Monday, November 02, 2009

Fear, Loathing and Blogs in Las Vegas, Part IV: The Future of the Sports Blogosphere

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Las Vegas for the Blogs With Balls convention and had a great time. There was so much that came out of it that was worth writing about, as evidenced by all the great pieces that have showed up in the blogosphere on the conference since then. You can find most of the recap pieces linked at the official conference site here, and you can also look at parts I, II and III of my series if you're interested. I've been working on a final piece from there since then, but haven't had time to put it up yet, and in some ways, that's probably good, as it gave me time to reflect on it. This is the last official part of the Feat, Loathing and Blogs series, but I'll certainly be touching on some of the panelists' remarks and some of the things that came out of the conference more briefly in future posts as well. This series isn't just about conference recaps, but rather where the sports blogosphere may be going, so I hope it's still relevant. As always, leave feedback below or get in touch with me via e-mail, Twitter or Facebook.

Perhaps the most important panel of Blogs With Balls 2.0 was the "State of the Union", featuring Jamie Mottram of Yahoo! Sports and Mr. Irrelevant, J.E. Skeets of Ball Don't Lie, A.J. Daulerio of Deadspin and moderated by Spencer Hall of Every Day Should Be Saturday and SB Nation. These four guys are obviously luminaries in the blogosphere, so it was quite interesting to hear their thoughts on its evolution to this point and where it might be going.

Hall got a good laugh when he opened the panel with the line, "I think the state of the union is strong, strong like an adolescent chimpanzee that has just learned it can rip the arms off everything." There's more to that than just a throwaway gag in my mind, though; it isn't such a bad mental picture of what many sports blogs are like these days. Blogs as a whole, but especially the big ones, have an incredible amount of influence considering how new their medium is. The longest-running sports blogs have been in operation for around 15 years, and very few approach that level. Even sites that have been running for a couple years, like this one, are somewhat old by blogosphere standards. By contrast, consider how long it took for newspapers, magazines, radio and television to gain the same levels of relevance and market penetration that blogs have today. What's even more astounding is that the sports blogosphere is still very young and undeveloped compared to, say, the technology blogosphere. There's tons of room for growth, but sports blogs have really managed to do incredible things in their reasonably brief existence so far.

With that power can come consequences, though. George Orwell once wrote that "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely", and this is often true in life. I don't think there's necessarily a lot of corruption in the sports blogosphere, but there is a lot of power, and the exercise of that power often has some unforeseen side effects. One example is the Jerod Morris/Raul Ibanez controversy I wrote about this summer. Morris wrote a solid piece looking at the unlikely stats Ibanez had put up at an advanced age and the potential explanations for it. He criticized the idea that steroids were clearly responsible, but mentioned that in our era, it's impossible to definitively rule them out. Several mainstream media outlets took a couple of lines from Morris' piece, completely disregarded the context in which they were written and turned it into a full-blown controversy that was used to blame any and all bloggers for being irresponsible. In my mind, Morris didn't do anything wrong, but his case shows the power even less well-known blogs can suddenly find themselves with, and the unforeseen consequences that can follow. There's the old famous quote about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, and that's even more the case with blogs; everyone now has unlimited ink, and some of that ink can have an impact on a scale you never imagined before it was spilled.

Another interesting test case that was discussed was Deadspin's coverage of Josh Hamilton doing shots off of scantily-clad women after his supposed repentance. "I do think there is news value in that," Daulerio said. "Everyone else covered it right after we ran it."

Mottram picked that up, mentioning that the very journalistic institutions that often decry blogs are more than happy to pick their stories up and run with them, sometimes at the same time (as happened in both the Hamilton case and the Ibanez case). He said this allows for plausible deniability by mainstream media outlets, as they're not the scumbags digging up the dirt, but just reporting that other people are doing it.

"These stories reverberate on SportsCenter, on Outside the Lines, but it’s pinned on blogs as evildoers," he said.

Daulerio agreed with that line of thought.

"They’re talking about 'Should we be talking about that?', so I don’t see the point," he said.

