|Mark Douglas Lowes. Inside the Sports Pages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 124 pp. $16.95 paper.
In ethnographic works from the past, entré into the subjects environment has often proved difficult. The sheer impenetrability of some subject groups have left us without the thick descriptions that participant-observers offered. Conversely, some subject groups are completely unconcerned with investigative study, but are ignored by academics who deem them unworthy. Mark Lowes submerses himself in one such neglected area: the profession of the sports print journalist. Lowes finds himself not simply tolerated, but welcomed without prejudice. The unpretentious and brutally honesty manner of the journalists and editors Lowes encounters is the foundation of the impressive book that Inside the Sport Pages becomes.
Lowes starts Chapter One with a concise theoretical examination of news creation (what he calls news work) as opposed to news reporting. He goes on to clearly state his central argument, that the sports reporting process allows major league sports more coverage than any other form of sport. Lowes engages a historical description of the rise of specialized audiences over the larger generalized audience in commercial appeal, and shows how this dynamic affected printed content in journals and periodicals in Canada in the late 1800s.
In subsequent chapters, Lowes describes in detail the working existence of reporters. No detail escapes Lowes analytical eye, from the physical geography of the newsroom to the frantic pace of data flows and the unceasing demands on reporters to create news about their subject area, or beat. Lowes discussion of the beat is superb, and his apparent sympathy for the pace at which information accrues does justice to the pressures placed on the reporters. The unceasing demands of the beat (one reporter covering one sport Dan Barnes of the Edmonton Journal covering the Edmonton Eskimos for example) is made clear by Lowes, as is the looming threat of the reserve army of under-employed freelance writers that motivate the reporters to create news about their subjects at the expense of events outside of professional sports.
Lowes book is a pioneering work that sets the standard for future studies in the area of sports print journalism. As such, there are a few questions that his theoretical framework begs. Throughout his book, Lowes idealizes the notion of media coverage for amateur sports in opposition to major league hegemony. I question why Lowes would hail media participation in amateur sport after having witnessed its role in major league professional sports. What does media coverage add to amateur sport? People enjoy reading their quotes in the morning edition, and the efforts of amateur athletes are well deserving of recognition, but would a prolonged commitment from newspapers have negative effects? I think of Johan Huizingas concerns when he wrote of the destructive properties that audiences have on youth sports. Sports organizations that crave media attention dont comprehend that coverage doesnt always glamorize its subject, and even the most unassailable of major league heroes (such as Mark McGwire) can find journalists snooping in their personal spaces. While there is great value in exposing sexual harassment, racism or other camouflaged evils in amateur sport, the probing eye of the media is not driven by a sense of social justice, but by craven self-interest in a competitive marketplace. On a more rudimentary level of criticism, it is unclear whether by amateur Lowes means sports like youth hockey and womens university rugby, or national-level Olympic sports such as rowing and figure skating.
Lowes' writing style in this well-structured exploration of previously unknown territoryis wonderfully clear. This book would be a marvelous addition to a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate classes in anthropology, communications, journalism and sociology. As a textbook, it embodies elements of the sociology of work, sport, language and culture studies. Mark Lowes is currently a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, which elevates my optimism for the next generation of scholars interested in the study of sport. The future seems to be in good minds.