The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch on “The Year’s Best Sports Writing”

From a story on The Poynter Report with Tom Jones headlined “The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch on ‘The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023′”:

Starting in 1991, a staple in the home libraries of sports journalists and sports fans has been “The Best American Sports Writing.” The book series is a collection of the couple of dozen or so best sports stories of the year.

It was edited for two decades by series founder Glenn Stout along with a new guest editor each year. The guest editors included legends in sports journalism, such as David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, George Plimpton, Dick Schaap and Sally Jenkins.

But, in 2020, the series morphed into “The Year’s Best Sports Writing.”

Now Triumph Books is out this week with the “The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2023.” It was edited by Richard Deitsch, the well-respected media writer for The Athletic and former staffer at Sports Illustrated. This year’s collection includes work from The New Yorker’s David Remnick, The Washington Post’s Jerry Brewer and the late Grant Wahl.

It also includes work not only from traditional sports outlets such as ESPN and The Athletic, but also from places such as The Atavist and Texas Monthly.

I exchanged emails with Deitsch this week about his work on this year’s best sports writing book.

Tom Jones: Coming up with the best stories of the year for any topic just seems overwhelming. Can you take us a little behind the process of how you were able to put this collection together?

Richard Deitsch: It is overwhelming. But let’s also be realistic: I was being paid to read great writing and reporting. That’s a pretty sweet gig.

The most important thing that I did was to panel an advisory board that could protect me from any reading blind spots. I wanted a group of contributors who looked different from me, thought differently than I did. Each of their lists of story picks was distinctive, which was immensely helpful. I asked them to send me the 25-30 most impactful sports journalism pieces they read that year.

The group, with more than a century of sports journalism experience among them, consisted of J.A. Adande, Paola Boivin, Gregory Lee Jr., Jane McManus, Iliana Limón Romero and Shalise Manza Young. Glenn Stout, the longtime steward of this project, was an invaluable resource in answering the many questions I had.

The process is as you might expect. You read everything you possibly can including author submissions. You stay current on people who are consistently doing great work. And you pray you did not miss something. It’s months of reading and making lists.

Jones: There is so much incredible work out there. What were you looking for? What separated these stories from the rest? What makes these the best of the best?

Deitsch: The nightmare is the actual selection process. There was extraordinary work done in 2022, and culling it into a final group proved excruciating. The entries in the Honorable Mention section could easily form multiple main collections.

I read the essays of previous guest editors and found their rationales for selecting entries to be remarkable and thorough. Mine was more elementary: Which pieces stayed with me days after I let them go? Which pieces reflected who we were in sports in 2022? Which pieces demanded I read them again and again? I don’t look at any pieces as best. It’s all subjective.

Jones: Past “Best Sports Writing” books often were filled with flowery, long-form features from the usual long-form outlets, especially magazines. As a former sports writer myself, I respected those stories, but I also look for the backbone of sports writing — deadline or quick turnaround newspaper stories or deep investigative pieces. This book includes such stories. How important was it for you to include some of those kinds of stories in this collection?

Deitsch: It was important to me to get a mix of stories and particularly some pieces that were written on a quick turnaround deadline. I think the book can naturally favor long-form so I wanted some investigative journalism as well as some pieces we might think of as a game story.

Jones: Is there one story that is a personal favorite of yours?

Deitsch: I don’t have a favorite but something that was very important to me was to honor the work of the late Grant Wahl and another gifted writer who was cruelly taken away from us in 2022, Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer.

Jones: Finally, what was this project like for you personally — what did you learn? Were you surprised by anything?

Deitsch: I had self-doubt accepting the assignment because previous iterations of this collection have featured writers of thunderous prose and relentless reporting drive. I am glad I overcame that.

The project confirmed what I already knew — there is so much brilliant writing and reporting in the space. What I fear, as I know you write about often, is that such talented people will move to other professions because the media ecosystem will not provide them with the income they need to do this work. But we’ve never lived in an age with more great sports writing talent.

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