Monday, July 06, 2009

The outliers of sportswriting

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, and was quite interested in some of the ideas he brought up. Gladwell discusses how it is almost impossible to predict who will succeed at certain jobs, such as quarterbacking at the NFL level, teaching and giving financial advice. The implications of this idea for the world of sports are myriad, but what really jumped out at me was what these theories and conclusions might mean for the world of sportswriting.

Gladwell’s general thesis in the book seems to be that the success attained by remarkable individuals is not due to their innate abilities alone, but also to the supporting infrastructure they have and the environment they operate in. At first glance, this would seem to run against the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches dream that still epitomizes much of North American society. However, when you closely examine the situations involved, this isn’t necessarily true.

For example, perhaps the most poignant example in Gladwell’s work is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. For decades, Gates has been admired by many for his bold entrepreneurial spirit and computer skills. However, Gladwell suggests that Gates’ success also was thanks to the hundreds of hours of access he had to computers in high school and college, at a time when almost no one in his situation was able to gain similar experience. This doesn’t necessarily diminish Gates’ talent or intelligence, as his incredible drive and substantial computer skills allowed him to make the most of those opportunities. What it does suggest, though, is that circumstances as well as innate skills played a role in Gates’ rise to prominence, and that others may have been able to achieve similar greatness if they had had the chance.

For a more sports-related example, Gladwell came up with a very interesting idea about Canadian junior hockey and enlisted hockey blogger extraordinaire James Mirtle to examine some of the details. Basically, Gladwell writes (and as Mirtle shows, the stats back him up) that a highly disproportionate number of NHL players are born early in the year. The reason for this? Gladwell argues it’s because the top players are funnelled into age-based select teams early on, and age is calculated as of January 1. Because age and physical development can greatly affect the talent of junior players, those born in January would have a 10 to 11-month advantage over those born in November or December, but would be competing for the same spot. Thus, it’s only the truly transcendent late-born talents that get selected for these elite squads and progress through the ranks; many of those who might be just as good are selected against because of their birthdate, and thus may never achieve stardom or decide to quit the sport altogether. It’s interesting that something as simple as a birthday can play an important role in an athlete’s success or lack thereof.

This argument is rather applicable to journalism in my mind. Like teaching or financial planning, journalism can be entered from almost any field of study. There are an incredible amount of people interested in a journalistic career, but only a few of those who want to enter the field ever get a shot at writing for a publication and the numbers are dwindling further with the current economic climate. Moreover, like teachers and NFL quarterbacks, there doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast way of predicting journalistic success. Accomplished journalists come from all races, credos and backgrounds. Thus, it certainly seems that only a few of the people interested in and capable of doing the job actually get a chance to do so, and that appears largely due to their circumstances.

I think the blogosphere has both helped and hindered this problem. On the one hand, there is no longer a real barrier to publishing. Anyone with internet access and a bit of time can set up a blog and get their words out there, which is a tremendous development. Once those words are out there, you’re at least partially judged on their merit and quality, and that can only be a good thing.

However, that doesn’t mean that the blogosphere has been a wholeheartedly positive way to reduce the impact of circumstances. Sure, everyone can now get their words out there, but chance and connections still play a large role in whose words are read and which sites become successful. If you happen to write a post on a certain issue of the day and it gets picked up by any of the big sports blogs, that can make a huge difference to your traffic (and thus your revenue, if you’re making money off your site). If you write the exact same post but an editor at one of those sites doesn’t stumble across it or decide to link to it, the quality of your writing remains the same but the success is drastically reduced by a factor outside of your control.

This is further complicated by the webs of acquaintances and connections out there. For example, I’ve had quite a bit of traffic come my way from Neate and Out of Left Field over the years, and through that network, I’ve managed to pick up gigs writing for that site, The CIS Blog and The 24th Minute. I only got to know Neate because he writes about the Gaels and used to be a Queen's Journal sports editor, the same job I held last year; if I attended McGill, for instance, I probably never would have stumbled across his site or ever wound up writing for it. An even clearer case is the traffic I’ve got from Pension Plan Puppets, the great Toronto Maple Leafs blog whose editor has been kind enough to throw a lot of links my way thanks to our Queen’s connection. It’s the same on my end, as there’s no way to have enough time to read or link to everything. There are some blogs I read regularly strictly due to their coverage of teams I follow, such as Orland Kurtenblog or Behind The Steel Curtain, but there are plenty of other great sites I would likely never have come across if I didn’t know the people who write for them.

