A legendary sportswriter fears the decline of print journalism

Hal McCoy, sportswriter at the Dayton Daily News, looks back on his huge career as a journalist, 49 years of which he spent writing about baseball. He laments the current state of print journalism.

Standing atop the Detroit Free Press building in July 1967, Hal McCoy watched the city burn. A fight had broken out in a bar. During the intervention of the police, a riot encompassed the whole city. “You could see flames burning really high…I couldn’t get home for three days,” McCoy said.

McCoy, now an 81-year-old sportswriter with the Dayton Daily News, stands at the pinnacle of a huge journalism career, 49 years of which have been spent writing about baseball. He describes the Detroit riot as “terrifying,” applying similar language to the newspapers’ decline.

Shortly after the riot, an editor from the Dayton Daily News offered McCoy the opportunity to return to Ohio. He jumped at that chance and has been there ever since. Now he writes for the newspaper’s website and blogs on Facebook.

McCoy, who traveled with the Cincinnati Reds until 2010, survived a stroke in an optic nerve in 2002. Told that only 15% of people experience it in both eyes, he continued his career for a year.

“Then I became the fat 15%,” he said.

Sixty-two years old at the time, McCoy adapted to blindness entirely independently. He went to spring training with the Reds, although he couldn’t recognize the athletes visually. In a conversation with then-third baseman Aaron Boone, McCoy considered quitting.

“‘I don’t ever want to hear you say the word quit again,'” McCoy recalled telling Boone. “He transformed me that day.”

At his wife’s encouragement, McCoy wrote a blog post asking someone to be his driver, from home to the ballpark, and back. He received 435 offers and chose Ray Snedegar, a retired military airman.

“We have a lot of common interests. He’s like a brother to me,” McCoy said.

McCoy isn’t optimistic about the future of print journalism. In 2010, when the Dayton Daily News stopped traveling with the Reds, he became an editor for his newspaper’s website. The printing house had moved to another city, causing ever shorter delays. Subscribers to print media received news that was two days old. According to McCoy, this was a common occurrence.

“I fear for the end of newspapers, most of which are now owned by big corporations,” he said.

McCoy deduces that if newspapers are in decline, so is investigative journalism. McCoy, widely credited with breaking the investigation into Pete Rose’s gambling problems, thinks there is no equivalent. Radio announcers are, he says, under contract with the teams they advertise. Furthermore, he feels that radio and television are not interested in investigative journalism, “at least not like newspapers were”.

“Broadcasters only say nice things. Radio is not journalism,” he said.

McCoy believes in professionalism above all else. Rose, who had been friends with McCoy before the investigation, refused to speak to him for twenty years after McCoy’s stories broke.

“If you’re a professional, you have to take the high road. You have to do your job, even if it costs you a relationship,” McCoy said.

McCoy’s career and legacy have often come at the expense of his personal life. Married with three sons, McCoy has covered 7,000 baseball games and written more than 25,000 stories about baseball alone. This makes him a full-fledged Big Red Machine. As he reflects on the high divorce rate among baseball writers, he describes 12-hour workdays and long periods when he was away from his family. In particular, he dwells on the diplomas and marriages of his sons. “It was in times like these that I realized how much I had missed their childhood,” he said.
McCoy attributes the decline of print journalism to tougher regulations regarding media coverage. Baseball writers’ contact with players is now severely limited, to about 20 minutes before and after each game. Writers are not allowed to go beyond the dressing rooms.

“It was so much fun covering the ‘Big Red Machine,'” he said, referring to 1970s baseball champions. “All those guys were always at their lockers, always ready to talk to the media. Now they’ve gone the other way. Even though it’s in their contracts that they have to talk to the media, they don’t.

Moreover, the popularity of social media allows gamers to control their image more than in the past. In the eyes of athletes, this diminishes the importance of journalists. McCoy believes the blogosphere has dramatically reduced the quality of journalism. Athletes, already convinced that the press should be their cheerleader, can now play that role themselves, without any accountability to publishers.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, has also significantly reduced journalists’ ability to do in-depth reporting. Interactions between athletes and writers occur only on Zoom, are heavily supervised, and limit writers’ access to athletes chosen by teams. “You have to take what they feed you,” he said. “I understand they want it to stay that way.”

According to McCoy, there was once an unspoken agreement between reporters and athletes that anything off the field remained exhausted. That boundary no longer exists, in part because of the pervasive nature of social media. “It’s all fair game,” McCoy said.

Perhaps the most important factor is the mistrust between athletes and journalists. Athletes are increasingly wary of journalists. There is little understanding of the roles of journalists. This distrust contributes to a hostile environment, in which it is even more difficult to write about young athletes. “Guys you want to dig deep with, really find out what they’re talking about, they don’t want to talk to you,” McCoy said.

The increase in misconduct allegations and other similar stories reflects the culture of professional athletes. When writers traveled with teams in the past, they saw “the warts” that are less visible now. Since writers no longer travel with athletes, they must now devote more time to uncovering deeper issues. Despite this, toxicity prevails. “Too often, athletes benefit from doubt, simply because of who they are. It makes journalists more important than ever,” McCoy said.

For McCoy, the future of sports journalism does not look bright. Due to the lack of personal interaction with the teams they have covered, sports journalists are increasingly uninformed. The immediacy of social media constantly makes breaking news a necessity, but journalists can no longer do their job as efficiently as before. “That’s my biggest concern with journalism going forward. What’s it gonna be? I don’t know,” McCoy said.

The future of journalism is, according to McCoy, uncertain. The same goes for his eye disease, for which there is no cure. Despite this, he will continue to write. Although his vision may deteriorate, McCoy says his blindness has had little impact overall. “Half the Reds don’t even know I’m blind. I’m not ashamed of it. I just want to be treated like a normal person,” he said.

When examining Hal McCoy’s legacy, disability is not often part of the conversation, even among McCoy’s colleagues. Mark Purdy, a 70-year-old journalist who worked with the Dayton Daily News’ rival Dayton Journal Herald, admires McCoy’s attention to fine detail. Purdy said: “This guy approaches rhythm on a different level than others. … He’s the model of how a good baseball writer should cover beat.

Purdy admires McCoy’s rare insight. While touring Rose’s home, Purdy described the unusual number of televisions – one in almost every room. “He was so proud of his house, showing everything. It should have been obvious. What do you think they were used for? The game, of course, but I didn’t understand that at the time. I don’t know if Hal saw Pete’s house, but he would have figured it out immediately,” Purdy said.

Asked specifically about McCoy’s outlook and the role his condition has played in the perception his fellow reporters have of him, Purdy was quite dismissive. “Blindness wasn’t even an issue,” Purdy said. “We all looked up to him, but it wasn’t out of pity. I remember wondering if I would have continued if it was me.

Now Hal McCoy — writer, husband, father — is known among readers for his “man cave” articles and Facebook blog. His insight is unparalleled. He has advice for up-and-coming journalists: “Don’t get into print.