Wednesday, April 07, 2010

On Eric Smith, mainstream media and bloggers

To me, one of the most interesting things about sports today is the shift in how they're covered. That's not just about the expansion of blogs, as newspapers, radio and television have changed dramatically too, but blogs have played a substantial role in changing the landscape. They've given exposure to people, issues and concepts that were largely ignored before that and might never have made it big otherwise. That isn't necessarily entirely good and not all of these changes have been positive (for example, I'm not sure we're better off for seeing naked pictures of athletes or hearing about their drinking habits), but I'd argue that some of them have been; I love a lot of the statistical analysis that's largely expanded thanks to blogs, and I love that there are different perspectives on sports being presented. Blogs really have revolutionized sports coverage, and other mediums are picking up on that; most TV and radio stations and newspapers have their own writers blogging now, and that adds even more to the conversation.

With all revolutions comes pushback, though, and that's something I've covered a lot here over the years. From Jay Mariotti to Geoff Baker to the cast of Prime Time Sports, there are plenty of traditional media people who have issues with bloggers. Their own positions often have issues of their own, but they reinforce that there is still a divide between bloggers and some mainstream journalists.

A divide in and of itself doesn't have to be a bad thing. Life would be pretty boring if we were all the same, and the sports universe would be far less extensive and interesting if all bloggers and all mainstream journalists acted exactly the same. In reality, blogger/journalist is not a binary toggle, but rather a continuum. There are traditional reporters who don't blog or offer opinions, reporters who run a newspaper blog as well, reporters with their own blogs, columnists/radio analysts/television analysts who offer opinions similar to those expressed in blog posts, bloggers who stick to objective reporting and analysis, bloggers who are fans of a certain team but try to still provide critical analysis, bloggers who see the entire world through their team's glasses and others who don't fit into any of the above categories. To clarify my own bias, my day job is as a reporter and my free time is spent blogging, so I've got a foot in both worlds. Naturally, I think this diversity of roles is a good thing.

The problem is that the divide often turns into armed camps. Traditional journalists go off on rants about blogs such as the ones I discussed in the above links and bloggers offer plenty of incisive criticism of the mainstream media. Criticism isn't a bad thing, but many people on both sides seem unwilling to consider criticism of any sort, instead banding together against the "enemy". Moreover, many of the legitimate points both sides have to offer are lost thanks to inflammatory comments, sweeping generalizations and a lack of context. This is unfortunate in my mind, because both sides have a fair bit to offer each other.

That at least partially happened with this piece by Eric Smith of The Fan 590 on his NBA.com blog. Smith is a knowledgeable NBA guy and a writer I generally like. He makes some interesting arguments in this piece as well, but they're buried beneath some of the rhetoric he chooses to use (and it's that rhetoric that's attracted most of the discussion about it on Twitter, rather than the actual points he's trying to make). There are significant problems with this post, and I'll get to them, but first, I want to go against the grain of the mainstream versus blogs argument by highlighting where I agree with him.

One really interesting point Smith makes is about the value of access, which is something I've talked about before in my coverage of Blogs With Balls II. I think there can be a fair bit of value to access. Of course, it depends on what you're trying to do with your blog; if you're focused entirely on stats or humour, then access probably won't be that beneficial, and that's okay. Not everyone needs access, either, and some of the best insight comes from those who have no access at all.

I think Smith slips up by constructing a tiered system where those who have access have better insight into a team than those who don't. There are plenty of people with access who don't use it constructively, and there are plenty of people who do a fantastic job without access. It can be a tremendously valuable tool, though, especially for analysis-based posts; instead of speculating about why a coach called a particular play or made a certain substitution, you can ask them for their reasoning and then applaud or criticize from there. He's right that access and sources are absolutely vital to breaking news too, which is still quite important.

Obviously, many major-league organizations are still very hesitant to credential bloggers, which I think is a big mistake. If anything, I'd argue that access helps to provide more positive coverage of teams; bloggers with access can get coaches' or players' reasoning for their decisions, thus including the team's perspective as well as their own. Some people undoubtedly would abuse access, which is why a screening process of some sort is still necessary, but I think teams should consider loosening their requirements. They'll be helping themselves in the long run.

