Monday, July 25, 2011

Jim Murray's Thoughts on the Future of Sports Journalism

Dallas Woodburn, a Murray Scholar,
at Jim Murray's typewriter.

This week, the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation will be in Missoula, Montana, for the inaugural Sportswriters' Classic Golf Tournament, which is scheduled for July 29. It is to benefit both the foundation and the University of Montana School of Journalism.
Raising money to fund journalism scholarships at 30 of the best journalism schools in the country is our goal. Next month we'll be announcing this year's class of "Murray Scholars."
If you would like to help, visit the JMMF website and make a donation. Help us make sure that Jim's vision of the future of sports journalism doesn't come true. 



A Peek at 1984

   They changed the phone system and numbers at The Los Angeles Times for the first time since the days of the crank telephone the other day. It's all in the name of automation, but you'll pardon all of us ink-stained wretches if it makes us a little nervous. I mean, today the phones, tomorrow the staff. 1984 is a little nearer. Big Brother is coming. If they automate the phones, when will they automate the stories? What will become of Hildy Johnson? Will Grantland Rice be made out of tin in the future? Damon Runyon a data bank? Richard Harding Davis just a lot of circuitry with a passport?
   A computer programmed to crank out sports stories is just a couple of transistors away. Of course, it will have to be programmed. First, if they listen to us, it will have to learn a few basics. Such as the questions:
   "What kind of a pitch did he hit?" Which must be asked of a pitcher who has just lost a World Series game in the bottom of the 12th, 1-0. The computer must be programmed to duck as it asks it. Otherwise, the paper is stuck with the biggest hunk of scrap metal this side of the stretch at Indy.
   The computer will have to learn to enter the dressing room of a fighter who has just been carried in with (1) a broken nose, (2) broken ribs, (3) black eyes, (4) dented Adam's apple which will make him sound like a ransom call the rest of his life, (5) hemorrhages on both arms, (6) blood trickling out of his ear, (7) teeth trickling out of his mouth. It will have to ask: "Did he hurt you at any time, Bat?" If the fellow is still conscious, or at least alive, teach your computer to lean down and ask, "Would you like to fight him again?"
   Your computer will have to learn to be resourceful. Look for the pithy quote even when you don't get it from the athlete. If a golfer shoots 80 and says, "I kept hitting it into sand traps," you quote him for the headline, 'Needed Camel, Not a Caddy' Says One-Putt Of His 80. The quote will make all the anthologies, and within a week, One-Putt will think he actually said it.
   When you go into the locker room with a guy who just went 0 for 5 and struck out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and he says, "Get outta here, you four-eyed hunk of tin before I take a can opener and make you look like a totaled Toyota!" you make a few subtle changes. Your headline: 'Feeling So Strong it Frightens Me,' Says Slugger, Despite 0 for 5.
   Your story quotes the guy, "Tomorrow we turn these guys into pumpkins. Hope he throws me that knuckler one more time. He'll be eating it for a week.”
   Stories without quotes will be even easier. Just keep a stock of standing headlines. "Rams Blow Super Bowl to Minnesota Again" is good any December. Even the story accompanying it will just need blanks to be filled in: "The Los Angeles Rams blew their chances for the Super Bowl again this year when the Minnesota Vikings defeated them because of (choose one) a blocked field goal, intercepted pass, rainstorm, sunshine, heavy overcast, superior coaching, or all six."
   And with baseball, remember that the fans like figures, and give them to them: "The Los Angeles Dodgers drew their 4 millionth fan, sold their 16 millionth hot dog, tapped their 5 millionth barrel of beer, sold their 3 millionth bobble-head doll and had their 2,709th straight overflowing parking lot yesterday. The message board saluted the 2 millionth septuagenarian couple from Nepal, welcomed the 150,000th Rotary club, and announced that next Saturday will be 'Mafia Night,' with everyone carrying a violin case or horse's head to be admitted free."
   Basketball will be no problem. Keep this standing story: The (leave blank name of franchise) today signed All-American center Tom (Treetop) Tarheeler, the all-time Atlantic Coast Conference scorer with 1,000 points a game, to a multiyear, no-cut contract believed to call for Thode Island, downtown Dallas, parts of Wilshire Boulevard and the mineral rights to the Gulf of Mexico.
   "The deal also includes his parole officer, the judge who validated the three previous contracts he put his 'X' on and the playground director who taught him not to bite people on court."
   Auto racing? Easy. Just remember death is a mar in auto racing. As in, "Leadfoot Lonergan won the 57th running of the Fireball 500 today in a race marred by the death of . . ." You just have to fill in the number of drivers and/or spectators.
   In bullfighting, remember death is not a mar, it's a must. If the bull doesn't die, well, he gets bad notices.
   Don't worry about statistics. Just feed your machine a daily diet of bubble-gum cards and it will know more sports trivia than a Boston cop.
   After a year or so on the beat, though, your machine will begin to act strange. It will keep its hat on in the office. It will begin to drink. It will begin to speak of the home team as "we." It will get sick of people asking, "What's wrong with the Rams?" It will start to complain about box lunches, the Ram offense, and the amount of space it gets for its story. Its mate may start to hope the home team doesn't make the playoffs so it can stay home for Christmas for a change.
   And then will come the day when it will start to write about a mark being set for right-handed, half-Portuguese, half-Italian third basemen, about the "Z-outs" run by the tight ends, and it will start storing up non-winning fractions in dual meets — and you'll know it's the beginning of the end.
   When it starts to write, "Outlined against a blue-grey October sky . . ." or "Give me a handy guy like Sande," then you'll know it's time to go to the graduating class of Princeton and wait for the first kid out of English Lit., and say, "Do you know who Ty Cobb was?" And if he says, "Who?" grab him. You'll know you have yourself the perfect computer for the year 2000.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.
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