In the first panel of the Blogs With Balls: Las Vegas conference, the focus was on athletes and their attempts to connect directly with fans. The second panel took up the rather broad topic of "The Future of Sports Media", but produced some really interesting discussions. It was moderated by Dan Shanoff of The Sporting Blog, Tim Teblog and DanShanoff.com. The panelists were Nathaniel Friedman (better known as Bethlehem Shoals) of The Sporting Blog, The Baseline and Free Darko, Matt Ufford of Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather and Warming Glow, Kevin Blackistone of FanHouse, Around the Horn and the University of Maryland, and Amy K. Nelson of ESPN.com.
It was a solid, diverse group. Friedman and Ufford both started off as small, independent bloggers (as did Shanoff to a degree, but he wound up with ESPN pretty quickly) who then made it big, while Blackistone's a former newspaper guy who's made the jump to the web, but is possibly most famous for his TV stints on Around the Horn and Nelson's familiar with the web side, but from the inside of a big sports conglomerate. Their different perspectives really facilitated the discussion, as this wouldn't have been anywhere as interesting with panelists from only one area of expertise.
Blackistone had some of the most interesting comments of the day. Early on, he stated that "I’ve been newspaper free now for three years, and I’m learning to live with it." Yet, it's clear that he still retains much of the big newspaper perspective; he sees his posts for FanHouse more as columns than blog posts (which is fine) and doesn't see the point in responding to feedback (which is more troubling). When Shanoff asked Blackistone if he connected with fans, he said, "I do not. I present my opinion and I allow other people to present their opinions." That's very much the old-school columnist mentality, and it isn't necessarily problematic; a writer of Blackistone's stature is still going to draw plenty of traffic regardless of if he answers e-mails and comments or not. However, it does suggest that he may be locked in to his view of the world. It's tough to consistently deliver well-written, nuanced pieces without ever listening to what others have to say.
I'm not one of the people who demands that columnists should be in touch with their audience and write what people want to read; to me, that's a bit of a cop-out. There's nothing wrong with taking a different tack and writing something you know will be controversial; in fact, that has produced some of the best journalism. It bothers me if you deliberately exaggerate your opinions to be more black-and-white and more provocative, the way Blackistone's FanHouse colleague Jay Mariotti often does, but you don't have to write what you think people want to read, or accept their suggestions on what they'd like to see from you. However, I do think it is valuable to at least look at those suggestions. It's obviously easier for someone like me who receives a few comments and e-mails than for someone in Blackistone's shoes, who certainly gets massive amounts of feedback, and I'm not arguing that he should take the time to respond to all criticisms. I do think it would benefit him to at least take a look at some of the comments and e-mails, though, and see what people are saying about his work; even if he doesn't agree with their comments or change anything in his writing style as a result, it might still be worthwhile for him to know how people see what he's doing.
In my mind, that interactivity is one of the biggest changes that's come with the web, and one that will be important to the future of the sports media. It doesn't mean that you have to deal with every request or complaint from all your readers, but it is important to at least get an idea of what they like and don't like about your work. Feedback is often a good thing. The other valuable point made during this panel was that if you actively respond to commenters/e-mailers, it tends to civilize the discussion and make it more valuable. Jason Whitlock was cited as an example here; he's a traditional media guy, but he purposefully includes his e-mail address at the bottom of his Fox Sports columns, responds to feedback and often jumps into the comments section. When he does, the comments become more respectful and more valuable. I don't agree with Whitlock on many things, but I applaud him for that stand.
Blackistone is far ahead of Mariotti in several areas, though. For one thing, his arguments tend to be more nuanced and subtle; he tries to persuade you instead of bludgeoning you over the head the way Mariotti does. Blackistone at least makes an attempt to see the shades of grey in sports, which as long-time readers will know, is pretty much the mission statement of this blog. He isn't as much of an absolutist, even if he is on Around The Horn, and just his willingness to speak at a blogging conference shows that he doesn't see himself as far above everyone else as Mariotti and his ilk do. One of his key quotes that showed this was his willingness to be identified as a blogger, something that seems anathema to Mariotti.* "You can call me a general columnist, you can call me a blogger and I’m not offended," he said. "I'm not like some of my colleagues who think that you are vermin." In fact, Blackistone argued that the generalist sports columnist is far from dead, but is merely transitioning from the printed page to the information superhighway, something I thoroughly agree with. "The generalist columnist can exist and write longer than ever before on the web," he said.