Some of the value access provides can be obtained even without access, though, confusing as that may sound. What I mean is that it can be useful to put yourself inside the head of a coach or player and imagine what they'd say to a certain question about why they did what they did, or look through different game reports to see if anyone with access asked the question you wanted an answer to. There's still plenty of room to criticize with this approach, but it's worthwhile to at least try and consider why someone acted the way they did, even if you don't agree with their actions.

The problem is that Smith, rather than building up the importance of access and the value it can provide, chooses to focus on tearing down those who don't have it. His logic seems to be that access is good, everyone who doesn't have it is bad and everyone is trying to work their way up to it. That leads to the assumption that those who don't have access are thus the minor-leaguers, and that's a problematic position. He’s right that there are irresponsible bloggers out there, but that’s not because they don’t have access, and it’s not because they’re fans; it’s because of the decisions they make. Those decisions and their writing shouldn’t reflect poorly on all bloggers, just like irresponsible radio reports on another station shouldn’t reflect poorly on Smith and a poor piece in The National Enquirer shouldn’t impugn the credibility of The New York Times. This blame-the-medium approach isn’t often applied to newspapers, radio shows or television networks; praise is handed out to the good ones and criticism to the bad. Why can’t we adopt the same policy for blogs, praising and linking to the ones we like and calling out the ones we have issues with specifically instead of bashing the entire blogosphere?

Further on the subject of access, I don't think there are many bloggers who "need" access to be good, and I don't think giving someone access will magically make them better; it's a valuable tool, but it's not necessarily the best one for all approaches and it's not one that everyone wants or needs to use. I also find it curious that he singles out The Score's Sports Federation (which, as you know, this site is part of) for criticism; the blogs in this network are by-and-large excellent, and there are many sites that would be easier to take down.

I don't think those of us who write for blogs affiliated with The Score are diminishing the network's brand at all; rather, I think we're enhancing it by offering different perspectives you might not find from traditional media writers. The network seems to think there's some value in associating themselves with bloggers, and I'm glad they do. They're not the only ones, either; the National Post did an excellent two-page Blue Jays preview on the weekend featuring the opinions of several of my fellow Sports Federation members (including Andrew Stoeten of Drunk Jays Fans, Navin Vaswani of Sports and the City, and Callum Hughson and Matthias Koster of Mop Up Duty). Clearly, they too think there's some value in the work of us "Average Joes".

The overall point isn't to tar-and-feather Smith, though, and especially not to blast the mainstream media in general. The coverage they provide is still incredibly important and is a great building block for much of what bloggers do. Furthermore, their constructive criticism can be valuable as well. One issue in particular where this has happened is on anonymity, a topic I’ve addressed before; it used to be that most sports blogs were published under anonymous pen names, which isn’t necessarily a horrible thing, but does sometimes tend to hurt the credibility of the writer. If you want people to take you seriously, it can be often useful to put your real name on your work, and it shows that you stand behind it. This is an issue various mainstream media guys have raised over the years, and the blogosphere has listened; more and more bloggers are publishing under their own names now, and that’s probably good for the credibility of the blogosphere as a whole. That’s not saying that everyone has to do this or even that it would be a good move for every site; I do think it’s a positive trend on the whole, though, and I think the mainstream media deserves some credit for its spread.

Similarly, bloggers have influenced the mainstream media positively, with many of them even accepting jobs at traditional outlets. One example I love is The Sporting Blog, where The Sporting News decided to hire well-known bloggers like Dan Levy, Michael Tunison and my former The Rookies colleague Andy Hutchins. They continually produce interesting content, and the relationship helps both the traditional media outlet (it regularly brings blogosphere readers to The Sporting News) and the bloggers involved (who have a regular job and gain traditional media credibility from the association). Another example is Jason Brough and Mike Halford of Orland Kurtenblog working for The Province and Team 1040 (they’re on tonight at 7 p.m. Pacific, by the way). The blogosphere’s also had an impact in smaller ways, such as convincing many baseball writers to look at less-traditional stats such as OBP, OPS and UZR and convincing other sports writers to engage with their audience through comments, e-mail and Twitter.

I truly believe the relationship between the mainstream media and the blogosphere can be a mutually beneficial one in the future. Both sides have insights to offer each other, and both can provide different styles of analysis that sports fans can enjoy. Unfortunately, it looks like the two sides seem to be getting in each other’s way and wasting their time tearing each other down more than helping each other, and that’s only driving the sides further apart and creating increasingly polarized camps. In the future, I’d much rather see an ongoing debate with constructive criticism about how both sides can improve.

