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On The Nature And Future Of Journalism

Traditional Sports Journalism continues on the same death spiral that all traditional journalism is experiencing. Why is this and what role does SBN have to play in it?

Scott Barbour

I was talking with a friend of mine from another Pac-12 SBN site the other day. When his school came to Haas to play Cal in MBB, he got access to press row via that site's press credentials and enjoyed the game, while blogging about it. The only problem? His laptop has a giant sticker of his school's mascot on it, which is generally verbotten on press row.

So, let's set the stage here. As you pan down press row, you see journalist after journalist. Men and/or women who spent years getting education at the finest journalism schools in the land. Then, they spent even MORE years training at newspapers or magazines or news websites. They honed their craft, working hard to be the best journalist they can be.

And then, there's a school teacher. His only real credential is his insane passion for his team, coupled with his willingness to waste a significant amount of time writing about it. It's a feeling I know all too well. He has received no journalist education. He has no professional training as a journalist. He, along with the rest of us so-called bloggers, are just pretending to be journalists. We're doing our best to figure out what it is a journalist actually does and then we're mimicking that to the best of our abilities.

We're school teachers, we're lawyers, we're government employees (your tax dollars at work!), we're middle managers, we're lawyers, we're dentists, we're PhD students, we're lawyers, we're bankers, and, also lest I forget, we're lawyers. Basically, SBN has a LOT of lawyers (we're always at a computer, obnoxiously loud, think everybody needs to hear our opinions on things, and are incredibly good at making it sound like we know what we are talking about). In our spare time, we put on our fedoras with the word "PRESS" written on the side of it and play pretend journalist. We are kind of like this:

By pretending to play journalist, I mean we try to put our obvious biases aside and try to ask intelligent sounding questions. That is what we think journalists do. We try to talk to people and cultivate secrets sources to have "exclusives," because that is what we think journalists do. We wouldn't know. We've never been journalists. We try to make it not seem like we've been rabid fans following the team for decades on end, willing to spread the propaganda of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Oski at a moment's notice.

And, in the last 5-10 years, we've generally been successful. Blogging sites like SBN are not the sole reason why ye olde newspapers/magazines are crumbling, but we're part of that jigsaw puzzle. Yes, Cragislist is 1,000x more problematic to the San Francisco Chronicle than SBN ever will be, but we're one thread in that tapestry.

Plus, sports bloggers aren't the only ones causing headaches for the journalism industry. Sites like Daily Kos and Huffington Post affect political journalism. I am sure that anywhere there is journalism of any genre (sports, financial, political, etc), there are passionate receptionists/programmers/engineers wasting their time playing at journalist. The industry as a whole is dying.

The Nature Of Journalism.

So, what is it about journalism that has caused this? I cannot think of another field with similar problems. Passionately insane yoga teachers aren't showing up in Courtrooms going "I LOVE THE LAW! I LOVE THE LAW SO MUCH, I'M JUST GONNA KEEP SHOWING UP TO COURT AND WRITING ABOUT THE LAW AND SHOWING UP TO COURT AND WRITING ABOUT THE LAW UNTIL YOU LET ME PRACTICE THE LAW! WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE" There aren't fans of mortgage brokers trying to set up loans for people in their spare time.

I think it is ultimately because journalists peddle information. They sell facts. Many other fields, such as attorneys, are knowledge jockeys, too. But those fields tend to sell incredibly arcane information. Journalists sell present sense experiences. They sell what is happening right now to them or to people who they trust to listen to. Then, they turn it around, package it up with a dollop of context, and try to sell it to their readers.

Anybody can experience things. Anybody can listen to people that they trust and write down their experiences. Anybody who a modicum of knowledge can provide appropriate context. Sports writing in particular is fairly easy. Who won? What was the score? What were the themes of the game/match/contest? You don't need to have extensive knowledge of the history of Bosnia or the science of the kidney to provide context. Journalists who parachute into a place for their job will never be able to compete with insane fans who can rattle off the score of every Cal game for the last 20 years and remember with explicit detail what happened in this game or that from the Clinton administration.

Yes, journalists can still do great character pieces, like this one from the Chronicle on Jorge. However, with some hard work, we insane fans can create similarly great pieces, like this one from Lindsay Brauner on Tierra Rodgers. That is why purple prose was so prevalent in sports writing a century-ish ago. It's tough to sell "Team A beat Team B and Player X continued his great play" unless your readership is already interested in the outcome as it is. It is much easier to sell the glorious and epic descriptions of the game. Take this example of faux-purple prose for a Braves v. Mets game from 2008:

The Bearded Icon was dented by an ailing wing, rusty from a lack of spring practice time, and Hamlet-esque over his desire to make an initial foray to the raised stage sixty and six from home plate in 2008. Tom "Benedict" Glavine stepped in, and agreed to swap dates on the bump, allowing Old Baldy to avoid prolonged exposure to the Rocky Mountain Chill. The catch? The hurling enemy on the Sabbath day - the man who inspired Bowie to pen "Changes," The Two-Seam Savior - Johan Santana, and his new employers from New York.

