Friday, May 02, 2008

On Bissinger and the Myths of Blogging

Proceed if you want ramblings on the Bissinger-Leitch thing a full two days after it was a "thing."

Couple of caveats: This isn't nearly as eloquent as the analysis produced by Leitch himself, or others like Joe Posnanski or Orson Swindle or Brian Powell or over at KSK. Actually, it may feel like I vomited all of my various media theories onto one post.

Some of this I just wanted to get down on paper; some are not as thought out as they could be. Some thoughts lack the nuance – or even originality – they deserve, but I just don't have the time to put into yet. Hell, each paragraph probably begs 6 paragraphs' worth of follow-on analysis and explanation (which I won't subject you to here). It was written last night, after I have had a chance to absorb a lot of the post-Bissinger commentary.

Again, apologies for the length and lack of clarity and/or focus. If you only care about blogs as a means to read and talk about sports, rather than as some kind of meta-thing within sports, please feel free to skip this post entirely.

Myth No. 1: Al blogs – and bloggers – are created equal.

My biggest issue with the complaints about bloggers from guys like Bissinger or Wilbon or Costas or whomever is that they paint with such a broad brush.

I cannot stress this enough: Blogging is a platform. It would be like saying, "All TV shows are bad." Or "All radio shows are bad." Or "All newspapers are bad." Or, even, "All fans are bad."

Again: Blogs are a platform.

It is critical to every follow-on argument made, because if you dig into the details to understand the nuance – as any journalist should want to – "all" is, of course, absurd. Almost as absurd as assigning values to a platform, rather than its participants.

That's a great segue: People like Bissinger who care about great writing should LOVE blogs – and all online media platforms – because more than any other medium in sports, it is a meritocracy, a point Will tried to make on Tuesday night.

Sure, it is open to anyone – you will always find a bell-curve of quality. But those who use the platform best (and that can happen in a lot of ways) will emerge, just as Deadspin did.

If you don't serve fans well, you will not be read. Period.

And so if you're in it for the money, that means the end of your revenue stream; if you're in it for the audience, that means the end of your audience.

And the meritocracy is simple: Create great stuff, and it will be found. Yes, bloggers rely on amplification and network effects of links from people with wider audiences (like bigger blogs or TV shows), but those people with wider audiences are actually under more pressure to create quality content. Don't bring your "A" game, and consumers will tune you out. But if you create great stuff consistently enough, you won't need the links in other blogs, because you will generate an audience on your own. What a wonderful system.

Compare that to mainstream media, where there is little meritocracy:

Old-media columnists are installed, given space and promotion and rewarded handsomely – all without any understanding of how they actually drive readers or engagement. Online media is brutally precise: Every day – every minute – with the Quickie, I knew how many people were reading it on ESPN.com, just as I know at all times how many people are reading the blog. (Even the Quickie's numbers could be skewed artificially: A link from ESPN.com's front page with the right kind of tantalizing headline and I could drive hundreds of thousands of page views. Unpromoted on the front, I could have a fraction of that audience.)

You could argue, like Mike Tirico did on Tuesday, that TV is a very ratings-driven product. That's true, but it is impossible to disaggregate the effects of talent, especially when the match-up of the teams on the field is what drives tune-in more than any other factor. Does Tony Kornheiser bring new viewers to Monday Night Football? It is entirely unclear. Does Skip Bayless bring new viewers to Cold Pizza/First Take? Intuitively, it doesn't seem to be the case. But yet there he is. (I accept that's a cheap shot: Picking on Bayless as an "example," rather than "exception" is as selective as Bissinger and Costas picking a particularly bawdy Deadspin post over the usual fare.)

But you can't deny that the precision of traffic numbers – not to mention the lack of switching costs; the hundreds (if not thousands) of choices; and the very finite amount of time one has to consume sports media – creates a far more qualified playing field than you see in any other sports-media platform.

