Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Firing Highlights Changing Face Of NASCAR Media

SI.com's Tom Bowles became an unwitting posterboy for the changing face of the NASCAR media this week, after being terminated from his reporter's job for cheering in the press box following Trevor Bayne's recent win in the Daytona 500.

Bowles offered his take on the controversy on his Frontstretch.com website, writing, "Before I could control it, my hands were coming together... caught up with fans and media alike in a moment we could all appreciate – but one fans and media are told never, ever to experience together.

"That day marked my first and last claps working as a NASCAR reporter for SI.com."

Bowles' termination marks the most notable clash yet between the "old guard" of traditional, print-media focused NASCAR journalists and a new wave of writers spawned by an explosion of internet racing websites. A decade ago, the number of NASCAR reporters writing for anything other than paper-and-ink publications could be counted easily on the fingers of both hands. Today, the internet set far outnumbers traditional print reporters, as both newspapers and magazines slash payrolls -- or even close their doors altogether -- in the face of difficult economic times.

These days, unemployed former NASCAR print reporters are as common in the Charlotte, NC, area as unemployed former NASCAR crewmembers. Those who remain spend much of their time looking over their shoulder, anticipating the next round of layoffs. In some cases, that insecurity manifests itself in resentment toward the internet scribes.

Honestly, some of what passes for internet journalism is easy to look down upon. The online NASCAR media is an eclectic group that varies wildly in training, experience and (quite honestly) talent. There are many formally trained, extremely talented writers pounding keyboards for internet websites these days; breaking news, covering the sport and turning out insightful, timely commentary. There is also an overabundance of hacks who think a laptop and an attitude are all its takes to be a NASCAR journalist. Their blogs overflow with inaccuracy, typograhical error, caveman grammar and misspelling, and do little to endear their ilk to the more established Media Center veterans.

That makes for an uneasy truce between traditional media types -- many of whom now appear as frequently on Twitter as in their employers' papers -- and the sport's new breed of internet journalists.

The new breed is often not as versed in the unwritten rules of the NASCAR garage as their more-established colleagues would like them to be. They think nothing of crashing a one-on-one interview between driver and fellow reporter to ask a question that is totally off-topic. In the interest of obtaining a coveted scoop, they sometimes neglect to confirm the accuracy of their stories. And sometimes, they violate the sanctity of the working Press Box by openly cheering for a race winner.

Bowles argues convincingly that no reporters were fired for shedding a tear on the day Dale Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona. He contends that we all have bias in our minds and hearts, and that the only thing that truly matters is what ultimately appears on the printed page, or on the computer monitor.

Did SI.com use Tom Bowles to send a message about the value of proper media etiquette? Perhaps. Did they overreact by terminating a writer for a momentary lapse in judgement that was more than balanced by a lengthy resume of insightful and unbiased reportage on the sport? Maybe.

But Bowles' firing -- and the fervent debate about its appropriateness -- highlights the ongoing process of assimilation between traditional newspaper and magazine writers and the new, instant-gratification media that resides on the worldwide web.

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