15 comments:

  1. Excellent and accurate account on all fronts: the rift, the benefits and the importance of bloggers. I will say that I am one of the very lucky ones who has been given team access to the NY Islanders for the last three seasons. In that time I have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of many MSM reporters to (reluctantly) accept our presence in the room and the Internet.

    However, while we do have access to the team and the organization, it is still difficult to get news as it happens or be included in certain press conferences. But then again -- Most of us "New Media" types have day jobs.

    In the NHL especially, bloggers of all types play a key role as coverage in many markets is seriously lacking.

    I think we need a Union.

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  2. I wonder sometimes how much of the animosity between the two mediums comes down to a feeling of outdatedness, of feeling threatened. Blogs are quickly advancing on the print media, since they're more topical, faster to update and more often then not, offer a refreshing take on the same story.

    I know that if I was a beat grunt, I'd feel threatened by that.

    Remember, it wasn't all that long ago that print reporters were angry at their radio compatriots who could just ask and record answers and not write them down into a 800 word column. These things come in cycles.

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  3. This blame-the-medium approach isn’t often applied to newspapers, radio shows or television networks; praise is handed out to the good ones and criticism to the bad. Why can’t we adopt the same policy for blogs, praising and linking to the ones we like and calling out the ones we have issues with specifically instead of bashing the entire blogosphere?

    Great point and that seems to be where Eric Smith misplaced his overall argument. I can't help wonder if Eric Smith is somewhat jaded and affected by his call-in show after Raptor games where he puts up with a multitude of fans' opinions. His point also seemed bogged down by the curious inclusion of "Holly, the former blogger who isn't a blogger anymore so she's cool now". I'm a fan of Eric Smith, too. But he deserves to be called out for his somewhat lazy post just because of the same generalizations that he assures the MSM doesn't do.

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  4. My main issues with Smith's arguments that he says he doesn't realise that he made is that he is basically saying "enjoy the good blogs for their opinion but when you want informed opinions come to the media".

    As you noted, there are dozens of examples just in NHL coverage in Canada that highlight how people with access add absolutely no value whatsoever to the coverage of the team.

    There are teams (the Oilers and Capitals come to mind) where the blogs cover the team to a degree that the traditional media cannot hope to match.

    Smith's focus on The Score bloggers are odd not just for picking a pretty decent group of blogs but also because he pretends that The Score has some sort of high standard and lofty reputation that is being tarnished. The truth is that The Score has a lot of terrible coverage. The radio shows they simulcast are not good at all. He referred to them as a top all-sports station which is true. They are in the top three...of three.

    Anyway, it's a tired debate. As you noted every blogger isn't working towards access nor do they need it and for every complain against a blogger about irresponsibility, etc I can give you at least an equal one from one of the revered MSM. It's about quality and while Hockey Buzz is proof that people can't be trusted to discern the difference between quality and crap why let it bother you?

    The other contention he brought up with me on twitter was that editors and bosses somehow magically make reporters better. This is a ridiculous assertion as guys like Howard Berger have bosses and they continue to be among the worst examples of their profession. I am sure David Pratt has a boss too and he's a plagiarist. Bloggers are held accountable: by their readers and by other bloggers. If I write that Toronto is going to sacrifice Ron Wilson's dog in order to have NYI win the lottery that affects my credibility and traffic.

    Finally, anonymity is overblown. No, I don't have my real name on the site and most bloggers don't either. I am not trying to work towards access. If it comes, I'll take it but I don't need it. If blogging paid the bills I'd plaster my name all over the site. And if anyone wants to deal with me one-on-one because they have an issue they can and I'll use my name.

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  5. Greg Brady made a great point that the ones that bring up the Blogger/MSM rift are usually either the ones with a chip on their shoulder or the ones that would bristle at a former jock telling them that they can't cover the sport because they never played it.

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  6. I'm quitting blogging.

