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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

August 14, 2009 at 10:15 AM

Writing about baseball in the past, present and future

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Lots of commentary around the industry this past week about the premature retirement of Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. McCoy is a respected, longtime baseball writer covering the Reds and has made a decision to retire early after his newspaper told him it would not be covering the team on the road next season.
Our industry is at a crossroads and many papers are trying to cut costs by figuring out what is relevant and where they can save money. For me, the decision by McCoy’s paper is a frightening one. The loss of local coverage of sports teams is not something anybody should be celebrating, be they fans or otherwise.
But the reality is, it costs money to produce a newspaper and to pay for sending reporters out on the road.
So, that’s where we’re at. Trying to find the balance involved in doing the right thing and having reporters out covering events firsthand versus generating the money to pay for what it costs. We’ve told you time and time again that readership is not the main challenge. More people are reading newspapers in their combined print/online format than they were a few years ago. The trick is to find the right amount of advertising dollars, especially online, to keep the product viable.
And also, to accept, as an industry, that things are going to change. They already have and will continue to do so.


The first thing that those covering baseball have to come to terms with — in fact, the folks in the best parts of our industry already have — is that “blogs” are here to stay. I wish we’d come up with a better name for “blogging” because it is not all created equally, but it is what it is for now.
And it is an integral part of what we do as an industry. It may not have been back in the day, but that’s irrelevant to present-day baseball writing.
A lot of things have changed since “back in the day”. Back in the late-1980s, when I began writing professionally, the “old-time journalists” I knew would have scoffed at the idea of established reporters going to work for an entity like MLB.com, which is, in fact, a de facto PR wing of Major League Baseball.
Nowadays, things aren’t viewed in quite the same way. I know a number of fine baseball journalists — including two past Baseball Writers Association of America presidents — who, for varied reasons, have decided to continue their careers with MLB.com, just as others in news divisions go to work for PR firms. Some had families to feed, or simply love writing about baseball and did not want to be confronted with the decisions that a troubled print newspaper industry have forced the likes of McCoy to make.
Like I said, it is what it is. People in my industry nowadays understand why decisions like that get made and are less likely to pass judgment. It’s part of the evolving media landscape. MLB Network, the television equivalent of MLB.com, pays an established journalist like Tom Verducci while he continues to write for Sports Illustrated. That would have never been allowed to happen “back in the day” but it does now and nobody bats an eyelash.
Do I think Verducci has the good sense to continue to carry his journalistic values while serving as a paid employee of an MLB-owned entity? Of course I do. He’s been around and knows the score.
Yes, this growing trend makes me uncomfortable. It’s getting tougher and tougher for the public to tell the difference between media working for independent news-gathering entities and those supplied by the sports to “cover” themselves.
But that’s life and the road we’re headed down. If you work in the traditional media, you can fight and rail against it. Or, simply take care of your own business and try to do the best work you can so that the public can differentiate between what you do and how others employed by the sports do theirs. In some cases, you can’t tell the difference. And for me, that’s even more disturbing than the existence of MLB.com, the MLB Network, NFL Network and all other sports-run “media” empires.
Like I said, you control what you can control. Any sports coach will tell you that and it’s good advice. And part of what we, as a newspaper industry, can control is the quality of the work we put out. And that means adapting to changing times, in order to best serve our readers, while maintaining the independent willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day — even if it makes us unpopular at times. No sense having an independent press if its members act like they work for a particular sports team.
This isn’t about particular rivalries within one newspaper market. There’s a bigger picture here and our entire industy’s survival is at stake. We just lost the Post-Intelligencer in Seattle. Alarm bells should have been going off locally several months ago that the status quo is no longer enough.
And just as some in our industry have made decisions, for better or for worse, that others would have cringed at a short time ago, there are demands of this job that have also changed. Providing online content is one of them. And “online content” does not mean regurgitating everything that appears in a newspaper’s print pages.
It means providing fresh, unique content that is different from what was done before. It means taking advantage of the full menu of online options that are available for a newspaper to serve the public with. That means, print, photo, audio, video and yes, perhaps even live video and audio streaming. Maybe not all at once. And maybe some things less than others. Nobody has the exact formula just yet. But in today’s multi-dimensional news world, when you have the capability to do more, there is no excuse for doing less if you want to survive.
