to this for the consumer: Many more eyes were seeking out that information, social media could be dedicated to an audience which had apparently expressed a desire for that information by joining the network, and information could be disseminated almost immediately, including both still photos and video, for virtually no cost. Everyone was a publisher or a video network.

There was, of course, some downside. Much of this information was not the product of the type of reporting and vetting that most news organizations had made standard: Establishing something as fact, connecting with sources that could provide reliable information, uncovering documentation that could support assertions, fact-checking, editing, and vetting the material through an editorial process that further insured it as factual.

Getting something first was always important in the business of journalism. But getting something right was always the first rule. That wasn’t necessarily embraced by the new wave of on-line and social media information suppliers. The overriding credo in some cases – not all – was a democratic approach. If we’ve heard something that may or may not be true, you, the consumer, has the right to hear it, too.

It’s an interesting concept, but one that flies in the face of the bedrock values of journalism, which, before anything else, attempts to assure that what they are putting out to the public is true. It doesn’t always happen that way, of course, plenty of mistakes can be made in trying to produce a timely product. But real journalism is going to strive mightily to produce truth.

And regardless of what evolves, how talk proliferates, and social media becomes an important journalistic tool, there will be a reliance on reporting and journalism to produce the most factual news and information upon which the talk shows and social media build the their presentations.

In talking with journalism students about their ultimate goals, a number of them have pointed to a popular show on ESPN, PTI with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. They admire the opinions, the wit, and the tone of the show. They believe they, too, have the sort approach that could make for good television. And maybe some of them do.

But as some of you may know, Tony and Mike spent over five decades between them at The Washington Post, in the early years, particularly, knocking on doors, chasing sources, picking up the phone, conducting interviews not with a camera but with a notebook. They came by their opinions, their perceptions, their interpretations the hard way.

And regardless of where you want to be as a journalist – television, radio, newspapers, on line, social media, columnist, blogger, talk show host – learn to be a good reporter. Find a place where you can put in the time learning and practicing the basics of the craft. You may well produce some great work in the process – work that will provide fodder for talk shows and social media – and, ultimately, wherever you get to in the information profession, you’ll be better at your job.