It takes genuine skill as a writer, as a sports journalist, to pen something like that. It would be a challenge for me to do that, for sure. For reasons that are opaque to me, purple prose sports writing fell out of favor in the last 50 years. Now, there is basically two types of sports writing: play by play and color commentary. The first is "What happened?" and the second is "Here are my thoughts on what happened." Anybody can write the former and any insane fan (aka blogger) is 10 steps ahead of the journalists when it comes to the latter. We eat, sleep, and drink this stuff. It is but their job, a stepping stone in their career.

The democratization of information because of the internet is a key component to this. Before, journalists were in the key positions (whether due to access or sources) to hoard this information and dole it out for maximum financial gain. Now, that information is democratized. if you wanted to know something (like how many stolen bases Rickey Henderson had in 1982), you had to go somewhere to look it up. Now, you have the answer to that question (plus almost any other question ever) in your shirt pocket. People have as much information as journalists often do.

As blogging increases in validity and further insane fans who are willing to waste their time and spouse's good will get press passes, the differences between bloggers and journalist will decrease only further. Now, bloggers are at the press conferences, they are interviewing the players, they are down on the field or at press row during games. Their ability to pretend to be journalists is just getting better and better.

Sports Journalism Currently Underserves Most Markets

Additionally, it is clear to me that journalists underserve the market as a whole. Certain things sell (see Yankees, Red Sox v. or Rod, A-), but those are interesting to a few fanbases and tend to annoy the rest of us in their overbearing and ever present nature. Not even Tim Tebow's mom cares as much about Tim Tebow as ESPN thinks we do. I know that Cal fans are underserved by normal journalism, because anytime there's even a scant mention of Cal on ESPN or wherever, I see fans delighting in that glorious nectar. Our readers want all Cal all the time and could care less about the biggest "national" stories. It is concentric circles, starting at Memorial Stadium and working outwards towards the Pac-12, NCAA sports, pro sports etc etc. As the circle gets larger, the interest from Cal fans decreases.

We bloggers are no different. We just find ourselves in a position to fill that market need. While ESPN would never spend 1 second on a random Cal football practice, we spend hours writing about them, analyzing them, tweeting about them, watching them, discussing them, and generally carrying on in a slightly embarrassing fashion. And by slightly, I mean very. And by very, I mean IN NO WAY!

The worst part? We give it away for free! We're like Wal-Mart, undercutting everybody else's prices. Journalists just want to make money and feed their family doing what they love. There's even other quasi-pro sites like Rivals/Scout that charge money for subscriptions to their content. So, you can have the newspaper, Rivals, Scout, and a SBN site at a practice. They are all experiencing the same things and are going to essentially provide the same information in their write ups. Some may be more creative than others, but it is the same basic information. Some for free, some for money. If you went to a store and they had basically 4 of the same widget for sale (and you REALLY needed a widget, so you HAD to buy one), you'd go for the one that's free every time.

Sorry, journalists! We're not doing this on purpose, we're just insane.

Fans Before Journalists.

I started thinking about this, not only because of the story of my friend at the start of this, but also because when CGB got a press pass, we realized that few people ACTUALLY wanted to use it. Person after person demurred using it, because it could interfere with their gameday experiences. Sure, people want to play journalist, but nobody wants that to interfere with being a fan.

People have been going to games for years with their friends, which is the fundamental reason why we are the insane fans that we are. To ask questions at a press conference is to miss a post-game Top Dog with friends. To sit on press row is to be away from the people you've been going to games with for the last 20 years. We have people ready to go with them, but it just was interesting watching people, such as myself, work so hard to get a press pass and then want to have nothing to do with its actual usage once we finally got it!

I don't know what the future holds on this. I do not see it going backwards at all. Insane amateur fans will only continue to gain access based on the merit of their hard work. They will continue to give away their information product (aka posts) for free and continue to undercut journalists. Newspapers will continue to reduce their financial investments in sports and then the schools will only increase their reliance on insane uber fans to get word/information out. As the schools increase access for insane fans, than the one last, true arrow in a journalist's quiver (breaking news direct from the source) will decrease, because the amateurs will be in the exact same spot as the journalists. It is a cycle that will only get worse and worse (or better and better, depending on your view).

What is your thought on this, dear reader? If you are reading this, you are, in some small way, contributing to the death of the traditional sports writing industry.