It’s time to take back the Take

It’s amusing to me — and anyone in sports media, really — that there was a meta-brouhaha yesterday in news/media circles over the concept of “takes.”

It started with a fabulous post on The Awl by the always-trenchant John Herrman and spread from there, then even further.

As with most things in news or media innovation (particularly digitally), sports has been the ultimate incubator for takes — in volume, velocity and vociferousness. We even have a nickname for them:

Hot Sports Takes” (affectionately known as #HotSportsTakes on Twitter and marvelously sent-up by Grantland’s Andrew Sharp).

#HotSportsTakes have been around for years — generations, frankly. They represent low-hanging opinion, possibly lazy logic and knee-jerk banalities, typically scolding or overly moralizing — take your pick!

Takes can be text, but they can also be seen on TV and heard on radio. But the Takes in question are largely written — somewhere between 200 and 500 words, delivered relatively rapidly after news breaks and ubiquitously available.

Hot Takes are rampant for a few reasons:

(1) They are easy — and many columnists and bloggers are, at worst, lazy and/or trolls but…

(2) There is a never-ending need — …at best, journalists and outlets are under very real competitive pressure to keep up.

(3) They are extremely effective — they satisfy immediate interest and trigger reactions; the audience enjoys them.

The irony of yesterday’s criticism is that, when done right, Takes are awesome. Takes are arguably the ideal form of daily journalism today — timely, trenchant and formatted to be consumed easily on our phones.

Can we aspire for better Takes? Certainly!

But here’s the conundrum: Writing short-form opinion or analysis that doesn’t fall into the #HST trap is hard. Really hard.

(Let’s go sotto voce for this part: Arguably more challenging than longform, if you account for the pressures to deliver quickly, repeatedly AND brilliantly.)

Some folks are doing really good Takes — punchy, smart, fast. The best in sports at smart takes — and therefore potentially the best in all of news at takes — is Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky. He consistently goes sub-500 words in a smart way on the pressing news of the moment better than anyone in journalism.

Quartz produces great takes. The Atlantic’s Wire made its name on them. Vox and SB Nation typically work in — and excel in — take-driven content (SB Nation is particularly good at quality video takes, no easy feat). The Wall Street Journal’s sports section excels at unexpected and brief analytic Takes. As a rollicking default, ESPN’s “PTI” is great take after great take after great take. My favorite recurring take? The Awl’s own Tom Scocca, writing 200 words on today’s weather.

The thread between the good ones: Takes as a native, intended form — brief, yes. Reactive, yes. But making even just a single clear point. That’s enough.

If you look at the larger post-apocalyptic take landscape illuminated by Herrman, that’s more than enough to stand out, to elevate the form and to give your audience a better experience.

The legacy of the traditional 800-word column (sports or otherwise), combined with what we know can be communicated succinctly yet smartly in the moment on Twitter, has proven that far too many “hot take” columns are a few tweets worth of insight plus 500–700 extra words to justify a journalist’s value as dictated by the anachronistic currency of “news holes.”

Instead, what if the mandate was this: Write up 200 words of good analysis — yes, even punditry — for your native outlet. Deliver your money line on Twitter, as always, but linked to 185 other words that make a cogent point. (“200” is arbitrary — find the balance between what you need to make your point and respect for your audience’s attention.)

Treat the “take” like the essential journalistic form that it is — train specialists, empower editors, tap an available revenue model and, more than anything, recognize it is an ideal mobile journalism format. (Self-promotional disclosure: We’re experimenting with that right now at USA TODAY Sports, where I work.)

It’s depressing that a conceit as necessary and vibrant with potential as the “Take” has been co-opted by blowhards and cynics.

It’s time to take back the Take.

Or, dare I say: #TakeBackTheTake.

This was republished from “Faves,” a daily-ish email newsletter of my tentative obsessions, distractions and clarifications. Sign up to receive it via TinyLetter.