Rage Against the Blogosphere

Nature is a brutal overlord. Species thrive, and then perish. So, too, do individuals and businesses, particularly in the age of the internet. Cleveland Browns WR Braylon Edwards found himself on the killing fields last week, as two sides of a new conflict raged at each other. OBR publisher Barry McBride looks at the controversy...

Last Tuesday night, Bob Costas' HBO show, Costas Now, featured a segment dedicated to looking at the internet sports media. In order to complete their in-depth examination, Costas and his producers brought onto the stage the following experts on the subject area:

  • Will Leitch, manager/editor/whatever of a sports blog site called Deadspin,

  • Buzz Bissinger, a sportswriter and, apparently, a rage-infused lunatic,

  • Braylon Edwards, who appears to have enough wisdom regarding the internet and media to steadfastly avoid both.

Costas' enmity for the blogging community hasn't been a secret, so it was anticipated that the segment would provide him an arena to tee off on the lack of professionalism found in many blogs. For my part, I was curious as to what in the world Edwards was doing there. (Answer: Eyeing the fastest escape routes).

Other than being loud, the program didn't offer anything new in terms of understanding the conflict which has arisen between bloggers and the traditional sports media. It did provide a great deal of angst, profanity, and softballs for bloggers who like mocking the mainstream press, so commentary on it was difficult to avoid if you spend any time on sports web sites.

If you're like me and don't subscribe to HBO, or just like hearing people fuss at each other, you can see the segments here or below:

 

Essentially, Bissinger pointed out how much he despises the type of content he finds on blogs and Leitch rationalized providing entertainingly vacuous blog posts at a furious pace. For his part, Braylon Edwards tried retain his dignity while dodging any salivary shrapnel which found its way into his personal space.

I wouldn't say that the group was completely clueless, but each views the conflict through the narrow prism of their individual efforts. Some of the facts you hear are true: Newspapers really are quantifiably struggling, some blog sites focus on the sensational and the profane, and so forth.

But a lot of the conclusions are simply wrong. Sites like Deadspin aren't "the future" and real sports journalism is far from doomed.

Before I explain why their conclusions are incorrect and angst unwarranted, let's briefly examine what happens when new technology arrives and screws everything up. I'll try to get through the geekspeak as fast as possible.


Disruptive Technologies 101

Before I started publishing the Orange and Brown Report, I was able to carve out a decent living as a management consultant for one of the "Big Five" consulting firms. Most of my clients were large and established companies and, like the print media, they were struggling with the way that the internet challenged the fundamental underpinnings of their industry.

They generally struggled even more after I gave them the bill for consulting services, but that's a different issue.

My clients were dealing with many of the same issues that are causing so much consternation in newspaper offices around the country.

The smart ones will survive the ensuing shake-out. Those who stand to the side, castigating the new entrants for their snotty impertinence, will fail. The ecosystem is changing rapidly, and those who can't evolve will become extinct.

In memory of what was once a promising career, here are some of my favorite 2001 buzzwords applied to the sports media:

Disintermediation: Goodbye middle-man. Just like Dell could sell directly to the consumer rather than having to stock computers at Sears, teams and leagues can now go directly to fans without relying on the old gatekeepers in the media. They can "sell direct" by opening up their own websites and stocking them with in-house writers.

Perfect Markets: Before the mid-90s, if you had two stores selling a particular item in your town, you had to run between them to comparison shop. If you just had one, you were basically out of luck. Customers had to buy whatever the stores had at whatever price they put on it, or go without. This "imperfect market" changed dramatically as the internet appeared. The availability of dozens of web-based stores and comparison shopping portals dramatically drove down margins, forcing retailers to drive down costs to compete in a low-margin environment.

Similarly, fans can quickly move between dozens of sports sites, reading what they like, rather than being limited to whatever paper is in their town. Speed and quality are now the differentiators, not availability. Newspapers are having to dramatically push down their expenses.

Ease of Entry: In order to sell things prior to 1995, you needed a physical presence: buildings, inventory, people. It took a lot of time and money to build, discouraging competition, or at least dramatically slowing it. Amazon and its kin changed that. Likewise, getting into the news business now involves spending ten minutes registering on Wordpress, rather than requiring access to an  expensive infrastructure to store, print, and deliver paper. New competitors arrive one after another, an endless stream of fans providing "news" and commentary.

The media thinks that their battle is somehow unique, but it's far from it. It's all the same thing. 


The Roar of the Doomed

Should media members be upset about what is happening to their industry? Certainly. Disruption often helps consumers but throws suppliers into chaos. It has a human cost, both economic and psychological. People lose their jobs, see their salaries diminish or have to work harder to survive in the new environment.

Ask yourself, though: Is that the argument that's being made against bloggers by shows like Costas Now?

Not in the slightest.

 People like Bissinger, Costas and many others claim to be upset about what is being written, aand blogs like Deadspin give them lots of ammunition.  

But that's not really honest. What's really upsetting them is how technology has disrupted their industry and seeing how they've been reduced from being the gatekeepers of information to having to compete in a newly vast sea of yammering voices.

What they're really saying is "what we do is better than what these new punks do".

What you hear from Bissinger, et al, is similar to what proprietors of a Mom and Pop bookstore in Ohio might have said about Amazon.com back in 2000. I can hear it now: "They don't give personalized service", "You can't even talk to a person", "Who wants to shop at a computer?", "I can't imagine a world without a real bookstore", etc, etc.

 I view these sorts of attacks as just hastening their demise. The thrust of programs like Costas Now reek of self-interest. Once the media starts reporting about itself, objectivity tends to go out the window.

Deadspin isn't their problem. It's just an example of how some of the new entrants fail to respect old boundaries. They appear to be youngsters who haven't paid their dues and who are suddenly prosperous in an industry filled with financial misery. Of course the old guard will hate them, but that's missing the point entirely.

The roaring and anger you hear about blogs are the same sounds that dinosaurs made as they sank into the tar pits. It's the mournful sound of doomed members of a species which is failing to adapt and sees itself becoming extinct.

Blogging isn't the mainstream media's enemy. Blogs are just nice packaged bundles of technology which allow people to push words into web browsers without much technical know-how. Those words aren't inherently better or worse than the ones that appear in newspapers. Irresponsible journalists can work for newspapers. Good analysis can appear in blogs.

If they want to survive, what the mainstream media needs to change its tune. It needs concern itself with a somewhat different set of issues, which are much harder to tackle than standing to the side clucking at internet versions of Howard Stern or Don Imus.  

Tomorrow, I'll explain what the traditional media should really be worried about, why I wouldn't pay a lot of money to buy Deadspin,, and why Buzz Bissinger doesn't need to throw himself off a ledge.


Barry McBride is the publisher of the Orange and Brown Report and can be reached at barry@theobr.com. He confesses to being overly familiar with Microsoft Powerpoint.


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