Wandering Into A Debate

(This isn't going to have much to do with the Indians; I apologize.)

Since you're here, I'm sure you're all well aware that there's a near constant dialogue happening about the role of different media outlets in the rapidly changing sportswriting landscape. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk wrote about this Tuesday, drawing on another piece by Jason Fry. Calcaterra's big take-away goes something like this. First, he quotes Fry:

Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information. Readers will gravitate to such stories, share them and remember them.

And then follows up by writing about his own work at Hardball Talk: 

Since I started blogging four years ago, I have considered that to be my mission...I’ve been in media seminars when such an approach was derided by traditional media types sarcastically as "value-added blogging."  The implication: that the real work is getting the near-fungible news nugget and that the sort of opining we and other bloggers do is lazy free-riding.  As Fry argues, however, and as readers’ media consumption habits make clear, the opposite is true.  No one cares where the factoid comes from. People care about what it all means and will read stuff from people who will help them figure that out.

I should stop before I go any further and say that I like Craig Calcaterra; I think he's good at what he does. However, I don't think he actually does what Fry is describing. Fry's asserting that the true value of modern sportswriting does not lie in posting the lineup card first on twitter or breaking transaction news. It lies in meaning-building pieces—he offers examples of these: "exclusive reports, investigative journalism, and thoughtful long-form features." The current identity-crisis in sportswriting derives from the crowding out of such pieces, in favor of what Fry calls " me-too tweets and blog bits." Calcaterra puts himself in the first camp, arguing that he provides context and meaning for events in the baseball world. The dichotomy here is probably obvious but I think Calcaterra's definition of his own work is particularly problematic within this discussion.

When the traditional media types Calcaterra disagrees with deride "value-added blogging", I don't agree that they are necessarily locating the real work of traditional media in the acquisition of the "news nugget", as Calcaterra asserts. Instead, I suspect they are locating that work squarely in what Fry points to: labor-intensive and difficult to create pieces of journalism, like the sprawling, ambitious, wonderful and flawed piece on Cleveland that Wright Thompson produced a few months ago. 

 

Calcaterra is not in that line of work, nor do I think he'd claim to be. Reviewing his posts, it doesn't take long to see that what Calcaterra predominantly does for Hardball Talk is produce short, pithy, sometimes funny, sometimes analytical posts on the day's stories. So, the obvious question then becomes, how is the work Calcaterra does not what Fry describes as "blog bits"? I don't intend to say that Calcaterra's work isn't valuable to his audience. However, I do think Calcaterra's work is part of the tide that Fry is arguing against. As major news outlets have found the profit margins to be greater in the quick-hitting sort of work that Calcaterra can do from his home in Ohio, it has reduced the emphasis on (and budget for) the meaning-building pieces that Fry explicitly identified. Calcaterra would never have the time to produce the kind of piece that Wright Thompson did, precisely for the reasons that Fry outlined: he is too busy providing the constant stream of content that is necessary to maintain traffic. 

I don't pretend to know where this debate is going to end nor do I think that anyone involved is absolutely right or flat wrong. It seems obvious that there ought to be room for both what Calcaterra does and what Fry wants to see more often. I do think Calcaterra 's attempt to put himself squarely in the "meaning-building" column, the one that Fry wants to see more often, is a natural reaction and one that I know I have with regards to my own work. However, realistically, as someone with a great deal of experience in settings where contextualizing, explaining and evaluating is the work of the day, I know that it's unlikely that I'm able to do much serious meaning-building in the few hours I can spend on each post and, in the same vein, it seems unlikely to me that Calcaterra can realistically do that with any regularity considering the volume and diversity of writing he is compelled to do. Again, that's not to say his (or my) work isn't valuable; it's just that it may be less meaningful than we'd like to admit. Are any of the major baseball blogs, whether hosted by a major media outlet or not, really, in Fry's prhase, "creating something that will stand out from the news stream and be remembered by readers"? I'd argue that few, if any, are. While Calcaterra and others who share his role may not be breathlessly chasing after attribution on scoops, neither are they realistically endeavoring to "slow down and invest more time in fewer efforts", as Fry suggests. The majority of work done by the good folks at Hardball Times, or Fanhouse, or Yahoo! Sports Blogs, is much closer to simply passing the news nugget along than it is to building meaning. Not valuing priority on scoops (which, I agree, is silly) does not, by extension, make a writer more like Ring Lardener. The predominance of internet baseball writers, myself included, are doing work that's exceptionally similar to that of the beat writers that we deride for seeking scoops. We may have found a more modern format and tone but this does not mean that we've inherently ascended to a higher level of discourse. 

This all fits squarely into the point Jay raised the other day, regarding defining "Pro Quality" when it comes to the bloggeratti. It seems possible that the only actual pro quality is the work of people like Thompson and that the rest of us, sanctioned beat writers, paid internet writers and talented internet hobbyists alike, may be lumped together in a bin of  relatively interchangeable parts—some, like Calcaterra, may be more talented while some, like myself, may be less but, for each of us, there's someone in line if we falter, a stream of writers who can produce a reasonable facsimile of what we do. I believe that people ought to be paid for great work but I still have substantial questions about what defines great work in this era of open-access sportswriting. Rare is the piece that I could identify, without looking at the byline, as from a paid writer instead of a hobbyist. This, of course, raises the question of whether major outlets need to ever raise salaries to retain the talent of their paid, blog-style writing staff or if it makes more sense to simply replace them if they demand higher wages.  

Calcaterra ends by taking a stab at imagining what the future of this field might look like: 

I’m not very good at predicting the future, but from where I’m sitting now I foresee one in which there are fewer media professionals collecting the rote postgame quotes, writing the de riguer game story and tweeting that day’s lineup and more of them intelligently parsing the quotes from the postgame interview, composing a critical analysis of the game that just ended and not giving a diddly durn about that day’s lineup until they begin to fill out their scoresheet for that night’s game.

I think he's right in that there's already a substantial shrinking in opportunities available for traditional reporting: simply passing information along is no longer a valued profession. However, I also don't see a great demand for media professionals who parse quotes or critically analyze a game; the demand for those services is already being filled, largely by unpaid or low-paid writers. Providing that kind of service may be a viable position for someone lucky and talented enough to land where Calcaterra has, at a major outlet. However, that type of work doesn't carry us closer to what Fry has identified as the true substance of sportswriting: moving, compelling, difficult to write pieces. In fact, it might carry us further away from that core (or at least no closer) by offering corporate news agencies a (potentially) profitable model built on driving traffic through near-constant quote-parsing, incessant game-analyzing, and interminable topic-rehashing. Such a model doesn't need to include truly great pieces and, so, the existence of such pieces appears to still be contingent on the charity of those in a position to subsidize work on them, as ESPN does with a writer like Thompson. While Calcaterra's right that the role he fills is devouring that of the traditional beat writer, I'm not convinced that it's a substantially higher level of discourse. 

As an addendum, I reached out to Craig Calcaterra before I published this—he was receptive and kind, as I would've anticipated. He pointed out that his own readers thought he contributed to building meaning, as one mentioned in the comments of Craig's piece on sportswriting:


Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.

And, in fact, Fry thought that comment indicated the sort of sweet spot for which sportswriters ought to aim. Obviously, I'm less than convinced. Internet comments are easily dismissed when negative and easily embraced when positive. However, I'm in a precarious position, arguing against the very man I've set out to support. Regardless, I stand by what I wrote above: even when someone commits as fully to the modern 'baseball blog model' as Craig, I don't see how the value created reaches the threshold that Fry outlined. More simply, a writer covering a dozen topics a day is writing too much to reach that threshold. How wrong am I? 

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