LI Archives: George Vecsey discusses a changing world at Hofstra

It has been over 47 years since Bob Dylan first told us that “the times they are a-changin’.” In January of 1964 when Dylan’s iconic song was first released, George Vecsey was already working at Newsday, four years into his career as journalist who covers sports. Now an elder statesmen who writes a sports column for the New York Times, in a recent visit to Hofstra to discuss sports and journalism, Vecsey echoed Dylan’s sentiment.

“When I started, we were typing on portable type writers” Vecsey pontificated in front of a small crowd in the conference and exhibition hall on the 10th floor of the Axinn Library. The top floor of the tallest building on campus seemed like an appropriate location for the lecture. Vecsey, a Hofstra alumnus class of 1960, has ascended to the apex of journalism, writing for one of the world’s best known and most respected papers.

Be careful not to refer to Vecsey as a sports writer though, which is a term that he admittedly eschews. Through his career he has displayed the ability to cover nearly any topic, from the Pope to Moses Malone. His ability to place sports in the context of the broader society is one of his best qualities as a writer.

While his outlook on what has past, as documented in his books and columns, has been splendid, his outlook for the future was not quite so optimistic. “I’m not a tweeter, not a blogger” was a popular refrain throughout the afternoon.

Vecsey suggested that his colleagues and himself prefer to distance themselves from “the underwear guys,” or news writers that can work from their living rooms rather than actually getting out and covering an event. Pounding the pavement and getting snubbed by egotistical athletes seemed to be a rite of passage for Vecsey: “I’m 71 and I’m still going into clubhouses.”

In addition to lack of actual reporting, Vecsey has other qualms with bloggers and Internet journalism. He warned of the danger of “the minute-by-minute, second-by-second desire to please” which is “eating up the gap [of time] between what we know and what we don’t know.”

He pointed to a recent incident where the New York Times mistakenly reported that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot by a gunman as proof of the danger of up-to-the-minute coverage.

In the apparent war between traditional newspaper journalists and “the underwear guys” Vecsey did not like the chances for his side lamenting that he “is sure they will prevail.”

A venerable journalist by all accounts, Vecsey’s advice when he learned his audience was an assembly of aspiring journalists was less than encouraging. He said the game changed for journalists when newspapers “decided to give away their material for free on the Internet.” Ever since then there has been a downward trend in available jobs. Vecsey reminisced that when he was breaking into the field, “If you could write a couple of sentences you’d get hired.”

It is not just that journalism is changing, but sports as well. When asked how he thought the relationship between modern day players and writers has changed, Vecsey said in days gone by “we were on the same economic level…we hung out together.”

He recounted how he used to play touch football at Kennedy park with some Mets players during the off-season, on days when they could not get work as substitute teachers. Something like that would never happen with modern players, who are nearly all millionaires that (often rightfully so) feel the need to put up a wall between themselves and the society that has turned them into celebrities. “I haven’t played touch football with A-Rod and [Derek] Jeter in quite a while,” Vecsey joked.

Despite his fond memories of the past, give Vecsey credit for admitting that not all change is bad. He has noted that the quality of online journalism has improved greatly over the past few years.

When an audience member eloquently pointed out that some fan blogs are insightful, carefully crafted, and feature topics that newspaper writers simply can not cover, Vecsey replied, “I’m embarrassed…you’re absolutely right.” He then admitted that he did believe there is room for “thoughtful blogging” in addition to “thoughtful journalism.”

He pointed to his demanding schedule, as he is concurrently working for the Times and writing a book on Stan Musial, as the reason he has not had the time to fully embrace what the Internet has to offer.

Editor’s Note: Since this article was originally published in January 2011, George Vecsey has joined Twitter.