Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can Blogging Ever Replace Journalism?

I've recently read the testimony of David Simon to a Senate Subcommittee regarding the state of newspapers in the United States. You don't have to a serious student of journalism to realize that newspapers are having a hard time of it. It seems that a month hardly passes before you read about some newspaper in America either scaling down or going under.

Simon proposes a couple of remedies to the problem. One remedy is to for newspapers to move behind a pay wall, because Simon believes that the present model of giving content away for free isn't working. The other remedy is for newspapers to become non-profit corporations and move away from the news-for-profit model.

He is particularly pessimistic about the internet as a source for news. Since most blogs (including this one) simply repost excerpts from online news sources, he makes the point that the parasites (blogs) are killing the hosts (newspapers). Furthermore, he states that in order for newspapers to be worth the price of an on-line subscription, they're going to have to do what blogs can't do - create original content from investigative journalism, through the cultivation of sources and through the ability to devote themselves to news gathering. Amateur bloggers have neither the time nor the financial freedom to do either.

Simon has some good points. I began to think about Simon's points with regard to the state of the WNBA in particular and the state of sports journalism in general. This led me to think about what it is that exactly sports journalists - or what any kind of journalists - do.

So what is news? Here's my working definition: news is something that you didn't know before and that has happened relatively recently. As a result, sports journalists have to be present at sports events as they happen in hopes of not only presenting the facts at hand - the game results and statistics - but also to prove insight in the form of quotes and speaking to personnel who are unavailable to the general public.

A sport writer is at his or her most useful when he or she can provide information through investigation and cultivation of sources. Which leads to the question: is this what's going on in sports journalism?

I think the answer is "no" for the most part. Most sports writers today don't supply much of anything that isn't readily available elsewhere. They can't be the first with the boxscore anymore. The WNBA (for example) realizes that its fans want statistics. Those are available at the website, sometimes in real time. Sometimes, the league teams will even supply quotes for writers on deadline. There's nothing taking place at a sports event that couldn't be obtained by any of the other writers present - all of them are eating from the same plate, so to speak. All any individual writer is doing choosing what he or she cares to pass on, and all of the writers usually have the same number of choices. A give writer might make the decision that quote A is more important than quote B, or choose to emphasize one fact or ignoring another, but its unlikely that any one writer at the event could supply something that some other writer somewhere wouldn't have picked up. There's no "investigation" in your usual post-game piece.

As a result, bloviation has taken the place of investigation. Since few writers can scoop the others because all are presented the same buffet of facts, the writer can only distinguish himself or herself either through being a better storyteller, or more likely, through writing an opinion piece. The impression I get is that the big money in sports journalism isn't in covering the beat anymore - it's in being a feature columnist like Bill Simmons, or in being a television talking head. (The joke about sports journalism is that every sportwriter has to have an opinion about everything, whether he knows anything about it or not.) The present philosophy seems to be "why not just let the AP cover the games?" Sports journalism is not much more than a collection of "This I Believe" columns, some AP game writeups and a back page of statistics.

Frankly, I don't need to pay 50 cents to read someone's opinion about a game that we both saw with our own two eyes or someone trying to play amateur comedian on Page Two. There are hundreds of guys on the internet giving out those opinions for free, and if I want chuckles there's the Chuckle Hut out on Route 12.

Granted, some journalists have the "name power" to command an interview with the coach or the general manager. In the past, this was a given - sports writers commanded the leverage of an implicit threat: talk to me or I'll just write what I want to. Back in the days of two papers and no television, this power could be used as a cudgel. However, today's media is a mile wide and an inch deep and a multitude of outlets compete for the public's divided attention. Such threats can be laughed off now because few sports writers possess such a powerful platform. There's no more Dick Young in sports.

So to sum up:

* sports reporting is at its best with investigation and in-depth reporting
* for various reasons, this isn't being done any more
* all writers select from the same pool of facts, and therefore
* opinion sports journalism is now pre-eminent.

So what options do sports bloggers have?

Clearly, the same facts about the game are available to us as to the general press. We can get those facts in real time. Bloggers can't get game quotes, but sometimes the teams will even supply those, and 95 percent of game quotes aren't really "scoops" of any sort. The major advantage print journalists have is that they at least have access to the movers and shakers. Sports bloggers don't, for the most part.

However, sports bloggers can do some things that print journalists can't. The chief advantage is that a print journalist's time is both divided and directed. Print journalists are expected to be able to cover more than one sport these days. Despite the fact that they are paid full time for their skills, how much of that time will be spent thinking about the problems of any specific sport?

The stereotype of internet bloggers being obsessive geeks becomes a strength instead of a weakness. Sports bloggers - writing from the prospective of fans - spend a lot of time thinking about sports. I would dare to venture that I spend much more time thinking about the WNBA in my spare time than the print journalist for, say, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that attends the WNBA game. This is because my plate is free in my spare time, and she only has so many hours in her day. She might have to cover a different sports event every day. How much intellectual firepower can she direct to the WNBA?

