Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Best. Sports Media Era. Ever.

Had some nice isolated time on the subway to read Joe Posnanski's latest post, about Tiger Woods (via Hal Sutton) and sports media today. It's a typically great post and a fertile topic.

The crux of the post is that Joe's editor asked him if the Tiger scandal was merely -- or "entirely" -- a product of the "TMZ Era?"

(First of all, I wouldn't label it the "TMZ Era" as much as the "internet era." Or, if you thing 24/7 sports coverage created this, the "ESPN Era." But I think that gives too much credit to cable-only ESPN -- say, through 1995 -- and way too much credit to TMZ, which is only the past 5 years.)

The Tiger story was really the culmination of the increasing celebrity culture and the increasing velocity, transparency and democratization of news and information.

I think there are a couple of interesting riffs off Joe's piece.

The first is most direct: Joe's editor appears to lament our current era. My spin-off question would be: How many sports careers would the media by-products of the "TMZ Era" have helped?

Could the "TMZ Era" have gotten Mickey Mantle off the sauce? As good as Mantle was, how much better could he have been? Not to get too maudlin (but!), but how many more years might he have lived?

Joe's editor oversimplifies -- and diminishes -- the current golden era of media (sports and otherwise) by labeling it the "TMZ Era."

What if I framed it as the "sunlight era" -- where transparency ruled?

(You don't understand media today if you don't see leaked Tiger sexts and leaked MLB financial documents in the same ballpark.)

What if I framed it as the "accountability era" -- where fisking ruled?

(Joe had a nice piece of fisking of his own, politely if comprehensively taking a stiletto to his own teammate's opinion.)

What if I framed it as the "democratization era" -- where the openness of expression and platforms ruled?

(We are better off if hundreds of fans analyze MLB financial documents on Deadspin -- or a government data dump on TalkingPointsMemo than we are if a tiny cabal of magazine reporters do it.)

This is where I part ways -- radically -- from Dan LeBatard, who recently tried to make an argument lamenting the state of sports media. He got some support and some backlash, at least within the sports-media industry.

He called things "more reckless and less credible than anything we've ever seen."

Predictably, I feel the opposite about it. Not only do I think we are, as fans and as consumers, better off now than before -- I think we are better off now than ever.

Variance will happen as you add voices to the system. Variance will happen as you apply new pressures -- like generating online page views -- to the system. Variance is not a bad thing.

There will always be a "bottom 50 percent" that is lousy -- whether you are talking about newspaper sportswriting or blogs or college professors or restaurants or whatever.

But at the top? Things are really really good. Better than they ever have been.

As for the bottom? Well, one argument is not to consume it; of course, your readers -- gee: remember them? -- are consuming it, want to talk about it, want to hear about it.

The other argument is to accept that there are topics that some people want to talk about and make a choice whether you want to engage it or not, accepting the consequences whether you do or you don't. I will say this: Ignore fan interests at your peril. My argument would be to do your part to elevate the discussion.

That's not to say that there isn't room for media to surprise and delight us with interesting analysis or the non-obvious argument or story; I think fans have been pretty supportive of that kind of sportswriting -- with a wider and better audience than ever, thanks to new publishing platforms. While some lament Tiger coverage, the rest of us are reading and passing around that awesome column written by someone online who doesn't have a radio show or TV guest-hosting gig.

I'm digressing. The point is that when you focus on the top -- and the astonishing volume of terrific sports writing, opinion, analysis and creative expression you find there, provided you have the paths to find it -- things in sports media have never been better. Ever.

There is a wonderful, era-defining essay from Roger Ebert from last year about how this is the "golden age" of movie criticism, but his argument could just as easily apply to sports.

Ebert's closing advice: "Find out all you can, and see what you can do with it." It is a paean to openness, to open-mindedness, to discovery, to all the things that make media consumption so great -- if at times overwhelming -- right now.

The alternative is to lament the state of things, to close off, to close ranks. To each their own, but having been working in online media since 1995, I have been a first-hand witness to the seismic media evolution of the online era -- the... ha ha... "TMZ Era." The nay-sayers and doubters and closed-minded folks have always been there, and the world simply passes them by.

I trust emerging platforms. I trust creative people who have the enthusiasm to join in the ecosystem, in whatever form that might take. I trust consumers -- I trust fans.

Trust me: It has never been better. And it is only going to get better.

-- D.S.

Please join lots of other great folks and follow me on Twitter.

Update: I probably could have written 10,000 words on this and still not touched on everything. There are a lot of holes in here to be filled and a lot of broad strokes that would benefit from detailing that won't happen in this post. As always, I look forward to those discussions.


Steve Sprague said...

Tiger's sexts and leaked MLB financials are not in the same ballpark. The fact that you would argue they are clearly puts you in the bottom half, maybe worse, of the new media.

MLB leaked financials are important. They impact the competitiveness of baseball, they impact the credibility of the luxury tax system and most importantly they show the lies the owners are putting forth when demanding public money for new stadiums. Stadiums that are needed to generate new revenue and sign free agents.

Tigers sexts only damage his marriage, embarass his wife and hurt his children. All so members of the media (new and old, yes) and entertainers can score some cheap jokes. This has nothing to do with the competitiveness of golf, the integrity of the PGA's money system or public subsidies. Tiger earns his money entirely from winnings and endorsements. If you don't want to support him don't buy tickets or his merchandise. If a Pittsburgh resident doesn't want to support the Pirates it's too late. Stadium subsidies were already passed taking money out of his or her pockets to fund this.

Tell me again why our new age of sports media is so glorious? Reporting on extra-marital affairs is okay because if we had reported on Mickey Mantle's alcoholism he might have hit more home runs or still be alive today? If that helps you sleep at night go ahead and think that. Personally, I am sick that I have taken part in a system that has no remorse for the intrusions in privacy we have seen in recent years.

Cleveland Frowns said...

Good stuff, Dan. The "democratization era" sounds right.

Hard to argue with this:

"The point is that when you focus on the top -- and the astonishing volume of terrific sports writing, opinion, analysis and creative expression you find there, provided you have the paths to find it -- things in sports media have never been better. Ever."

I'd add that the more the folks at the top top help build those paths, we'd hear a lot less about the folks at the bottom.

Tiger's sexts seem like an entirely different issue from this.