Sully sports wide views on the future of journalism

Mar 18, 2020

Before the spread of COVID-19, when the country was still consuming sports at its typical, voracious rate, some of the area's best-known sportswriters visited WBFO for long conversations about the future of sports journalism. Different perspectives were shared, but each individual offered keen insights into how journalism is being devalued. "Sports is sports," said Jerry Sullivan, former senior sports columnist at the Buffalo News. "It worries me more in the real realm, in the news world, the way news is being consumed."   

Former Buffalo News senior sports columnist Jerry Sullivan sat down for a long interview with WBFO. He recently began writing for Channel Four's website.
Credit Jay Moran/WBFO

"Someone is out there selling to you at all times," a reality he believes is changing how news is presented.

"Capitalism continues to perfect how to sell specific things to people."

Departing the Buffalo News after 29 years, Sullivan hosted a radio show until recently. At the time of our interview he was on the verge of joining WIVB-TV to write for their website and has since joined the Channel Four team. He seemed more than ready for the move.

"There was a time when I left sportswriting. I wanted to be a news columnist like a Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko," Sullivan recalled.

"But, in this job I might to get write some news. At this point in a career to be able to do that is exciting."

The new job began on March 3rd.

"Here we're talking about the decline in journalism and here's a TV station that's saying we do still value that. We want writing on our website."

Some of the conversation drifted into the world of sports, including a shared passion for the NBA.  A discussion broke out over the cheating troubles of Major League Baseball. While some are writing off the sport, Sullivan won't because of the game's statistics, their "math construct" and admits to being "too much of geek" when it comes to baseball's numbers.

He shared recollections of stories from some of the smallest places in the region. Meeting in Hinsdale with a former player and a coach from the tiny school's greatest football team as they fought to save the sport from being eliminated at the school. Or in Ellicottville, where he sat with members of the girls soccer team after the death of a teammate.
 

Among his favorite assignments was covering the Olympics which "really lent itself, I thought, to some of my better writing." He recalls being one of only two reporters present when Fredonia's Jenn Suhr won the gold medal in the pole vault. He was there when Western New York native Matt Anderson battled in the Olympics with the USA Men's Volleyball Team.

His departure from the Buffalo News after nearly three decades remains a point of contention.

"I have to make that clear because people say you retired, they fired you. No. I took the buyout because they took my column away. That was your decision."

Management "miscalculated" and "mishandled"  his exit.  He admits if had stayed "it wasn't going to save the future of the Buffalo News."

The diminished stature of the newspaper as an institution is worrisome.

"I'm going to come across like the old guy now, how things were so great in the old days, but I think some younger people don't get the traditional role of newspapers," Sullivan said. 

"They're looking for a newspaper to cheer lead for their team. They don't understand the role of the critical newspaper man and columnist." Columnists, Sullivan pointed out, are disappearing from most cities, not just in Buffalo.

The internet, social media and the market savvy of professional sports organizations have given consumers more options. The result has been dwindling newspaper circulation. In some cities, newspapers have closed. 

Despite the shifts in the industry, Sullivan would consider the field if he had a chance to choose again (the other option would be teaching). Whether it's newsprint or in digital form, the challenge of the craft remains the same.

"I'll have to say I've always been humbled in the face of writing," Sullivan said.

"Writing is hard. Everyone knows it."