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Rethinking "Journalism": What is the Role of the Sports Blogger?

One way to think about the role of media in society is to think about how information is produced, distributed, and obtained during a major national event.

Yesterday we had such a major national event: the announcement of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

(I know political news is not at all the same as sports news…but hopefully you’ll quickly see where I’m going with this)

For a moment, I am going to ask you to set aside your political opinion about the nomination and think about a simple question: how did you find out about the nomination (assuming you found out about it before now)? And more importantly, what types of sources did you go to in order to find that information?

I first found out about Sotomayor’s nomination on Facebook through someone’s status message, which included a link to the CNN (Reuters) article. I glanced over it and started searching the web for information on her past decisions, when a friend emailed me another article that was copied and pasted into the body of the email. So I read that briefly.

Still unsatisfied with the information provided, I kept digging and found a Washington Post article that was a bit more detailed. I read a few more news stories throughout the day (I got distracted by news of the Proposition 8 decision and real life) and then tabled it for a while.

Later on in the afternoon I was sitting with a friend in a coffee shop and we were talking about Sotomayor and he sent me a link to the SCOTUS Blog, which had a detailed account of Sotomayor’s past opinions and potential arguments that she might face during confirmation.

Why do I bother laying out this short story?

Petrel at the Pleasant Dreams Blog wrote an article about two weeks ago entitled, "Can blogging ever replace journalism?" The post itself is worth a read -- it starts with the fact that newspapers are going through tough times right now and ends up with how bloggers figure into that equation. However, if we were to answer the question posed by the title of petrel’s post based on how people find information about a major political event, I would argue the answer is an emphatic "no".

For a more nuanced answer to the question I might answer a bit differently: bloggers are less a threat to reporters than a complement.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the relationship between the two is mutually enhancing for the average citizen – not only do we get hard news, but we also get a set of commentaries that help us gain a deeper understanding of how to interpret that news. Outlets like CNN.com and the Washington Post have the access to break news, social networks spread news, and bloggers provide a range of alternate perspectives to help us interpret all of that information.

But blogs are not a perfect source of news.

One sentiment that was expressed in the comments of my post about newspaper staff reductions was the lack of accountability and quality in blogging vs. "traditional" journalism. The topic came up in response to the suggestion that bloggers could adequately help build interest in the WNBA given the (increasing) lack of coverage from "traditional" media.

And trust me, I am sympathetic to this critique – I often look back at some of my old posts and wish I had an editor aside from MS Word. However, I would take the stance that "traditional" journalism – reporters and public relations folks – and Web 2.0 journalism are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, in sports, they may complement each other in a way that encourages deeper dialogue about the game.

Furthermore, to argue that bloggers are responsible for the death of newspapers is almost completely inaccurate – the 24-hour news cycle died years ago with the rise of broadcast television and online media outlets. Sure the proliferation of citizen journalism may be the nail in the coffin for newspapers, but it is hardly responsible for the downfall of newspapers.

So the question becomes what is the relationship between the blogger and the mainstream media reporter? And what is the role of blogging for niche sports like the WNBA?

As a WNBA blogger, I don’t consider these to be selfish or narcissistic questions but questions absolutely essential to the growth of women’s basketball in the current media context. And ultimately I think some insight into the value of bloggers can be gained from the theme of the upcoming "Blogs with Balls" new media sports journalism conference – bridging social media and the mainstream media.

What do blogs like SCOTUS Blog add to the conversation?

If we return to my information seeking story about Judge Sotomayor, I think we can learn a lot about the relationship between bloggers and traditional journalists.

The SCOTUS Blog's function was really quite simple: it provided legal analysis and archival synthesis of information that is not otherwise easily attainable by the average person. By "not easily attainable" I don’t mean that the information is restricted as much as the fact that the information is condensed in a way that it can help the average (literate) citizen understand news related to the Supreme Court.

And of course, this is definitely a niche blog for people particularly interested in news related to the Supreme Court. The friend who showed it to me has a few lawyers in his family and his best friend from childhood is now a lawyer, so it is in conversations with them that he found this blog.

When you look at what SCOTUS Blog does well and the audience it attracts, it definitely represents the role of the "blogger as historian" (as petrel put it). This is not a threat to newspapers and in fact, blogs such as SCOTUS Blog often rely heavily upon newspapers to do the primary reporting of hard facts that they can then collect and put together.

However, that is politics, not sports.

And though I love sports, let’s not pretend the two are the same.

Sports is about the market of opinions. Watching the game. Talking trash. Pontificating on what might happen in the future.

That happens in politics – and some people who claim to be political journalists do nothing but pontificate -- but the stakes are higher. The two don’t present the same product and really they shouldn’t. I don’t want Wolf Blitzer reporting on sports. And I don’t want an ESPN analyst doing politics (sorry, I went there). Politics are important because they influence people’s living conditions, sports because they entertain and I love competition.

Sports bloggers – and particularly niche sports bloggers – should see ourselves in a similar light as the SCOTUS Blog: to bring together scattered information on the web and thereby offer insight that reporters are unable to offer, either due to the pressure of deadlines or corporate interests. And in being provocative, the blogger can build a unique connection to sports fans that should be leveraged, not disdained.