The other problem posed by the blogosphere is the vast amount of free content out there. On the one hand, this is a great thing for fans; there’s plenty of access to quality perspectives on sports that you never would have seen otherwise, and you don’t have to pay a cent for it. However, this means that people now expect not to pay for this kind of content, and that’s part of the reason why many newspapers are now running into financial problems. It’s a classic case of supply and demand; the supply of content has increased dramatically, which, if demand doesn’t increase, means that the price of content should drop. Fans rightly question why they should have to pay to read about their team, and that leads to decreasing newspaper subscriptions. Online advertising can counteract this to some degree, but it only really works if you have a certain critical mass of readers, and many companies are still hesitant to use their limited advertising budgets in a relatively new medium. Thus, the expansion of the blogosphere gives many more people the ability to have their work published, but it also means that there are likely to be less paid writing jobs out there, at least in the traditional print media. There are many other problems facing the print media industry and the blogosphere expansion certainly doesn’t account for all of them, but most people would probably agree that it has hurt to some degree. Thus, while blogs allow anyone to write, they may also decrease the amount of people who can make a living writing.

However, the blogosphere has also led to the creation of many new paid writing jobs. There are plenty of examples of paid bloggers out there, from Deadspin to Yahoo! Sports to SportsBlogNation, and that’s a great thing to see. Still, the vast majority of bloggers aren’t likely to make a living at it any time soon and it’s only the big sites that pay (and many of them don’t pay anywhere near as much as some of the old print jobs). so in some ways it’s like the old media world. Everyone can write now and get their words out there, but only a few can make a profitable career off of writing. Those spots are probably determined more by merit than they ever have been, but there’s still a large role played by chance and connections.

The Outliers logic applies within newspapers as well. You can have the best writers in the world and have them coming up with brilliant story ideas, but if they can’t sell their editors on their plans, then those stories will never see the light of day. Furthermore, writers obviously have different talents, but I’m not sure they always get to utilize them; often, section assignments and beats are determined by seniority or by what’s needed, so you don’t always find people covering stories they’re even interested in. In fact, it’s very likely that we rarely get to see the best anyone can do given the constraints of time, format and the newspaper hierarchy. How many potentially brilliant columnists or feature writers are stuck writing stories that no one cares about thanks to a lack of seniority or an unappreciative editor?

In the end, the great thing about the blogosphere is how it allows so many more people to get their writing out there. It’s not going to replace traditional media sources, but it provides a valuable added realm, and one that can co-exist with the old world of media. It also allows writers to pursue any topic they’re interested in, which in my mind is a positive development; we get to see people writing what they love, not just what they’re assigned. Unfortunately, much of that writing doesn’t attract wide attention thanks to the roles played by chance, connections and other factors, but it’s still a step forward in my thinking. At least now you can see your writing published, and there’s a higher chance of it being seen by at least a few people. The true outliers may still find success above and beyond the rest, but the playing field is perhaps more even than it’s traditionally been, and that’s a good thing in my mind.


  1. So how much more time until you reach 10,000 hours of sportswriting, Andrew?


    In terms of improving as a writer, the current situation, with easily-publishable websites, is roughly comparable to Gates' computer access. You improve through practice and constructive criticism and while you can practice writing anywhere and at any time, ten years ago, how would you get feedback from as many people as you have? 20 years?

    Maybe Neate or someone born in a year that doesn't start with '198' can confirm this, but I'm sure it would have been much harder and taken much more time. (Newspapers are notorious for not hearing from readers unless that day's Garfield wasn't funny.)

  2. Haha, think I'm pretty close to that hour limit, Rob. Very good point on the Gates analogy, and the feedback is certainly a key element. One nice thing about that is it can benefit old media and new media types alike, as long as they're willing to listen.

  3. "Old media" and "listen" in the same sentence. You kids have a lot to learn (but your taste in music is impeccable).

  4. Actually, I've been impressed with how many of the "old media" guys I know are amiable to the blogosphere chiming in with feedback on their pieces. There certainly are plenty of traditionalists who don't like any feedback, but not all of those who work in the old media are that way.