There was also a significant discussion of if blogs need journalistic standards, and the answer was largely no. Hall said he doesn't see himself as a journalist, and Daulerio said he isn't particularly concerned with journalistic standards.

"I do a lot of things that are journalistically deplorable," he said.*

*This is interesting in light of the recent Deadspin-ESPN controversy, which many have used to criticize Deadspin's supposed lack of standards. I'm working on a longer piece on that as well, so I don't want to get into it too much right now, but I think in some ways, Deadspin is more journalistically inclined than many other blogs.

The problem with this line of conversation, though, is that there isn't really just one set of journalistic standards. The standards of The New York Times and The New York Post are incredibly different, as are those of CNN, Fox News and Entertainment Tonight. This is why it's silly for people to complain about "blogs" or "the blogosphere", as you never hear people just talking about "newspapers" or judging the Times by what the Post prints. In my mind, each site sets their own standards, and they should be judged by what they do, not what the rest of the blogosphere does. The public at large and the mainstream media may not see it that way at the moment, but here's hoping they will with time.

Hall made another interesting point here, saying that "The ghost a lot of bloggers have lingering over them is Hunter S. Thompson." There's a lot of truth to that statement, as anyone who's read Thompson's work will realize; he went out and shook up the journalistic establishment, frequently crossing and readjusting the lines of the day and paving the way for a new breed of writers in the process. He made use of access at times, but at other times disregarded it and went his own way entirely, and he was never afraid to interject opinion into his work. Pretty much all of those statements could also apply to the sports blogosphere, and in my mind, that's probably a good thing in many cases.

I think Skeets made the key point of this part of the discussion, though, saying that certain settings (and the ones involving access in particular) do require certain standards of behaviour. "When you go into the locker room, you have to play by the rules," he said. In my mind, that isn't such a bad idea. There's plenty of room for creativity and gonzo blogging, but access to players and coaches isn't really going to help with most of it, especially in these days where athletes are constantly surrounded by PR officials and trying to stay on message. It will be tough for the bloggers who can work with access effectively to earn respect and trust and do their jobs if access becomes an anything-goes zone. Most bloggers don't need access in my mind, and much of the best blogging can be done without access, but there are some who can work very well within that framework; I'd hate to see them lose their access thanks to someone else disregarding the established standards for that area.

The last crucial element of the panel discussed the merits of generalist sites versus those that are hyper-specific. Obviously, it's tougher to find an audience without a particular topic, but Hall said he thinks it can be done if the writing's good enough and has a unique spin.

"I think there’s room for generalists," he said. "The problem is it can be very voice-dependent."

Dan Shanoff made a point from the floor about the merits of good writing versus good distribution, arguing that many good pieces go unnoticed while less-stellar ones may receive more traffic thanks to plugs from major sites. Hall said he thinks well-done writing will eventually find an audience regardless of subject, though.

"If people are interested in something, they’re going to find it."

Mottram backed this up, saying that the wide horizons of the Internet make it so there's really nothing that's too obscure, too random or too well-covered already any more.

"With anything people are passionate about, there’s an endless glut of want," he said. "It doesn’t matter how much there is. There’s still room for more."

To me, these last comments really caught the theme of the weekend, and they reinforced what I really believe blogging is really all about. I hate the notion that there's one right way to do things or one legitimate path to blogging success; it's a huge world, and there's room for all kinds of different approaches. I'd rather read a wide array of sites with unique perspectives than have the Internet turn into a cookie-cutter approach, and I don't want success to be defined just by who you know or how long you've been blogging for. That's one thing I really enjoyed about Blogs With Balls; it wasn't a set hierarchy of well-known types lording it over us peons, but rather an open discussion and get-together. It seemed more like cooperation than competition, and in my mind, that's the way it should be; we're all in the same boat. There's plenty of room for newcomers and unique and unusual approaches, and for me, the goal at the end of the day is just to produce something I'm happy with. The blogosphere is ever-changing and ever-expanding, but the possibilities seem wide open at the moment. As Daulerio said, "There’s always something better on the horizon that could blow everything out of the water."

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