I think blogs offer a unique opportunity to deliver information to readers better than it ever has been. With fewer constraints in terms of length and old newspaper format, you can use a sports blog to take readers closer to the action. They can read the analytical insights of people who are around the team more than the average fan, listen to the voices of players and see what the inside of ballparks look like from a fan’s perspective. And readers can interract with and question the people delivering them their news more than they ever could have with the old “Letters to the Editor” format.
This does not have to involve the compromising of journalistic ethics. Journalism has always been about selling newspapers. But that selling has come through the telling of interesting stories. Of important stories.
Good journalism means being willing to dig. It means not being afraid to tell stories that are going to make you unpopular. It has nothing to do with blogging or online content versus print content. Online content is here to stay. So is a more analytical approach to sports beat writing. The readers want it. They’ll accept nothing less. You sit back and write generic game stories at your peril if you’re a newspaper.
Are ethics compromised? I don’t see how. Most of the top beat writers I know around the country are more familliar with their subject matter than some of the general sports columnists paid to write opinions in the paper. So, why should they not have a more free hand to “tell it like it is”? The “rules of the game” in that regard are changing every day. One of the top criticisms I’ve seen from readers about beat writers is that they’re afraid to write what they really think because they’ll lose their clubhouse access. That they won’t ‘tell it like it is” the way a columnist does because of the fear of losing precious quotes that many readers feel are too generic to begin with. That isn’t “being objective” it’s being skittish. Especially in the sports world. This isn’t life and death we cover. Well, at least most times it isn’t.
Doesn’t sound like good journalism to me. And if that type of journalism isn’t flying with readers anymore, then it’s perhaps time to alter the approach. And if you’re a beat writer relying on quotes to sustain your career, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to risk losing a few of those in order to get some more important things out there under your byline.
Those are things that should be considered when it comes to good journalism versus bad journalism. Not the means of delivering the information.
And we are all trying to figure out exactly where everything fits. I heard somebody on the radio the other day pointing to a particular blog post and saying that “this is what a reporter’s blog should look like.”
Well, the fact is, the last thing our industry needs is to be outlining some “cookie cutter” formula for what newspaper blogs should look like. Nobody has that part figured out yet. There is no set menu for what one should be over another. And there may never be one. The key to selling online content and surviving as an industry is going to be in its originality. If everything looked the same, why would you choose one paper over another? That’s one of the key issues our industry has wrestled with the past few years as more and more news coverage is replaced by generic wire stories that are cheaper. I enjoy a variety of newspaper blogs, including the Mariners one written by a competitor, Ryan Divish of the Tacoma News-Tribune, and another by radio reporter Shannon Drayer. They are vastly different from this blog and that’s good. I’m encouraged by some of the different styles and trends I have seen develop around the country.
And you should be, too.
Readers now expect to see team lineups posted hours before the first pitch. They expect news of a trade to appear on a website within minutes of it going down. They expect instant analysis of breaking news. No more waiting until the morning paper arrives on your doorstep. Things are very different now than the way they operated even five years ago.
That’s just how things are. And they are not going to be any less so down the road. And our job, as friendly rivals with common objectives within that industry, should be to support our fellow newspapers as they try to find the keys to the future. If a rival blogger asks me about a particular idea, or technology, I show them how its done because we’re all better off as an industry if we adopt better tools. Competition is a good thing and keeps you on your toes. The last thing I want to see is another local newspaper shutting down.
If readers want to look at our product and feel that what we offer is unique and relevant, there is also less of a chance that newspapers will stop funding our ability to follow a team on the road. It’s not about going on a paid holiday. It’s about being right up close to a team, in a position to get information that others do have access to and then — most importantly — sharing that information and insight with readers who want to know. Making readers feel like they are on the road with that team. It’s not as easy as it sounds. But do it well enough, newspapers will think twice before cutting off your funding to do such work. They will be less-inclined to replace your road content with a generic wire-copy substitute under the assumption that readers can’t tell the difference.
That’s the theory, anyhow. And given the financial state of the newspaper industry, what can it hurt to think more along these lines?
Because down the line, we all want the next Hal McCoy types, the next wave of excellent baseball writers, to retire on their own terms without their hands being forced.

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