Furthermore, her time is directed. She doesn't have the leisure to think about what she wants to. She has an editor who wants to please the bulk of the readership, and that editor tells her what she has to do. This means reporting about "football and spring football" at least in Atlanta. If she becomes really good at her job she might be hired and given a beat, or if she's even better she might be given an opinion column and can write about what she chooses. But without a full time beat or an opinion platform her priorities are set by someone else and her work is closely monitored.

Sports bloggers can set their own priorities. They're not only mavens regarding their chosen sports but they're their own editors. (If you read this blog, you can see how that could be a detriment.) If I want to do a statistical study of the WNBA for a full week, there's no editor to stop me. I only have to please myself. This gives a sports blogger freedom that a reporter might envy.

There is still the disadvantage in that the journalist can speak to the participants directly. Furthermore, there is the strong possibility that newspapers with an on-line presence will move to a subscription-only basis - deny sports bloggers the chance to mooch off free content. The only sources a sports blogger will have would be the statistics and the press releases. Surely, nothing can be done with that, right?

Allow me to mention the second advantage sports bloggers could have over sports journalists. This would involve thinking more like a faux-historian and less like a faux-journalist. I am reminded of the great writer I. F. Stone and his investigative writing. What Stone would do is take a look at the public record and examine the record for gaps and incongruities. A lot can be found in the most pedestrian writing if you know where to look for it.

For example, take the press release about the waiver of Jessica Morrow. The information is combined in the same press release that announces the signing of Marlies Gipson. There's nothing said about why Morrow was waived - most press releases don't do that - but it certainly begs the question of why a third-round draft pick suddenly gets dropped without so much as showing up to mini-camp.

If the release is taken at face value, it just becomes one more available fact out of many. If you examine the information in depth, however, it suggests a mystery. I. F. Stone was great at mining such mysteries, in trying to determine what the press didn't tell you and why it didn't.

Sports bloggers are going to have to become good at mining such pedestrian data sources. It's something that sports journalists can't do, and it could be a real advantage in blogging becoming an alternative media. A good blogger has to bring something to the table that a journalist can't bring - either a skill at statistics, or a grounding in the league's history, or a skill for information analysis. I know several internet bloggers that have taught me more about the WNBA than the WNBA's reporters ever did (or tried to do).

It's not that sports bloggers are going to "replace" journalism. Rather, it's that sports blogging is going to provide a type of content that sports journalists can't (yet) provide. Right now, journalists aren't so much providing content as they are providing opinion. I'm in complete agreement that sports journalists have to give us the content we want - original investigative journalism about our chosen sport, whether that sport be the NBA or WNBA - or readers are going to go elsewhere.


Q McCall said...

petrel, great article...and I had a similar article sitting on my hard drive that I just couldn't formulate well...

I really love your formulation of sports bloggers as something like sports historians or sociologists who analyze what's going on and try to fill in the holes...

Now I can just be a good blogger and build upon your argument... :)

pt said...

Q, I suspect your article would have been better than mine if you had finished it.

I'm looking forward to you building on the argument. I had thought of e-mailing this to you and Phoenix Stan, but I decided to make it a blog post instead. One thing a blogger has to do is look for content. :D

Unknown said...

I have to strongly disagree with you on the part where you say that for the most part sports journalists aren't cultivating sources and doing investigation. I worked in sports journalism in newspapers for a decade before leaving the biz in 2006, and I can tell you that cultivating sources is a huge thing for just about every sports journalist I've come across. You're correct that the content for postgame pieces are readily available to everyone who's at the game and postgame press sessions, but the problem with your premise is that game coverage isn't where sources and investigation come into play. Live event coverage is the easiest part of journalism, as everything that's happening is happening in plain view. It's the behind-the-scenes stuff that's hard: a coaching search, a player suspension, trade speculations, etc. And every time a sports journalist I worked with encounters one of those situations, he/she turns to the sources they've cultivated to get information that isn't in the press release and can't be obtained just by showing up at a press conference.

pt said...

John, you might be right. I'd venture to guess that one of the hardest parts of sports journalism to access is the use/cultivation of sources. For example, when an article says, "Coach X is expected to leave at the end of the season" it's not known to the casual reader whether this is something publicly known (it might have come from a press release) or if it's a nugget of information gleaned only from knowing someone in the organization that will speak with you and whom you can expect to answer questions honestly.

Readers only get to taste the pie, so to speak - we never get to see the labor that comes into cooking it. Unfortunately, the casual reader doesn't have the ability to determine where a sports journalist's contacts have played a major part of the story. Occasionally a line like "Sources inside the organization stated that Coach X will leave at the end of the season" but a reader never knows if that organizational info was easy to obtain ("Hey, Ron, you've heard that Coach X is going to go? Everyone here at Team Y is in an uproar") or exceedingly difficult ("Ron, you have to leave my name off this or I'll get fired. Only a handful of people know.")

Anonymous said...

Good piece...just reading articles in general, i agree on the sharing, which makes for dull and speculative information...but if that's what's out there?...even before blogging, news was suspect, except for a few crediable sources who were not afraid to actually times, new age...for better or worst...others will decide...and many have spoken...