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A brief aside about the role of sports writers now and in the future

Feb 8, 2011, 3:58 PM EDT

Newsroom

Skip this post if you don’t care about  media stuff.

[waits for those people to leave]

OK, now that all of us reading this are people who do care, I direct you to a sharp column by Jason Fry over at the National Sports Journalism Center (you may also know Jason from the Wall Street Journal or the Faith and Fear in Flushing Mets blog).

The subject: the inanity of media’s continued insistence on getting a story first.  But the key point isn’t the “speed is bad because speed makes reporters sloppy” thing you see so often these days.  The key point is one I’ve thought about for a long time: that for much of the sports news we consume, who got it first is irrelevant, whether they got it right or not.

The kind of news Fry is talking about he refers to as “commodity news.”  The expected facts that come as a matter of course regardless of who is doing the reporting. Fry uses the day’s lineup as his primary example, but there are others. We all know Cliff Lee will sign somewhere. We all know that the manager will name a starting pitcher for Game One of the NLCS.  We all know that that night’s game is going to be won and that its descriptions will be disseminated in the form of a game story soon after it’s over. Here’s Fry explaining why it doesn’t matter who reports that stuff:

When it comes to basic information everybody’s going to have, all I care about is that it gets to me. Which individual source put that information into the combined news flow? The question is so unimportant that I’m unlikely to remember the answer five minutes later. Maybe not even five seconds later … Being first with commodity news no longer registers with readers — and readers, ultimately, are the ones who pay the bills, to the extent bills are paid at all in our era.

Fry believes that teams are going to start reporting all of the commodity news on their own soon enough anyway, so why bother trying to get the scoops? Heck, they are already to some degree, they just don’t call it “reporting.”  I’ve been in a few clubhouses and at a few media-heavy baseball events, and there’s always a table full of press releases and random information pages that, whether you know it or not, are available to average fans at MLB.com or wherever already. Even big time player signings are going to soon be reported first by teams.  I joke about Ruben Amaro being a ninja, but really, he’s just one step closer to bypassing Jon Heyman as a news clearinghouse than all of the other GMs. They’ll get there soon too.

Fry says, and I agree, that the key for media organizations is to move away from emphasizing and repackaging such widely-disseminated commodity news and to pay more attention to other, more nourishing forms of reporting:

Exclusive reports, investigative journalism, and thoughtful long-form features can’t be quickly matched or hollowed out by a competitor’s summary or retweet. There sportswriters still have a chance at a window of exclusivity and creating something that will stand out from the news stream and be remembered by readers – with credit where it’s due.

One other area of opportunity Fry identifies is very near and dear to my heart because it’s what we try to do with HardballTalk:

Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information.

Since I started blogging four years ago, I have considered that to be my mission.  I’ve had a couple of minor scoops, but who cares? Others had the news three minutes later.  What I value and what I think our readers value is how we try to put the news in context. To show its significance. To offer some insight, sharp opinion or humor to it in a way that makes hearing about news factoid x, y, or z at HardballTalk better than hearing about it elsewhere.  We don’t always succeed at that — we’ll occasionally do a lazy link regurgitation post, usually late in the day when we need a cup of coffee — but the intent is to always stamp the news with our own unique take.

I’ve been in media seminars when such an approach was derided by traditional media types sarcastically as “value-added blogging.”  The implication: that the real work is getting the near-fungible news nugget and that the sort of opining we and other bloggers do is lazy free-riding.  As Fry argues, however, and as readers’ media consumption habits make clear, the opposite is true.  No one cares where the factoid comes from. People care about what it all means and will read stuff from people who will help them figure that out.

I’m not very good at predicting the future, but from where I’m sitting now I foresee one in which there are fewer media professionals collecting the rote postgame quotes, writing the de riguer game story and tweeting that day’s lineup and more of them intelligently parsing the quotes from the postgame interview, composing a critical analysis of the game that just ended and not giving a diddly durn about that day’s lineup until they begin to fill out their scoresheet for that night’s game.

Getting there will be difficult. Newspapers and their reporters don’t like change.  But they don’t have a choice in the matter. The readers will decide what kind of coverage is critical and, ultimately, profitable.  Just as they always have.

  1. sdelmonte - Feb 8, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    I would say that to a large degree, what Fry is recommending has been the case for print journalism for a long time now. Once TV and radio came along, you usually to to the newspaper for the first word on anything. Moreso for magazines. SI’s value, such as it is, is in in depth articles that go beyond the recap. That was the case before the Internet.

    I would add that while being first doesn’t necessarily impress people, being able to be first to get word of something to your readers time and again probably makes an impact. And so does not making any mistakes. Being first adds little. Being wrong because you wanted to be first probably subtracts a lot, especially if you are always doing that.