The underlying meritocracy is at the heart of why you can't apply any broad characterizations to the content produced through new-media platforms.

Myth No. 2: Bloggers are unqualified basement-dwellers.

"Who is this guy and what is his expertise?" Michael Wilbon loves to push this canard, repeated again during the HBO intro piece.

Wilbon and I are both proud graduates of Northwestern's journalism school, and I think Wilbon would agree with me that it is the best journalism education in the world. Does that makes me, the shallow couch-typing blogger, more qualified than Costas, Albom, Bissinger, LeBatard or anyone with a lesser journalism education? (I also have a prestigious-sounding MBA, which is a very expensive bonus.) No: As much as I'd love to throw this in the face of blog-critics, it's ludicrous. But let's be clear:

I'm not alone in my background: I'd guess almost every sports blogger is college-educated. Most are very smart. Many have previous journalism or writing experience. Wilbon would agree: Writing a good sentence is hard, which is why most sportswriters can't (and don't) do it nearly as often as they think they do. Same goes for bloggers.

But I would give at least a little credit to all the bloggers out there for TRYING. Enthusiasm can make up for a lot of short-comings, and if you care enough about something to spend your unpaid time and energy doing it, that's caring in a way that a paid professional journalist can't – and perhaps wouldn't – undertake.

There is no shame in giving anyone their say: You don't have to give it any more weight than you want to (just like any other sports medium) and you certainly don't have to consume it.

And if a PTI or talk-radio producer sees enough in a scandalous storyline to want to amplify it to a broader audience of TV or radio, that is their prerogative – and I defer to their expertise in their sports-media platform.

The underlying premise is the most important: What's wrong with giving anyone the chance to have their say?

Myth No. 3: Bloggers are lazy opinion-lobbers.

As someone who has been on both sides, I would argue that "sitting on the couch" and "sitting in a studio" is basically the same.

On PTI, when Wilbon gets 1 minute to talk about a topic he hasn't personally investigated beyond widely available sources (if even that), it is no more "expert" than your average blogger (or guy on a barstool or in the bleachers).

Some bloggers (like me) model their work precisely on this kind of "name-the-topic, I'll-give-an-opinion" of PTI or Around the Horn.

The best bloggers – I'm thinking of the team bloggers, specifically – follow their "beat" as carefully as any local columnist at a mainstream outlet.

They inhale every available public source – not unlike a "national" reporter for a mainstream media outlet or Web site. They take advantage of work by beat reporters.

When I say "take advantage," I don't mean "steal" – I mean "lean on," just as every single pundit and producer in sports media (newspaper, TV, radio or anywhere) uses.

The difference is that while most bloggers are just as likely to cite the source as any other respectable sports-media platform, bloggers will also link to the original source.

Guess what: The link is more valuable than the mention, both for direct audience and to influence discoverability via search engines, which weight in part on link-backs.

Some bloggers are the voice of the fan on the couch (which, I'd argue, isn't a bad place to be, given that 99.9 percent of the consumers experience sports the same way). Some bloggers are as serious – or more – about their beat than the mainstream reporters.

I can sum it up best this way: For reporters, the beat is their livelihood; for the best bloggers, it is their life.

Myth No. 4: Blog discourse is vulgar at worst, inane at best.

Aha: One of the biggest misconceptions, on full display Tuesday night. Please, critics, I beg you: Learn the difference between a blog post written by the blog's editor and the comments submitted by readers that run alongside the post.

At their best, blog comments add 1000 percent value to a post. Deadspin posts would be fun without comments, but comments make them SO much better. Just as the worst 10 percent are brutal, the best 10 percent are utterly amazing.

Commenters fact- (or reality-) check the author. They push the topic in new and unexpected ways. They bring producer closer to consumer than they have ever been, and they provide a level of engagement unseen in media previously.

