Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trust us, we're sportswriters

In a clip that has gained some infamy around the internet, Buzz Bissinger (the Pulitzer prize winning sports journalist), berated the entire sports blogosphere in a profanity-laden rant criticizing, among other things, the bloggers' use of profanity. Rage often blinds us to irony.

Bissinger's appearance on the show "Costas Now" back in April has been widely covered throughout the web. But while Bissinger chides bloggers for (supposedly) lowering the level of discourse in the media, his motives may have a subtle economic basis.

In a later (and calmer) statement, Bissinger stated, "I do consider blogging not only a threat to journalists, but to society because it's constant dumbing down. I cast too wide a net. But unfortunately, cruelty sells in our society." Leonard Shapiro, writing in the Washington Post, defended Bissinger, lamenting, "Bissinger's concerns should be all of our concerns. Do we want our sports-infatuated kids to grow up reading Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber (don't ask), or would we prefer them to peruse the internet or their local library to read the wonderful work of Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins and yes, most definitely Buzz Bissinger?"

This argument has a false premise. It clearly assumes that traditional media sportswriters maintain high standards for journalism and prose, while blogs are simply low-brow. This is a dubious assumption, however. While there are many great sportswriters, newspapers are also full of rambling, illogical and widely inaccurate sports diatribes. The blog FireJoeMorgan.com (which does contain some profanity, but also analyzes baseball and baseball media through a sophisticated statistical lens) has made a name for itself gutting poorly written and researched pieces by well known sportswriters. Don't take my word for it. Read through these breakdowns of articles written by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. It's worth mentioning that Plaschke was once named National Sports Columnist of the Year by the Associated Press.

Bissinger sounds like a candle-maker hearing news of the invention of the light bulb. His first reaction is denigrate the new product and emphasize what makes his work unique and the true standard for quality. He is resentful of bloggers who spout their ideas with impunity and dare to enter the arena with someone who has "spent 40 years of [their] life trying to perfect the craft".

The insidious part of Bissinger's argument is his implicit portrayal of readers. Will many people be drawn to sensational sports blogs? Perhaps. But will this lead to the dumbing down of America? Probably not. Consumers have the ability to make choices for themselves. Greater variety of choices means that people can find the media source (or sources) that fits their preference.

If, as Bissinger asserts, blogs and other non-traditional media sources produce negative outcomes, maybe they should be regulated by the government. The FCC could license any writer seeking to create media for mass consumption, making it illegal to write pieces that are profane or badly written. Certainly it would be easy for a government agency to come to an objective definition of "profane" or "badly written".

Or maybe we can just accept the democratization of media and trust that consumers will, in the end, make the right decisions. In Touch magazine still hasn't put the New Yorker out of business, and there's a reason for that. The two magazines provide different products that appeal to different consumers. We shouldn't begrudge people their choices. And we shouldn't have to shout that we have spent "40 years" perfecting our craft; if the product is really better, consumers will eventually figure that out. And there's another irony: a member of the sports industry who's afraid of a little competition.

1 comment:

Cara said...

If there was any doubt that market forces are backing the Internet, an example comes out of last week's news from NBC. The network chose to run a story about baby penguin on air after a similar segment got a lot of views online.

http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2008/07/embedded_at_nbcpenguin_story_g.html

NBC is not alone in using its Web properties to inform its other coverage.

In this case it's using the Web economics for your own advantage. Online media is phenomenally less expensive than print, radio or TV.

My advice to sportscasters looking to not lose the war for eyeballs to "rogue" bloggers is test your ideas and terrible sports puns on a less expensive media and then invest time in the topics and pieces that you already know will resonate with your audience.