Sunday Pairing: Blurring the Line between Golf Bloggers and Traditional Writers

Henry Grantland Rice is most likely the greatest sportswriter of all time. Referred to by his penname, Grantland Rice was best known for his ability to describe a moment in American sport in prose as elegant as the suits he wore while working. His commentary on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s “Four Horseman” is legendary, surpassed only by his work with Major League Baseball and professional golf. Rice sought to make heroes out of names like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bobby Jones and Babe Zaharias while simultaneously writing poetry that many believed could rival the likes of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.

In 2011, Grantland.com was established by Bill Simmons as a tribute to Rice. Since then it has grown into a journalistic melting pot of quick, blog-style posts seamlessly complimenting long form monthly features. It is the epitome of how far sports journalism has come from the days of pen, paper and typewriters.

For sportswriters of today, particularly golf writers, the avenues by which information is shared to readers are numerous. Just as Rice’s words were most often found in a newspaper or heard on national radio, today’s journalists work with a toolbox that includes an internet connection, a portable laptop and usually a Twitter handle. Readers now have more options by which to get their news, usually at instantaneous speeds at any hour of the day.

One specific genre of news reporting – blogs – has grown exponentially over the past decade. For a profession that was once reserved for “traditional” columnists with journalism degrees and years of paying their dues on the sports beat, a new breed of young, opinionated, fast-paced writers have entered the sporting news arena by way of the web log.

Over the years, the line between golf bloggers and traditional golf writers has become blurred. What was once a relationship that carried an “Us vs. Them” stench has slowly matured into a type of journalistic cohabitation.

“In the beginning, it was anyone with a laptop, a TV, a couch and an opinion,” says Robert Lusetich, Senior Golf Writer for FOXSports.com. “There was no appreciable journalism training. Now we're starting to see bloggers who were old-school media and bloggers who have come to appreciate that there are rules and conventions in the media game.”

Playing this game within the media realm is somewhat of an art form, especially for any up-and-coming golf blogger looking to make a name for his or her self. Bloggers tend to look for a place to “fit in” among the throngs of well-established, heavily circulated sports publications. Many times, the task of finding one’s niche among the saturation is left up to the blogger to solve.

“It's up to the blogger to decide where they fit in,” Lusetich continues. “Some will get out to events and report; some will want to offer their opinions on the game. There's room for all at the table.”

It appears that one unofficial standard by which golf writers are measured – if nowhere else but among their own professional circle – is the concept of “breaking news”. For many blogs, aggregating trending topics and offering commentary on stories already written by traditional columnists is the norm. After all, many bloggers lack the resources or the opportunity to cover golf tournaments on the same level as other writers. This is often a source of tension between the two writer sects.

“Blogging is a pretty all-encompassing endeavor,” says Kyle Porter, golf blogger for CBS Sports. I don't think you can point at one specific thing and say ‘this is it.’ Do we report or break news that often? No, but it happens. I'll interview players or be at tournaments and get something nobody else has. That's not usually the day-to-day though.

“The thing I think every day when I sit down to post stuff is ‘be awesome, take news and make it entertaining.’ If news comes through the [Associated Press] that Rory McIlroy shot a 65 to lead the first round of a tournament in China, that's kind of boring, right? Does Joe Golf Fan care about that? How do I make that news more entertaining?”

Geoff Shackelford, contributor to Golf Digest and an immensely popular golf blogger in his own right, agrees.

“Sometimes there are news stories needing to be broken that traditional golf media outlets don't have much interest in. [A] good blog highlights things to read and see, and embellishes that content with some sort of personal touch.”

In a sense, then, while many golf blogs you’ll find on the web offer commentary on stories found on numerous pages, it is up to the author to put a personal spin on the story and make it their own. As Ryan Ballengee, editor of GolfNewsNet.com suggests, today’s readers tend to show more loyalty to an author than a publication.

“Any writer can have a following -- a brand in marketing parlance,” he stated. “As it relates to news, however, I think more consumers don't care as much about where they get it. So loyalty to a site is harder to establish than to a writer.”

“I do think people like reading people and not outlets,” Porter adds. “I think blogging is a little less writer-oriented. That is, I don't care who posted the first picture of Jason Dufner Dufnering. It's a little harder to build an audience when your job is to drive traffic like that, but you still have Twitter which is a place you can grow an audience and carry it with you wherever you write next.”

Still, the small group of golf bloggers struggle to find a sense of identity in an arena dominated by experienced, battle-tested traditional columnists. If readers follow their favorite writers across multiple publications or platforms, it is a safe bet that those writers maintain the largest loyal readership. Times are slowly changing, however, as more major networks are incorporating blog-style reporting to their repertoire.

“Golf blogs have been through a few different waves over the years, but they always seem to be changing,” Ballengee suggests. “For Yahoo and CBS Sports, they're the primary means of delivering their golf content. The major, traditionally print golf publications -- Golfweek, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine -- have created blogs as a hybrid approach of reporting on news as well as curating and aggregating content from elsewhere. I don't believe it's a matter of blogs being recognized on the same level as traditional outlets. At this point, we're all basically doing the same things.”

As Geoff Shackelford also points out, golf’s strong traditional heritage may be one reason why bloggers often struggle to find their place while seasoned journalists have chosen to adapt. “Golf is generally a few years behind every sport and I see lots of exciting voices popping up online now. Or in the case of someone like David Owen, a longtime voice in golf adapting to the internet.”

As far as being a major news source, however, blogs might have some catching up to do.

“It's hard to generalize. Some blogs are professional, others aren't,” Lusetich stated. “A source needs to be trusted before it can be thought of as a major source of news. Some blogs have yet to build that level of respect. Not to say it can't or won't happen. The way it happens, though, is by getting runs on the board [by] breaking stories that turn out to be accurate.”

Indeed, it is this suggestion that golf blogs need to break bigger stories more often to increase their credibility that drives many bloggers to hone their skills. Furthermore, it is most certainly in the collective interest of bloggers to pinpoint their focus as it relates to reporting news. Is the ultimate goal of a golf writer to write long form columns or to quickly regurgitate short news items faster than the next guy one mouse-click away?

“Mostly getting the short stuff out because that's what people want,” Shackelford suggests. “But definitely doing something more in-depth on occasion. The technology and platforms are there now to do something long form that is worthwhile and also visually stunning. There is just nothing like reading a great long magazine story which teaches you about something you either didn't know much about, or could not experience.”

At the end of the day and once all the news has broken, perhaps how golf bloggers and traditional golf writers can co-exist becomes less a matter of “who came first” and more a question of how both sides can collaborate in today’s new media age. As Robert Lusetich points out perfectly, it is this sense of collaboration that will ultimately provide the reader the best product possible.

“The bottom line is that Old Media is finished,” Lusetich states. “New Media - including bloggers - will find a way to survive, as journals and newsletters did after the printing press was invented. The key is discovering how to make money from the enterprise, as it needs to be a business.

“Now it's up to bloggers to find the money to make it work. It's still evolving, but I think it'll happen.”