Can comments suck? Absolutely. Look no further than this blog, where I effectively cut off comments by making them "moderated" (by me, irregularly). On the other hand, I helped the commenting "regulars" to create a new blog environment just for them, and generally, the comments are on point and enjoyed.

But let's be clear about vulgarity and/or inanity and/or shallowness: This is not unique to blogs or bloggers or blog commenters. You can find it on TV (well beyond sports), on the radio, even in newspapers (just read FireJoeMorgan to see the worst of the worst inanity).

If you want to lament the state of consumers' tastes, feel free. But don't blame blogs or bloggers: Some play to a lowest-common denominator, but – re-framed – some have a very acute understanding of consumer tastes that mainstream media execs would be smart to tap into (which is why you see so many creating blogs and blog-ish content).

Words written carry more weight than words spoken, because the comments on talk radio or PTI or the bleachers or the barstool are no less charged with emotion than they are in the comments section of a sports blog.

Myth No. 5: Blogs are a threat (a.k.a. the "Either-Or" Theory)

"Either-or" proponents seem to think that blogs are replacing other media coverage: Yes, it is true that media consumption is a zero-sum game. Each fan has X amount of time to consume media, and they make choices fairly rationally.

Presumably, they wouldn't spend their most valuable and finite commodity – time – on stuff that didn't satisfy them. (Or, at least, they wouldn't for long.)

The fragmentation of the media landscape is threatening to some, but to others, it has created opportunity to serve fans in the way fans want to be served.

ESPN's mission – brilliantly and simply – is "to serve fans." We can argue about whether they approach that mantra earnestly or, occasionally, cynically, but I think that bloggers, generally, follow the same guideline.

Sure, some of the motivation is to "have your say," but it is the rare blogger who doesn't care whether that "say" exists in a vacuum or not – who doesn't want an audience?

If newspaper editors and other MSM folks thought the landscape was competitive, they should try breaking through the clutter of the blogosphere to create content with traction.

You create traction by serving people something they value. If you serve enough individual people, you serve a community. Serve them well, you will have an audience. Expand that service and you will grow your audience.

(That's what I ask every would-be blogger: Which specific audience are you serving? Are they already being served? If so, are they being served well? How will you serve them differently?)

I said this yesterday: Blanket, allergic reactions like Bissinger's and Wilbon's are born more from insecurity – on behalf of an industry they love (Wilbon) or their own careers (Bissinger). What fascinates me are that these are the last guys who need to be worried.

The guy with the existing platform and institutional support doesn't need to feel insecure (which is why persistent insecurity issues from guys like Kornheiser and Simmons baffles me – those two are the most powerful and protected voices in sports media!)

The insecurity more rightfully belongs to the person who is trying to generate enough traffic on their blog to make a little beer money – or dare to dream that they can land a rare "full-time" gig being paid to blog.

Remember: The blog is a platform. New media is about platforms – new forms of delivery for content, whether that's a blog, a YouTube upload, a podcast, a Twitter page, hell, even a Facebook app.

The smartest folks – not usually the front-line "talent," but the execs upstairs – are focused (if kind of late with that focus) on these platforms. There are some terrific examples of mainstream reporters and columnists exploring these new platforms (Posnanski's blog, the New York Times' blogs).

If it's an "I don't get it" thing, I would be happy to help them understand what the opportunity – not the threat – is.

What bothered me most about Tuesday night – along with most every other mainstream discussion/analysis/opinion about blogs or blogging or bloggers – is that it dealt in vague generalities, which is why you end up with Bissinger's "All blogs suck."

The best part of yesterday's coverage of the Bissinger-Leitch thing wasn't any of the blog triumphalism (or just plain dumping on Bissinger, who is more of a lamentable character than ire-inducing), which I didn't like.

It was the posts that helped point out the nuance of the discussion, the debate, the so-called "divide." They allowed for the shades of gray that are involved in ANY discussion about sports media. What those posts – and my pondering – beg is more discussion.