*Side note: Blackistone asked how many people read Mariotti regularly, and I didn't see a single hand go up. It's interesting (and a great sign!) that my distaste for him is far from unique among the sports bloggerati.
Ufford had an excellent point, too, arguing that length alone doesn't make a piece good or bad. "People gravitate towards columnists," he said. "You can have quality in 300 words, you can have quality in 5000." This was refreshing to hear. There are far too many bloggers who spend all their time ranting about the length of others' pieces. In my mind, posts should be judged on quality, not on length. You can create something great in a short post or a long post, and there's an audience out there for both.
Freidman reinforced this point with some powerful comments. "There are cases where people do like to read longer columns," he said. "As long as people have brains, they'll want to read things about sports longer than 150 words." I agree with him, as personally, I favour both reading and writing long posts. Short posts can be good, too, and I will do them occasionally, but if you have a short attention span, this probably isn't the site for you.
There was a good discussion on voice as well. Personally, I think it's important for blogs to have a distinctive style and voice. However, there are only a limited number of writing styles out there, though, so voice isn't always purely original and it isn't always purely unique. Nelson made an interesting point on that, suggesting that it may be more important for writers to interact with their audience and connect with other fans than worry about being unique. "I think it’s not more about establishing a voice than establishing that you’re part of a community," she said. In my mind, both are important.
Shanoff also made an interesting point about distribution, arguing that the web isn't a strict meritocracy. He said some writers have more success even if their work isn't as good, thanks to their connections and their ability to get pieces published at or linked to from large sites. He argued that the byline on an article isn't as important as what site it's published on. "You can put it in the firehose and generate a lot of traffic, regardless of if your name is Jason Whitlock or Matt Ufford," he said.
I agree here, to a degree. This follows Malcolm Gladwell's logic in Outliers, where he argues that success is more about circumstances than inherent talent. I wrote a post earlier this summer on how this applies to sportswriting, and tried to make a similar point to the one Shanoff put forward. However, the blogosphere does lower the access barrier to a point where it's much less pronounced; all you need to get your work published now is a computer and an internet connection, and you can do that from a library or Internet cafe if you don't own your own computer. That's much better than the old "start at the bottom" school of journalism, which only allowed a select few to even get that far. There's a great part in Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Papers (Part III: Songs of the Doomed: More Reflections on the Death of the American Dream) where he talks about a famous New York paper wanting to hire him to an entry-level job where he wouldn't even be writing at first, despite his well-established credentials. There still isn't a lot of money in blogging, even at the very top, and many bloggers are hired for effectively entry-level jobs despite stellar credentials, but the point is that you can get your work out there regardless of connections. Connections help in building an audience and getting it seen, but I'm a firm believer that good work will eventually rise to the top if you have enough perseverance. Maybe that makes me an incurable optimist, but it's more fun to be that way than to be continuously cynical.
One of the other really good points made during this panel was about competition from unconventional sources. Blackistone said local sites like ESPN Dallas have stepped into voids left by the collapse of some newspapers and increased competition in the process, pushing everyone to greater heights.
"Now with the advent of ESPN Dallas, there’s a talent war going on," he said.
"It actually has invigorated (the Dallas Morning News') SportsDay now to go to battle in a local market, which used to be the case when you had multiple newspapers in a market. ... You’re going to have more competition, more people fighting over stories."
I agree with this one, and I think that it can be true on the web as well. However, in my mind, it's important for bloggers to be collaborative as well as competitive. One of the other sites I run is a Vancouver Canucks blog, Canuck Puck, and I'm certainly challenged by other excellent sites like Nucks Misconduct and Canucks Hockey Blog. I don't really see myself as a competitor to them, though; I try and offer original analysis that complements their coverage, and link to the good work they're doing whenever possible. In my mind, there's plenty of space for everyone on the web.
The other thing that has changed since the advent of the web is the decrease in brand loyalty. It used to be that fans would get all their information on a team from the local newspaper they subscribed to; few could justify the expense of subscribing to multiple papers. However, fans these days can check out coverage from a myriad of sources, including newspapers and blogs. There aren't many people who exclusively get their information from a single source any more. Thus, in my mind, it behooves bloggers to work together whenever possible; we all have something different to bring to the table, and that's a good thing.