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Monday, June 15, 2009

Musings on sports blogging and the interplay between new and old media

The internet has sparked an unheaval in media's traditional order: legendary newspapers have slashed staffs or gone out of business; magazines I used to read are now defunct; and my daily digest is composed not of one trusty periodical but instead largely of an instantaneous compendium of smart, expert, piratical, and (mostly) independent bloggers. The old media is hurting: how to keep up? how to stay relevant? Magazines, which have been hit as hard as anything else, are underdoing massive change; Newsweek and Time both want to be the Economist.

Sports media is its own strange animal. It begins (and all too often also ends) with ESPN, the behemoth everyone must reckon with. No matter how independent a blogger or fan might think themselves, their sports they consume has at some point passed through ESPN's loud, garish filters. But with the internet there are clearly more choices, though it seems the local beat writer has been hit harder than ESPN the megalodon.

But new media is clearly on the rise, and the heat between the two sides is often fun to watch: I admit to experiencing a frisson whenever a sports blogger destroys a particularly inept pundit. The pundits naturally do not take kindly to this, because, apart from exposing the weakness of their analyses, they also are helping to drive them out of business. Yet many bloggers would like what the old media types have, or at least had until recently: a stable situation enabling them to write about sports for a living. If anyone should be allowed that luxury (I do not have such grand hopes for my modest site), it should be many of these bloggers.

This past weekend New York City played host to the Blogs With Balls conference. Brian Cook attended and cogently wrote about the conference, highlighting the incoherence that (a) somewhat blighted its good intentions, yet (b) could only be expected when old and new media alike were thrown together to talk about whatever the hell it is they are all doing and where this ship is headed. I can safely say that I am happy with my strange little corner of the internet, though I just wish I had (read: would make) more time to post more frequently and in greater depth about the subjects I really enjoy. But the question is: in all this heat between new and old media, is there any light?

I was a resistant blogger. Like many who start blogs, I had semi-delusions of grandeur in starting Smart Football (and its predecessor the Chalk & Talk) in that I told myself, "Oh, it's not really a blog" -- nevermind that it is hosted by something called "Blogger." That attitude manifested itself in the paucity of updates combined with each post's length. (It is still the case that I post less frequently but with longer articles than other blogs, though far different in degree from my earlier days.) Over time however I've really grown to embrace the blog format, including diagrams, pictures, and videos, which are obviously impossible in print, as well as, well, the blog movement: Smart Football is a blog, and damn proud to be a (small) part of the community.

This flows from embracing the paradigm shift in media and, specifically, in sports media. Blogs are here to stay, and their immediacy and interactivity give them huge advantages in certain respects. Yet old media can co-opt the technology (and even sometimes the people); ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and many others can get themselves a potent web presence. But what the blogosphere and the internet generally have done is democratized analysis. J-Dub of Blue Gray Sky discussed some of the mechanics of the sports punditocracy before this massive change, but the short answer is that sports journalism, for several decades, was a tournament where the few coveted spots went to the willing and the lucky, while everyone else went off to some other area of employment. Now, those with day jobs can contribute, and the punditocracy is more meritocratic than ever.

So there are certain things that the blogosphere is simply better at delivering than than the old guard, and that includes both analysis and humor -- two rather huge categories. (I tend to focus on one versus the other. You be the judge.) Beat reporting and real journalism will never die -- Deadspin's famous motto, "Sports News without access, favor, or discretion" is cute but it has its limits -- yet the future of the old-school salaried pundit who chimes in with periodic nuggets of wisdom is in peril; he is in peril because he's been exposed as not very good.

There are many examples. Humans can only read so much stuff in a given day, and as a result there's a substitution effect: a small difference in quality leads to vastly different results -- i.e. a complete swapping out of the inferior good for the superior one even if the difference between them is only slight. It is a little like selecting a starting quarterback: they might be similar, but you can pretty much only have one guy, and to the victor go the spoils. The practical upshot is: why read Stewart Mandel so long as Brian Cook and Matt Hinton retain the ability to type? (Hint: There is not one, unless you count masochism.) My comparatively low-traffic site is not a great example, but I do know that my driving philosophy is to write the kind of articles that I would like to read but the mainstream media seems incapable of producing.

This is really the same phenomenon that is gutting newspapers around the country. There are some bitter, sad stories about good journalists who have succumbed to the pressures imposed, in part, by new media, including the Baltimore Sun laying off reporters during a game they were covering. But there's really no way around this. Old media had an incredible bottleneck, and one economic effect of bottlenecks is that they push up wages; when the bottleneck is cleared or, maybe more apt when describing the internet, is transformed into a fire hose, the wages of the old style "pundits" are driven down, way, way down.

(There is also the possibility of a reverse effect, where after the initial deluge of options a few winners emerge from the sea of blogs and become essential because of their centrality and as a touchstone, though this process is at least slightly more meritocratic than the old order. Each Bill Simmons column gets roughly a million viewers; relatedly, newspapers around the country are dying but I am fairly convinced that, at least as brands, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a few others will remain necessary and of even increased importance because their reach will remain international while the locals go out of business. So, even in the blogosphere there will be winners and losers, at least somewhat determined by luck, but I leave this aside for now.)