All blogs suck? No, it's a meritocracy.
All bloggers are sorry amateurs? Hardly.
All bloggers are lazy? No, just me.
All bloggers are profane/inane? Fuck no.
All blogs are a threat? Only if you feel threatened.

It's time to move on from this particular episode, but there is no reason to think that the larger discussion won't – or shouldn't -- continue. "Can't we all get along" is not mutually exclusive from "Can I finish my point?"

But from my vantage point, the people with the bigger problem are the ones who seem the most uncomfortable with the pace and direction of changes to sports media.

-- D.S.

Update: There is a lot of truth in Bethlehem Shoals' impassioned position on this.

10 comments:

Dr. Oh No Romo said...

Well done Dan!

You made your points and you provided your evidence. Gold star for you.

I wanted to go to Northwestern, but I couldn't ante up the $40,000 per year.

marcomarco said...

Well done Dan. You win the Backhanded Compliment of the Day Award about the DSCommenters blog!

My take on Bissinger: He's old. He's the 'borderline retiree' in the office that:

1. Refuses to use the 'stupid' computers.
2. Prefers the phone over email.
3. Does his taxes by hand.
4. Can't find the power button

He's scared, and deservedly so. His posturing was hypocritical and pathetic. Anyone under 50 laughed, over 50 cheered.

Old Guard vs Young Talent. Happens in every industry, every generation.

In 10 years he'll be retired and quiet.

Joseph said...

Couldn't agree more. Very well put. Also, when I was in the CENTER FOR SPORTS JOURNALISM at Penn State where I graduated with a JOURNALISM DEGREE, Buzz Bissinger came to the school as a guest speaker.
When he was there, he said how there a lot of people in Odessa that hate him for writing Friday Night Lights and the coach won't talk to you. Now we all know why.

(Look Buzz, a journalism grad, who is also a freelance sportswriter and former staff member of a newspaper, reads blogs! And likes them!)

chipp said...

Awesome! Well done.

Joseph said...

Very well put. I absolutely agree with you on all points.
Just like to pass along a quick little story here for everyone, including Buzz. When I was a student in the CENTER FOR SPORTS JOURNALISM at Penn State, where I graduated with a JOURNALISM DEGREE, Bissinger visited campus as a guest speaker. During his time, he talked about how he is hated by a great deal of people in Odessa after writing Friday Night Lights and the coach, as well as several others, won't talk to or acknowledge him. Now we all know why.

Hey Buzz, look at that: A college graduate, with a journalism degree, who works as a freelance sportswriter and used to be on staff as a sportswriter (I'm currently an editor/writer at a publishing company) reads and enjoys blogs!!! Go figure!

blue said...

I'm very proud of you today Dan.

Mike D said...

Good stuff Dan! Maybe there's hope for you! Good work

Dance said...

Especially like your No. 3. One of the interesting things about both the Costas and Fox BDSS shows, is that people said (loose paraphrase) "well, I think TV is safe, but the writers legitimately feel threatened by blogs". Actually, blogs *exactly* threaten the kind of talking head show that Costas and Fox BDSS do. If I have already read a blog post and followed a selection of links on the topic of the day, why do I need to stay up for BDSS and sit through topics I'm not interested in?

What blogs don't threaten is the type of long-term investigation that produces Friday Night Lights, etc. Leitch's book deal proves that blogs are *generating* long-form sports writing, in fact. Bissinger probably does have a point about the general quality of writing declining, but blaming it on blogs is a very narrow analysis of the problem.

So I found the insecurities on display very odd also.

Dan Mega said...

For the longest time, sports-writers could write anything they wanted and nothing in print would question them. Now, you have bloggers watching them all like hawks and jumping all over them at first opportunity, and the good ole boys club hates it.

Just look at Bill Simmons's reaction whenever someone questions him or Boston. His panties get all in a twist.

Buzz said...

I found your posting level-headed and insightful.
--Buzz Bissinger