  2. adrianbk - Feb 8, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    The only advice my first editor gave me was…..keep smiling and try not to bump into the furniture.

    Wise words

  3. dodger88 - Feb 8, 2011 at 5:44 PM

    Further to the point, sites such as this offer more than analysis but an opportunity to catch headlines and, if one desires, read analysis of the day. While I will read upwards of a dozen web sites a day, I may visit them once each whereas as I check out Hardball Talk dozens of times per day because it is one place where I will catch most of the news and headlines. It doesn’t matter to me whether the story originated with a specific organization or writer, I like the ability to catch the news in one place and then enjoy some informative and entertaining analysis.

  4. PanchoHerreraFanClub - Feb 8, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    Craig, thank you this post. I have two issues with “value-added” reporting. Many times, the analysis of some factiod, is reported as fact itself, rather than opinion about the factiod itself. This I can live with. The second problem is when the factiod is used smear people (like Piazza was juicer because he had back acne). This much harder to live with.

    Again thanks offering your readers insight into game.

  5. iftheshoefits2 - Feb 8, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    Craig, thanks for finally articulating why I come back to HardballTalk so many times each day. My RSS/ Twitter feeds explode with the same news from multiple sources, but when I want perspective, insight, or a laugh, this is where I’m coming.

    You’ve cultivated a great community of writers and fans, and its just a very honest, accessible, and forthright. No pandering (ok, maybe a little, for laughs), just what feels like smart fans talking about stuff they love or hate.

    And the occasional obscure reference that makes me feel not so old.

  6. bighitterthelama - Feb 8, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    In general I agree wholeheartedly that the greatest everyday value in sports analysis is not in the announcements, but in the implications. Still, at the risk of trying to be too contrarian here, I wonder if this leads to a point where the teams/agents/players are relied upon too heavily to deliver the news and we lose the bird-dogging reporters that are usually unnecessary, but prove invaluable by their very nature of forcing the teams/agents/players to answer daily questions about maneuvers, injuries, disputes, contracts, etc. If we allow the “media” to wither and fall away from the front lines, we may lose the leash that tries (with some success) to keep everyone honest. So I guess I think we need both.

    Just a thought.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Feb 8, 2011 at 7:35 PM

      I agree that you have to have someone on the front lines doing those things. Indeed, I mentioned “parsing the postgame quotes.” Well, someone has to get the postgame quotes, right?

      The question is whether we need as many someones as we currently have. There are, like, a dozen media outlets who cover the Yankees with their own beat writers. Maybe more, actually. They’re all kind of doing the same thing. What if only a couple did? Or, better yet, what if a consortium was formed in which news outlets agreed to have a pool reporter handling the grunt work of the more commodified news?

      Rather than 12 guys writing next-day game stories, then, we could have a generic breakdown of game events all the outlets share (postgame quotes, etc.), but a dozen different sharp, opinionated takes, each providing an opinionated take on the game? Or even if they’re all there getting quotes and doing their usual thing they were at least all trying to produce a different kind of product?

      And that’s what it’s about really: the product that comes out. Everyone is doing the same old thing now, focusing on the stuff that has the lowest amount of uniqueness and thus appeal to readers. That’s what should change.

  7. motherscratcher23 - Feb 8, 2011 at 9:10 PM

    Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.”

    And then I come here.

  8. utecutec - Feb 8, 2011 at 9:46 PM

    I return to HBT because I enjoy your take on the fungible news. Thanks for brightening my day. How many lawyers get to hear that???

    Most newspapers separate the beat reporter’s job, reporting, from the columnist’s job, analyzing – I always assumed it was because it would be bad for the reporters to alienate folks they had to cultivate all year long. This practice reinforces your theory – it’s the commentary that matters to me.

  9. trevorb06 - Feb 9, 2011 at 10:20 AM

    Craig, the reason I (and I assume a lot of others) prefer to read HBT is because a lot of the hot shot writers can take a fairly simple situation, scoop, story and spin it into a lengthy article using a lot of masturbatorial words, explainations, anecdotes, etc to make it longer to please their bosses. What you guys do is basically pan for gold and sift thru all the crap therefore we don’t have too. I imagine a lot of your readers are generally at work and really just don’t have time to jump website to website reading various articles so when you can just break all those articles down for them, and even throw in some generally good analysis it just makes sense to stick to this site and maybe a couple others instead of all the big names.

    I’ll be honest Craig, and I think I speak for more than myself. I/We don’t like reading big long articles whilst at work. Heck, I didn’t even finish reading this one it was so long and I’m killing myself writing such a long comment. So thank you Craig for panning for gold and sifting through worthless crap to give me the nice golden nuggets of baseball news, even on days there is no news.

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