Future of Sports Writing
WoTYC, 1, JMHawkins:
“The future of sports writing? How blogs and the imminent demise of traditional newspapers…”
I don’t think there will be a distinction in a few years. Look at what even our local media’s doing: they all ru Mariner-related blogs. The amount of resources they devote to it vary greatly, but they’re all there. ESPN’s run Neyer and then others as blogs for years with great success. At the same time, papers are seeing their print circulation drop, yes. We’re almost certainly guaranteed to see a one-paper town in Seattle soon, which will be terrible even for sports fans.
We’re going to be at a place soon where the beat reporters and columnists compete with the bloggers almost entirely online, where the daily subscriber count that matters will be RSS and not inked papers tossed on porches (or yards/driveways/so on). The King County Journal’s went this way already — they’re essentially a well-funded, employs-a-ton-of-people blog with a content manager, splintered into community sites and tiny near-pamphlet papers.
Here, this means the M’s will continue to pick and choose the electronic coverage from the press box based on their favor. The Times beat writer has a print column and a blog? Here’s your pass. The Tacoma beat writer has a print column and a blog? Watch from the seats. Everett Herald? In. USSM has a blog read by more people than the Herald’s outlets combined? Out. Some boot-licking blog? In. We see this now: when MLB put out a policy on electronic media, teams needed to give creds to ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline, and MLB.com, and that was it. That’s where the M’s drew the line. I got a press pass once when I was writing for Baseball Prospectus where I had to promise that anything I saw or learned would only be used for the annual, and wouldn’t go out on the website. If you work for a newspaper, you don’t have to make that promise.
That’s not true with other franchises, where teams wave in quality and blogs, do interviews with them, and look at that as an opportunity to reach out to fans that may not be listening if they do 10m on the morning sports talk show, and so on. The M’s aren’t that team, and they’re in good company.
This draws an artificial distinction in which the press pass is a license to print money in many ways. If I can’t go ask Riggleman to talk about his bunting strategy, you can’t get that post here. But you can get a ton of player and manager quotes where the M’s deign to grant access, and that makes those places more popular, and in turn (whether recipients like to admit this or not) the more restricted the passes are, the more it gives the M’s leverage over the outlets granted passes.
It also entirely destroys that category of story, which is unfortunate. One of the great current advantages of blogs over print coverage is that we’re free to explore topics in a level of depth a print reporter can’t today and has not incentive to in today’s environment. A beat reporter’s life right now is being beat up by the schedule, trying to turn around game stories and other notebook content. It’s pretty easy to see where both of those get wiped by a future without print deadlines, of course. But they’re already busy enough without having to take time to research injury rates for minor league prospects over the course of an entire season to try and find out if their team has a real problem.
When we write the bunting strategy, there’s no quote from Riggleman on the subject that doesn’t come from a game story or other content written up by people with no interest in the bunting strategy question, and those quotes end up being without a larger context that might be the most enlightening thing we discuss all year.
I’m not sure that’s worth the price, though, for two reasons. If you read Tracy Kidder, who wrote Soul of a New Machine, House, you may note that in the books, the point of view is far, far more sympathetic to certain parties than others, and you realize it’s because Kidder spent weeks on house-building, so those guys come off with their point of view fully explained. Similarly, repeatedly this season we’ve seen that access can reduce the amount of truth in an article.
Moreover, though, if the only thing that distinguishes a credentialed reporter from the hordes of bloggers is the access they have to get player and manager quotes, then they’re much less likely to endanger their livelihood by angering the players who’ll talk to them, much less the team. It doesn’t even have to be a conscious choice. If there’s a player who talks to a writer all the time and sucks horribly, they’re going to get a lot longer to turn it around before being torn into compared to a sullen kid who skips interviews. Beyond which, it’s human — who wants to walk into a locker room filled with people who hate them?
All of this is multiplied by who writes the checks. A beat reporter for a paper writes a nearly-daily game story, some additional content, and every two weeks has a check cut from their publisher, while Dave and I make some fraction of that amount by people hitting a Paypal button and sending us a couple of bucks (or dropping us a line with an extra ticket, or buying me a beer when we run into each other pre-game). As a result, we’re fitting writing around everything else in our lives, researching the things that interest us, knowing that for the most part, the comparatively fractional reward we receive is a direct validation of what we’re working on.
Right now, that imbalance means that there’s a vast swath of content you need to go off-paper for. If you want to read about how Ibanez sucks, or some serious analysis into in-game strategy, you have to go to the blogs. If you want a seriously considered lament about the state of the franchise, you have to go to the blogs.
And this is all dwarfed by the power of the television behemoth. Pre-and-post-game analysis of wretched quality, unparalleled access to players and coaches, and the broadcast crew which can entirely dominate the way everyone who follows the team talks about it. I’d love for there to be alternate broadcast tracks out of FSN control, but that’s never, ever going to happen under current licensing terms. The power of all the beat reporters pales in comparison to that crew in painting the perception of the game, the players, on up through the whole organization. We’re all small bugs playing in their shadow.
I don’t see that changing. The market for people who want to read game stories and box scores is a lot less lucrative than the broadcast itself. The market for a long discussion of in-game strategy is a lot more limited than I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it’s large enough to sustain full-time writers in the best of circumstances, and I’ll skip the USSM viability question here.
At the same time, we see the lines blurring. Geoff Baker’s blog contains video snippets, random photos, and other content that you don’t see in a traditional beat column, the kind of thing that’s taking the press pass and using it to expand coverage — which, to circle back around, is exactly the kind of thing the M’s press office won’t allow people who aren’t Geoff Baker to do, which in turn makes it even more unique and interesting. But there’s no way to look at that kind of work and say that Baker’s strictly a print reporter any more.
I don’t think things will change in Seattle in the coming years unless there’s an ownership shakeup that results in tech-saavy people gaining control and changing policy. But in other places, there’s a very real chance that the average fan will get to pick the flavor of coverage that most suits them, and it won’t be a choice between the traditional coverage of the papers and the no-access outsider analysis of blogs, it’ll be between dozens of smaller, non-professional outlets and a few well-equipped and probably personality-based outfits offering multimedia coverage, some of which will rise from the masses and others representative of more traditional media outlets.
I’m looking forward to the chaos.
This post was written as one of the requests by a USSM supporter as part of Thank You Content Week. Join them!