Monday, October 8, 2007

How the MSM Gets Blogging Wrong

The Toronto Globe and Mail, like too many other media outlets, has no idea what to do with blogs. Today's entry, from longtime sportswriter Robert MacLeod, is essentially an Andy Rooney piece. Aren't the Rockies' jerseys ugly? Why do these ballplayers keep spraying their champagne on me? Cal Ripken is bald!

The problem here isn't with these bare opinions themselves, but the fact that nothing is done to develop them in any way that makes their utterance worth anyone's time. The Rockies jerseys are ugly? How do they rate all-time and why should we care? The champagne showers annoy you? How about a few words about the history of such celebrations or, if you don't have the time for the research, a few words about whether it makes sense for a World Series champ to have four of the damn things (clinching playoffs, division series, LCS, World Series). Cal Ripken looks like Captain Picard? Well, there's nowhere to go with that because it's stupid, so why not just cut it out altogether? Blogs aren't print columns so there should be no imperative to meet a certain word count.

I don't mean to pick on MacLeod or the Globe and Mail specifically. So many newspapers and sports websites seem to be doing it wrong. Repurposing beat writers who don't have anything particularly interesting to say, nor seem to want to in a blog format. Ghettoizing blogs -- maybe dozens of them of wildly varying quality -- on dedicated blog pages far removed from the site's primary traffic lanes. Insisting on entries that conform to traditional column rules (750 words; linkless; insulated from the commentariat at large).

I'm not one of those Shiite bloggers who think blogs are saving the world, transforming the discourse, or replacing the mainstream media as we know it. In fact, I think they are often quite effective in the context of mainstream media settings -- the concept of "synergy" may be overplayed, but it isn't bullshit -- as opposed to those that assume the now de rigueur anti-MSM stance, which constitutes a straitjacket of sorts in and of itself.

No, blogs are simply another form of writing and communication, albeit one to which I'm understandably partial. But they can be and frequently are mismanaged when placed in a traditional MSM setting (newspaper; sports megasite of your choosing), which distracts from their effectiveness and value.

So what to do?

  • Keep the blogger rosters limited, focused, and of high quality. This is particularly important when it comes to sports, it seems, where there truly is a limit to how many interesting things there are to say about any given event. Nothing degrades the work of strong bloggers more than slotting them alongside a dozen guys who stretch to make thematic analogies between AC-DC songs and last weekend's big games or do nothing but talk about their fantasy teams under an anyone-who-wants-a-blog-can-have-one policy;

  • Match the posts up prominently with the news stories on which they comment so they can be easily found in a relevant location. If a website feels that it is important to both report the news and provide commentary, one should never be more than a click away from the other. Blogs aren't from Jupiter. A story about last night's game has more in common with an opinion piece about last night's game than any two blog entries on two separate subjects do, so why stick all of the blogs together?

  • Don't demand 750-1000 words when the topic only calls for 350. One of the reasons there seem to be so many bad, single-sentence paragraph sports columnists out there these days is that so many seem compelled to pad ideas -- even decent ones -- in order to fit a set number of column inches. For reasons that escape me, this practice has carried over into web writing. When a writer is allowed to make his point and be done with it, he's far more likely to spend his free time coming up with other points as opposed to trying to find some way to fill out a column;
Maybe there are some good reasons why so many sports outlets seem to get blogging so wrong, but what they are I have no idea. I look around, however, at places like Time's Swampland, NRO's The Corner, TNR's The Plank, the roster of bloggers over at The Atlantic (Sullivan, Yglesias, Fallows, etc.) and many other political blogs and see a coherent, high-quality approach to blogging that would seem to make perfect sense on sports websites and wonder "why not?"


Pete Toms said...

C, I get your point.

Newspapers like the Globe and Mail ( which I read ) are flailing away without rhyme or reason trying to fend off obsolescence. The Globe sports section ( digital version ) has recently increased substantially it's blogger content. They have, as you note, repurposed their beat writers to provide blogentary as well as regular columns / beat articles. They know newspapers are dying and the Web is booming and they want to be part of it. The difference that I perceive between these writer's columns / beat articles and thier blog entries is tone. The blogs tend to be more flippant and personal. Everyone seems to want to be Will Leitch ( I don't read Deadspin although Mr. Leitch was polite enough to respond to an email I once sent him ) but we're not all funny, ironic hipsters.

I'm 45 and was raised on newspapers and in particular the general interest sports section. I now read only 1 general interest sports section ( The Globe - online at that ) with any regularity. Even the sports sections in our local - Ottawa - papers I barely glance at. The age of general interest in anything - including sports - is vanishing. Thanks to the Web, the amount of baseball information / opinion that I consume is now limited only by my appetite as opposed to decades past when I would go to a "specialty" magazine shop to find a Baseball America or Sporting News.

The newspaper web sites as well as the "sports megasites" all want us to "join the conversation" and the increase in blogging content is part of their attempt to do that. It's scattershot ( and I suspect ineffective ) but they don't seem to know what to do beyond throwing as much crap against the wall as possible in order to see what sticks. The holy grail for these companies is to become the Facebook for sports fans. I.E. I'm a subscriber to and they want me to "update my profile" and "share my interests". This past winter I blogged a bit on Fan Nation ( it was still in Beta ), Time Warner / SI's attempt at cornering the sports / social networking "space".

I don't even know what to do with my own ( pretty much dormant ) baseball blog. I find myself emulating the traditional "column" but isn't blogging supposed to be personal? If blogging is personal, is there anything noteworthy about me personally? Probably not.

I don't know....I am gonna buy one of those "Caucasians" shirts though...

Shyster said...

Pete -- excellent points about the tone of these blogs. My view is that good writing comes from a writer being comfortable with his own voice, no matter the format. There are hundreds of Deadspin wannabes out there, all doing poor Will Leitch impressions. Actually, I think they're doing Deadspin commenter impressions; Leitch has been wrongly tagged by many as snarky and cutesy when in fact there is a core of earnestness to his stuff that makes him quite an endearing writer. But I digress.

Some people -- you for example -- do better with long form. Others do better with quick hits. Some people can do snark really well, while others simply come off as mean-spirited. Like anything else, form should follow function, and the commentary should follow the news.

So many media outlets seem to get this wrong, forcing their bloggers to be Deadspin ripoffs, or Simmons ripoffs, or else forcing crusty beat writers to be hip which is never going to work. Which is not to say that the crusty beats shouldn't blog -- they should simply be allowed to develop their voice in a natural way.

As for you blog, you should do whatever the hell comes naturally. If you aren't inclined to write personal stuff in the first instance, you shouldn't force yourself to do it simply to post more often. Indeed, while you don't update often, it's always high quality stuff. I suspect that's because you believe in the subjects you tackle.

There's certainly a place for that. The blogosphere would probably be a nicer place if some of us didn't pollute the tubes with filler as often as we do.