How I would be a national baseball columnist
My rant about “managers about to be fired” goes to a problem national writers face: they can’t possibly be as informed about the state of 30 teams as a dedicated, smart fan of one team unless they’re cultivating inside information. But the age of the national columnist isn’t over – there’s still a call for people who can talk about industry-wide issues, compare team A to team B, and speak intelligently about things that cross team lines, like potential managerial changes, or trades.
How do you do that job well, then?
First, you have to make a choice about which side of the fence you’ll be on. Will you be peddling insider information, cultivating relationships within the industry so you can attempt to break news, with the inevitable compromises that come with that, or forsake that knowledge to be the informed outsider, and try and offer as much insight as you can without wearing your press pass into the locker room?
If I got a job as a full-time national baseball columnist, I’d be the latter (uh, obviously).
Then how to do that job well? Here’s what I’d do:
Find the good newspapers in every market, either bookmark them or subscribe to whatever electronic distribution they offer.
Throw every decent team blog that offers a feed into an RSS reader. Skim the headlines at least once a day. Repeat with decent high-level general baseball blogs. Seems like a huge load, but you’ll be able to blow through the repeat stories really fast, and still stop and read good pieces of analysis.
Send everyone of those people – everyone, beat reporters to the Batters Box – a nice email and say “hey, I’ve got this new gig, and while I’m going to try, I know I’m not going to be able to cover your team as closely as dedicated fans, so please, if you see me going wrong or if I’m not realizing a basic truth about the team, like their PR attachment to a player that makes trading him unlikely, please let me know.”
Then when you get things wrong, as much as possible, fess up. Unfortunately, unless you have a regular column that allows notes-style tidbits, that’s tough to get out there. If the outlet allows you to have a short-form blog, at the very least write them up there. Characterize someone’s platoon splits wrong, or read a statline badly? Fess up. Learn. One of the things that drives fans batty about columnists is they’ll do something like say Raul Ibanez is the only right-handed hitter in the outfield and you never know if they realized the error or not.
I’d say “answer emails” but I tried to do that at BP until I got overwhelmed and we can’t even manage it at USSM. Then again, as a full-timer, maybe you can pull it off.
Take notes. Tons of notes. I should be able to quickly summarize what the major strengths/weaknesses are of every one of the thirty GMs and managers, and even better, their ownership groups if they’re at all active in decision-making.
Research. Take the time to look stuff up. Even under deadline, I shouldn’t toss off a line about someone’s platoon splits to support a conclusion if it’s wrong. If I had an intern, that’s totally a great intern task: every time there’s a fact like that, do the three clicks to go to baseballreference.com and look it up. If you come across any other interesting nuggets, let me know.
Write about good stuff. The remaking of the Devil Rays isn’t news to their fans, but what happens there in the next few years is a great story: how do you fix a broken franchise, and how long does it take? What lessons are there for fans of the Royals, for instance? How did the best teams last year build their staffs? Where do all the closers come from?
And for worn story ideas, make them good. Eight managers on the hot seat doesn’t have to be a nearly content-less piece. What qualities do those managers share? What are they criticized for, and are those complaints valid?
In a way, USSM is easier than being a national columnist. We don’t draw a salary, the money’s bad, but if because of the forum, when I mess something up (see:yesterday) I can fix it myself in minutes. It’s not in print for everyone to see forever. And in my experience, not getting a paycheck every two weeks means generally people are understanding when I mess up a stat. If I was writing for Sports Illustrated, there’d be an expectation that my salary paid for me to do fact checking.
It’s interesting that better-informed local fans have made the national writer’s job much harder, subject to quick, withering, valid criticism, but it’s also true that the changes that have made those local fans smarter about their teams offer national writers a chance to acquire the same knowledge and write wider-reaching pieces of higher quality than their predecessors did. I hope that we’ll see some take up that challenge and succeed. Baseball could use more prominent, sharp, and insightful voices in the mediums that reach most fans.