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  7. Excellent points, all; thanks for the comments! @Mark: The cycles point is a very interesting one. I think in some ways, that's already running its course; we're getting to a point where these columns are becoming less par-for-the-course and more of an exception, and where media guys are becoming more receptive to bloggers and their criticisms.
    @Brian: Yeah. I do think Eric makes some interesting points; to me, he just loses them with the generalizations and hyperbole.
    @PPP: Absolutely. Editors can help, but they can also ruin a writer's style and voice and they don't always catch errors. Just having an editor doesn't make you good; just not having one doesn't make you bad. There's a reason I usually refer to myself as the editor of this site rather than its writer; I try to mentally put on the editing hat and look over my copy before posting, and I'd venture lots of other bloggers do the same.
    On the anonymity front; it absolutely doesn't have to be an issue. There are plenty of great sites where the bloggers don't use real names, and where their real names aren't needed, and you're right that it's quite different if you're doing it for a career rather than a sideline. All I'm saying there is that I think dropping the anonymity can be positive for many sites, and there has been a trend in that direction; I think that trend's largely thanks to mainstream criticism and comments (and the desire to win respect from the mainstream). That doesn't mean everyone has to or should drop anonymity.
    @eyebleaf: I certainly hope not. I need my Vernon Wells Hatred Advisory System!

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  8. I don't think those of us who write for blogs affiliated with The Score are diminishing the network's brand at all; rather, I think we're enhancing it by offering different perspectives you might not find from traditional media writers.

    I don't think we're doing anything to affect The Score's brand, frankly. At least, for The CIS Blog, the connection between it and the network itself is very, very small...they show a handful of football games a year and we're not involved in any way in those broadcasts. The average viewer won't even know about us.

    Anyway, I like to think we judge our sources for news and analysis based on their perspiration and inspiration, not on one instance that's generalized to the entire population. (Geoff Baker wrote "White Jays." But that was one article, seven years ago. Doesn't make the entire Toronto Star, or all of Baker's work, irresponsible.)

    The other thing is that there's always value to access. I don't see how anyone can argue otherwise (though I think Deadspin did, more than once). It might not be a lot of value, but it's certainly non-negative.

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  9. Smith's idiocy barely rates a response beyond the fact it affirms the opinion of those at the head of the pack.

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  10. @Rob: Good points. The Sports Federation isn't tied that closely to the main company, so there isn't necessarily a big crossover. The name does mean something, though, and I'd like to think that the loose affiliation is still helping both sides to some degree. Excellent point about not judging people or organizations by one piece.

    @Neate: I generally agree, but I thought this was worth touching on for a couple reasons. For one, the point he made about access interests me. I don't think he made it the right way or used the right examples, but I believe there is some value to access. It doesn't mean that mainstream guys with access are on a different level or more trustworthy than bloggers who don't have access; it does mean they have an extra tool to work with. Moreover, I felt it was worthwhile to discuss how relationships between the mainstream media and bloggers have changed since these pieces started coming out. I'd argue that these blog-bashing articles are more the exception than the norm now, and that's a good thing in my mind.

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  11. Yadda yadda yadda. It's all pretty self-explanatory; either people get it and don't need it spelled out, or they're a briandryden and will never get it.

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  12. Great work here, Andrew.

    I might be a little biased since I'm a blogger myself, but most of the time I prefer to read what a blogger writing about a team has to say.

    They don't have to answer to anybody, and they also voice their opinion (however ridiculous it may be).

    I don't think these guys need a press pass to have credibility. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, and many of these blogs do that by questioning things a reporter or beat writer wouldn't necessary cover.

    Don't get me wrong - we need reporters and beat writers. They are the lifeblood of sports news. But I think we should all be able to co-exist without there being any animosity.

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  13. Thanks, Ian! Great points. I'm with you; we need both sides, but that doesn't mean they have to fight.

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  14. Long-time lurker, first time commentor. Great stuff as always.

    I grow tired of these mainstream media 'truth seekers'. They always seem to be pointing towards access and mis-information.

    Who is Eric Smith or anyone else for that matter to get righteous about a fan's source of sports information? We're not talking about human rights here.

    Everyday reported player and coach quotes are boring. At times they add insight but on the field/court/ice/etc action and front office moves tell the truth far more often than the practiced and tired quotes that fill post-game reports and columns.

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  15. Thanks, Matthias! Glad you liked it. I'm a big fan of your work at Mop Up Duty as well. You make a good point about the need for different perspectives, and I think sports blogs offer a lot of that. It's nice to give people the choice so they can read whatever style they prefer.

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