The Elephants in the Room

As Braylon Edwards sat nearby, sportswriter Buzz Bissinger tore into sports blogs, blaming them for the doom of quality sports journalism. OBR publisher Barry McBride argues Bissinger and others need to stop picking on easy targets, and focus on much more challenging problems...

During the much-publicized Buzz Bissinger rant against sports blogs broadcast last week on HBO, the judgmental sportswriter at one point appeared to give up, kicking the door closed on the future of sportswriting by saying "this guy (Will Leitch of Deadspin), whether we like it or not, is the future". He added his suspicion that his sixteen-year-old son would be doomed to absorb an era of sportswriting which is glib, profane, quick, and often inaccurate.

This is the familiar refrain, now applied to sports journalism, of men who feel that the generation which follows them can only summon up the energy to be lazy and undisciplined. Every successive generation claims the one after it will send the world, or at least part of it, to Hades in the proverbial handbasket.

Like Bissinger, I have a teenage son. Unlike Bissinger, I don't think his future is one filled with sportswriting that is solely snarky remarks and cameraphone images of drunken quarterbacks.

Of course, I have a certain bias, based on ten years of developing the OBR from a handful of pages protesting the theft of the Browns into the multi-media giant* it is today. As bleak a picture as may be painted below, I believe that there is such a thing as "responsible and professional internet journalism", and that it will survive into the future.

I don't believe that traditional, print-based, responsible sports journalism will disappear because fans will decide that they prefer to get their sports news from the likes of Deadspin.

But while individuals like Bissinger spend their time raging Against the blogosphere, very real problems are left to fester.

Then again, these issues require more than loud venting at sophomoric blog antics. These issues require hard choices and firm stands.

On many of them, however, the sports journalism community is strangely silent.


CHALLENGE 1: Your Craft is now a Commodity

On Sunday, I wrote about how internet technologies erased "imperfect markets" and created open competition which crushed profit margins.

That same day, Microsoft walked away from an offer to purchase internet pioneer Yahoo!

It's hard to come up with a better example of how writing has been commoditized than the way it took less than a day for 2,000+ largely overlapping articles to appear on this single item of news.

Are there any markets you can think of which support 2,000 slightly different versions of the same product? As more are produced, the value of each individual item goes to zero.

The newspaper business has gone from being Lord and Master of a geographic region, selling print ads at reasonably high margins, to facing swarms of competitors all battling over low-margin web ads selling at unpredictable rates.

In this respect, traditional journalists should worry less about blogs than each other, and competition coming from the teams themselves.. A single sports fan doesn't need to read a dozen versions of the same story.

A friend of mine in another town ruefully described to me the other week about how beat writers in his town rush to their blogs as soon as any news items breaks. We all crank out similar stories within hours or minutes, each one taking more fans to the web rather than print. We cut our own throats, post by post, unable to stop because no one else will stop, rushing headlong towards irrelevancy.

There is no answer for this. No going back. There will be a shakeout. People will lose their jobs, and there will be much thrashing in the meantime.

Possible answers for local papers/portals who lose the luxury of full-time reporters will likely take the form of relying more on less-expensive AP or news service stories or creating their own pools. They will have to innovate new types of coverage or find new niches.

There will be less people who are able to make a living writing about individual teams in the future. And it has practically nothing to do with sites like Deadspin.


CHALLENGE 2: The Napsterization of Your Work

Now a struggling subscription music service, Napster was once the darling of investors and the nemesis of the music industry. Since replaced by bittorrent and other means to swipe music for free, Napster proved that any digitized content can be easily distributed regardless of copyright, denying the original creators profits from their efforts.

Music fans flocked to the notion that "free" was a lot better than spending $15.99 per encoded plastic disk, starting the process whereby the industry's promoters and middlemen would be sent to the ashcan of history.

It's rarely mentioned in this context, but copying and exchange of digital information applies not only to movies, music, and images**, but also to text.

Where blogs play into this is that they can become essentially low-cost portals for sports news. By leaping on new stories as they break, paraphrasing them and presenting them in an entertaining manner, bloggers can steal page views, and revenue from the people who did the original work.

Most damaging to old sportswriters at this point aren't blogs, however. They are sites who furiously post away, capturing every news item they find, rephrasing it and relaying it themselves. Traditional journalists have to worry less about bloggers than they do fantasy sports services like KFFL and Rotowire, which started as services for fantasy players but generally mutate into news portals as they discover that they can profit from rapidly regurgitating news.

