Around a week or two ago someone (sorry, lost the link) asked what I thought was a very astute question concerning blogs and sports journalism. If blogs can reshape not just the coverage of politics but politics themselves, they asked, why should sports be any different? After about a month of Red Sox coverage from Spring Training, I feel confident in giving the following answer: they shouldn’t.
My interest in this question is almost strictly from the point of view of a fan, as I’ve never been all that fascinated on a personal level with the practice of sports journalism. My own dreams of being the next Peter Gammons died when I learned that I’d probably have to pay my dues covering local high school sports (career in technology? even though I don’t know the first thing about computers? sign me up).
The point is not even particularly debatable at this point, as far as I’m concerned: blogs, and other interactive technologies, are fundamentally altering the way fans follow – and interact – with their respective teams. Here are a couple of the most apparent changes I’ve seen thus far:
- The traditional beat writers have significantly more difficulty with a blogging “voice” than do their younger counterparts: contrast this versus this.
- The writers apparently have not heard of EV-DO or UMTS cards.
- The best coverage – and it’s not particularly close – I’ve read to date is not from either of the ‘major’ Boston dailies, the Globe or the Herald, but the Eagle Tribune’s Rob Bradford. Why? Perhaps because it’s an individual property rather than a group blog by a ‘team’ (using that in the loosest sense of the word) of writers, and thus he feels ownership.
- The Boston writers, who are well known for their ceaseless and unrelenting negativity, don’t seem to enjoy being called out on their hatchet job stories (see the reactions to this appalling Q&A with the agents for Manny Ramirez). Transparency’s a killer, fellas.
- The traditional writers seem to feel threatened by the often superior analysis available on team blogs such as the excellent USS Mariner. I think many of them could benefit from David’s advice.
- To their credit, the Boston Globe is doing an excellent (although the advertising is brutal) job of having actual video of interviews and so on available. See here. It’s amazing how hearing the actual context of interviews gives quotes a whole new context and dimension.
- Related to the above, athletes tired of having their quotes subverted to serve personal agendas are – and will increasingly – seek to message directly to the public, bypassing the media entirely. See here – great win for Matt and the WordPress team, incidentally.
- The traditional writers have an obvious dilemma in the blogs vs traditional columns and notes tension; if they publish something in a blog, they seem to fear, what’s the incentive to buy and read tomorrow’s paper? Witness the withheld Sheffield notes here.
- As Jon observes, there is essentially zero linking in the mainstream press; the Boston sports media is even worse here. Even the credits to blog based sources are made grudgingly.
- Also to their credit, the mainstream media outlets seem to have learned a little something about mashups; somehow, I sense the influence of Alan at work in projects like this one.
What does all of this mean? Well, obviously that it’s a tough time to be an old school sports beat writer. But just as obviously, it’s a great time to be a fan.
What would I do if I were put in charge of the Globe’s Sports department tomorrow?
- Drop “the story-centric worldview” and embrace the notion of “programming as journalism.” Follow the Washington Post’s lead here, and immediately hire someone like Adrian. If he can make Chicago crime statistics interesting, what do you think he could do with full and unfettered access to Red Sox statistics? My heart weeps that this hasn’t happened yet. The Globe’s fortunate that they already have Alan on board – they should turn him loose.
- Empower the individual writers. If you look at our own history here at RedMonk, our blogging activity took off precisely at the moment we split our eponymous blog up into individual properties. As I’ve said before, and the history of economics would seem to agree, it’s all about incentive – right now their incentive is little more than a byline. Create a little friendly competition on the staff for whose individual blog is most popular, and see what happens. Certainly seems to be working for the Eagle Tribune (ok, maybe it’s not that simple).
- Remind your reporters of their primary advantage over the average reader: access. In one of his mailbags from last season, Gordon Edes lamented the presumed demise of ‘gamers’ – pieces that summarize the action of a particular ballgame – saying “There is a school of thought out there that people don’t read gamers anymore.” Well, I don’t. As a fan, I don’t need Edes to recap a ballgame for me that I either a.) saw in person, b.) saw on TV, c.) saw on ESPN, or d.) read the boxscore for. It’s a waste of effort, except on special occasions like we saw in October of 2004. The effort that’s currently invested in gamers could be much better invested elsewhere, as in interviews such as this one. That tells me much that I didn’t know before and couldn’t find out, because I lack access. A gamer is just a rehash of something I already know.
- Seek reporters with balance. No one’s asking to reporters to give the players a free pass, as was the case in Mantle and Williams’ day. Those days have, for better or for worse, come and gone. But many among the Boston media seem to exist purely for the barb; they seem to revel in the opportunity to take the players down a peg. Most every fan I know is tired of it. If I headed the Globe, my first phone call of the day would be to fire Dan Shaugnessy, and my second would be to try and poach the Providence Journal Bulletin’s Sean McAdam. The former is so negative these days he’s more or less a caricature of himself, while the latter is what I would call fair and balanced if Fox News hadn’t hopelessly tarnished that label.
So that’s where I would start. But then what do I know? I’m just a fan.