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.