There is no longer any real value in many types of news stories. A story about free agent signing or coaching change, for example, will be taken, paraphrased, and repeated within minutes of breaking. The person who did the work, got the story, confirmed it, and wrote about it will often only have minutes until their work has been re-purposed by individuals who did nothing more than read and summarize it.

The portal refers only a small portion of their traffic to the originating site. In some cases, fantasy services don't even link the original source. In this respect, blogs like Deadspin are pretty good about at least linking to the story. Some are more scurrilous, rephrasing stories and simply saying that the information came from "a source".

At least giving away other people's music and movies requires somewhat sophisticated technologies. The news, which is just simple text, doesn't even need this. There's no copy protection, no RIAA suing fans who read paraphrased stories.

Like musicians and some elements of the software business, the news business may have to simply accept that it has to give away it's basic product for free and sell something else. Here at the OBR, we give away basic news stories without an expectation that someone would subscribe to see them, or that we'll make much of anything from the ads displayed on them. We don't know if the model will be ultimately successful.

CHALLENGE 3: Life Outside the Dyson Sphere

Physicist Freeman Dyson is credited with a notion that has considerable mindshare among those who search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Dyson postulated that advanced civilizations would have to deal with ever-increasing energy needs, which would eventually outstrip their supply of in-ground fuels***, and would turn to abundant solar power. As their energy needs increased further, or their sun aged, Dyson suggested that sufficiently advanced civilizations would resort to creating a gigantic sphere which would capture every ray of light from their local star, encasing it in a giant artificial bubble to collect every last scrap of energy and sealing it off from view to the outside.

Which brings us to my own long-standing concerns about differences in the way that sports franchises, journalists and fans view sports coverage.

NFL clubs, or any pro sports franchise, are tempted to view everything about that team as their asset. They already sell the rights to look at it via television and in person as it plays games, even charging fans full price to watch practice games. Radio stations are charged to broadcast the games, with teams producing the broadcasts themselves.

Internet-based team coverage is simply a logical and legally defensible extension of that concept. Fans have already shown a willingness to withstand the possible loss of objectivity in self-coverage with team-owned radio broadcasts, for example. They endure a tightly wound ball of corporate nepotism when it comes to all broadcast coverage. Why not the internet?

Like all businesses, NFL clubs don't want to give their assets away for free. They will increasingly surround their teams with an informational Dyson sphere, absorbing every ray of light they can, either charging fans for access or selling rights to advertisers.

Of course, fans can see this process taking place. In 2007, NFL clubs removed the ability for websites to post audio and video taken at their facilities, except for the team's own outlet. Sideline photography options during games was taken away from most organizations, again, except for the team's own outlet. Moreover, no internet-only news organizations are credentialed at all. Except, of course for the team's own outlet, or business partners. See the pattern? Major League Baseball, in some ways, is even more restrictive.

At every step, groups like the Pro Football Writers Association express how upset they are, and similar groups like AP News Editors hold meetings with league executives. But the trend continues inexorably on.

To fight this, independent news organizations will have to be more aggressive in fighting back to retain coverage opportunities which are taken away. This likely won't have much success until it enters the legal arena and fundamental public benefits that franchises enjoy - monopoly status, publicly-subsidized stadiums - are threatened by the restrictions they place on journalists.

This is nothing new. I've seen it in other industries as companies try to go from selling through intermediaries like retailers and insurance agents to selling direct. Piece by piece, step by step, advantages are created for direct outlets, cutting out the middlemen while moving slowly and carefully enough to avoid losing access to the channel until it's no longer needed.

I hope I'm wrong on this, I really do.

I see this ultimately backfiring on sports franchises. News organizations will likely use ever more extreme means to fight for their survival. You will see more sensationalism and grasping for stories as news organizations have less and less to lose by offending franchises and become more desperate for traffic. If franchises remove their leverage by removing access, all bets will really truly be off.

If you don't like that drunk quarterback photo on Deadspin, wait until it's on the front page of the local newspaper and web portal. Wait until news organizations with significant reach have to resort to similar antics of their own to attract attention.

If things follow a particular path, Buzz Bissinger may actually turn out to be right about what sportswriting will become. But we will meet the enemy, and it will be us.

In future installments, I will talk about how bloggers will have to change to achieve long-term success, why fans are largely unsympathetic to the challenges the traditional media faces, who is next on the chopping block, and what the future really holds.


* Ahem. Cough.

** It should probably pointed out that most blogs and fan sites simply take, manipulate, and re-purpose photos of interest to them.

*** For experimental proof how this trend is expressed in macro-economic terms, simply go to your local gas station and fill up your tank.


The OBR Top Stories