The result is that old media types like Mandel can't resist the temptation (admittedly, his column is a few years old) of deriding bloggers by saying banal things like: "I'm guessing you'd have a better chance getting these guys to actually shave and shower on consecutive days than participate in any idea that originated from me." And it's understandable why: many bloggers are better than him at his job and their very existence is driving him and his kind out of business (though apparently not quickly enough). One reason, covered above, is the replacement value of clicking on one website (say, Dr Saturday, where the analysis will be timely, exceptionally well-written, and sharp), or another ( where you get Mandel and his lame mailbag). But the other is that nobody, or at least only a few winners, will be able to make some kind of steady living solely by churning out football analysis. Now I don't want to get into what good wages might be, and I'm aware of several bloggers who are doing quite well, but the days of every city having several sports columnists and big newspapers and networks having bloated staffs of salaried sports guys is over; the part-time on-the-side blogger is here to stay.

So when the Mandel-types snipe at bloggers and (on the rare occasion!) that bloggers snipe back at the big media, there's an element of class warfare going on, but it is increasingly irrelevant class warfare because we're at a new world. All this seems both more, and less, salient considering it is blogs and twitter that is providing superior coverage of what is going on in Iran as we speak. It is all connected. This is why the Blogs With balls idea was a good one, at least in theory: there needs to be some integration. And maybe we're seeing it: Pro Football Talk has partnered with NBC Sports. It's maybe the biggest deal in the "15-year history of online sports -- and the 5-year history of sports blogs."

A few years ago (long, long ago in 2005) I read an essay by Richard Posner where he talked about the decline of old media in the face of new technology, and particularly blogs. He took a lot of heat for it, but, while it now reads a bit dated, the overarching message seems rather prescient; old media is hurting right now.

This is not an unmitigated good, and no doubt blogs and other internet media -- much of it without any access or even a desire for it -- can only complement traditional reporting. But the Mandels, Dennis Dodds, and, more unfortunately, many regional sports columnists paid to opine on the usual stuff, are an endangered species, and the net result of that is more immediate, more fun, and just plain better analysis from bloggers.

So my advice to all is to do what it took me a few years to do: Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Blog.


Ryan Gonzalez said...

Blogs are flexible, nimble and focused; the bigger publications are too bloated and spread to cover interesting topics. This sea change to newer, blogger-centric media allows people like you and Brian to channel your time into quality, niche topics instead of mainstream garbage. This is why often times it are the bloggers — not the people at SI, regional papers, or the like — that I really see as a great professional writers.

David Jones said...

What is interesting to me is to see those (few) cases where "mainstream" media embrace blogging by using it as a way to supplement and expand on their normal beat. David Hale, the UGA beat reporter for the Macon Telegraph, is an outstanding example (Bulldogs Blog. He uses the blog to present "outtakes" from his interviews, takes fan questions through Twitter and basically gives an even more in-depth look at a team with a rabid (pun intended) online fan base.

Blogs are just a medium. The demand for great reporting will always exist. The only question is will those with a financial stake in reporting adapt to a new medium or be run out of town by those with a real passion for the topic.

Anonymous said...

Another great example (in the sports blogosphere) is Greg Bedard. He is the NFL beat guy for the Green Bay Packers at the Milwaukee Journal. He has found great success meshing this transition.

Agricola said...

You wrote: My comparatively low-traffic site is not a great example, but I do know that my driving philosophy is to write the kind of articles that I would like to read but the mainstream media seems incapable of producing. That is reason enough for sports bloggers to exist...

Now, if you would just provide a twitter gadget so I could pass your pearls along.....

the toddler said...

You do a great job and provide a unique niche. I think the future, for most writers, bloggers and reporters alike, is niche news. I have started a regional football site for the Dallas-Fort Worth area and cover stuff the mainstream media doesn't such as local semi-pro football and women's football. It seems that local newspapers in smaller towns are still doing well.

Stan said... has had an ongoing debate with the Colts' beat writer for the Indy Star. Worth checking out to see a dinosaur trying to figure out what is eating his lunch.

Anonymous said...

The best thing about this blog is that the writer does not treat the reader as a novice. Challenging football content as well as thinking outside of the rectangular prism on other topics.

Chris said...

Agricola, just a twitter link or something that lets you log into your twitter while you're viewing the site? Times are a-changin.

Stan, I saw that whole shindig. It was fascinating

Anonymous said...

One reason I read Stuart Mandel and not Brian Cook is standards: Mandel doesn't publish the personal contact info of a 14 year old because he doesn't like his forum posts.

Jon said...

You're too kind to the Deadspins of the world. I like reading this site, Advanced NFL Stats, Residual Prolixity, and FO for football. For baseball, I'll read Hardball Times, The Book blog,Fangraphs, and Baseball Think Factory.

Kissing Suzy Kolber and it's ilk are what the National Enquirer would look like if it is editorial staff was run by some frat. Yes, the world needs more pictures of drunken QBs. (I hear Deadspin may be going away from this direction. I hope so.)

Jeremy said...

Though this is my first comment on this blog, I am I longtime reader. Like yourself, it took me a long time to fully embrace blogs and a much longer time to find this site. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your commitment to this site and for the level of analysis that is unmatched in mainstream media. Well done, Chris.

WolverBean said...

Anonymous, in his defense, Brian didn't post anyone's contact info, and I don't think he ever would. An overzealous member of his readership did, in an effort to prove a point about how creepy facebook-stalking can be.

Mr.Murder said...

There were as many blogs devoted to yellowcake as there were skeptical of it back in the day. The media narrative is what it is, certain people always will adhere it.

Why should sports differ?

After further review, etc.

sager said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome site. Did I mention this site is awesome?

I try to go for The Funny on my site, but that's because I can't do analysis like this!