The sports blogger as provocateur

I have particularly liked this description of a blogger’s responsibilities from the Outspoken Media blog:

As your blogger,

* I will try to offer up viewpoints that perhaps you hadn’t thought of in order to get people talking and open a conversation.
* I’ll do my best to be useful, creating resources worth your bookmarks. (See last week’s post on how to launch that small business Web site.)
* I’ll tie events together to create a story you perhaps didn’t see.
* I’ll take a polarizing stand if it’ll get you to think about things differently and question yourself for good, not just because I’m bored or because I can.
* I’ll craft posts in a tone most appropriate for the subject matter, even if it means I’ll be written off as "sensational" for my choice of language. I’ll use my language as a tool to open people up, not a weapon.
* I will never make links or fake debate my end goal.
* I’ll bring attention to causes, issues and news that I think are important or that will benefit you.
* And I’ll do it while being responsible and accountable for my words.

In a nutshell, that’s what being a blogger is about to me. It’s about being interesting, being useful and to respect your readers enough to challenge them when necessary. Or at least that’s the role I try to fill.
These basic attributes of a blogger also apply to the role of the sports blogger – to provide fodder for discussion or new angles on old childhood games. Re-arranging facts and coming up with alternate explanations is sometimes as valuable as the initial facts themselves – it enhances news rather than detracting from it.

This impulse to challenge common sense rather than merely representing the facts of the world is what helps bloggers enhance journalism rather than detract from it.

Yet that impulse to be provocative can be one of the blogger’s greatest assets and greatest downfalls. Sometimes stringing together loosely connected facts to illuminate a new claim can help us understand our world better. Sometimes it is just flat out nonsense. (Depending on your political leanings, you may think that claims about President Barack Obama being a socialist Muslim terrorist without U.S. citizenship fall on either side of this spectrum.) And unfortunately, the most nefarious of provocateurs end up shaping people’s opinions about all bloggers – hence the gripes of some traditional journalists with bloggers.

So let me present an example of a provocateur that I think "works".

My favorite example of a provocateur in sports blogging is Dave Berri, a professor who writes the Wages of Wins blog. The reason I like this blog as an example of being provocative is that he is trying to challenge the assumptions underlying how we understand basketball by taking a unique statistical approach to the game – evaluating players based upon their contribution to team wins.

I know some people dislike Berri – they either take issue with his claims or the way he constructs statistics to make his claims. And that is exactly why I’m using him as an exemplar of the sports blogger’s role. I don’t think we have to agree with him, but he forces us to re-evaluate how we think about the game and its stars. To me that’s fun and just adds to what makes sports fun.

One blog entry from the Wages of Wins in particular entitled, "How Sportswriters are Like Coaches: Explaining the Vote for Rookie of the Year" exemplifies why I like his work. The gist of the post is that sportswriters typically choose the Rookie of the Year in the NBA not based on the best performer overall, but on more superficial elements of the game such as points scored, draft position, and team success.

Although Berri presents us with a small example, this exemplifies "sports journalism" of questionable quality despite accountability. And he’s talking about the "traditional" guys.

Berri demonstrates how shallow analyses of basketball undermine the quality of sports journalism in the mainstream media despite their accountability. And the blog post itself perfectly exemplifies how bloggers can intervene – to provide an alternate viewpoint that may sometimes be more complex, but allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the game.

In the end, this is more a matter of differing goals than degrees of quality or effectiveness. And those goals will resonate with audiences in different and very important ways. Furthermore, once bloggers build an audience by being provocative, new opportunities for sustaining and building a sports fan base emerge.

"Blogs with Balls": Looking to bridge the divide

Although the intersection of bloggers and mainstream media has yet to be fully explored or articulated, I recently came across a website for the Blogs with Balls conference, a sports blogger and new media conference to be held in NYC.

If you go to the site, you may notice that these are primarily bloggers for men’s sports (if you couldn't figure that out from the name)…but I think the core theme of this year’s conference still applies to blogging for niche women’s sports:
Povia said part of the impetus for creating BWB was ham-handed marketers looking to tap the huge audiences drawn to sports blogs.

"After major events like the Super Bowl and March Madness, we were being contacted by big PR companies on behalf of major clients looking to get blog mentions," he said. "The problem was they were speaking a different language and offering things that weren’t relevant to what we do."

Povia said a key goal of the conference is to engage marketers and bring them into the conversation with a more interactive, Q&A-type format not generally associated with professional conferences.
This connection between bloggers and marketers is interesting and something that might really help a niche sport like the WNBA by providing access to different subsets of the fan base, that might be otherwise difficult to identify. This is different than bloggers just providing commentary – this is about bloggers actually reaching fans in ways that "traditional media" does not necessarily.

So the question I am left with is how this idea of connecting bloggers to marketers can help a league like the WNBA? And is that really a worthwhile effort to make?

Blogging is clearly not a threat to journalism as much as an expansion. Newspapers are on the decline for multiple reasons, the web included, but that really has little to do with bloggers. What I think people need to figure out -- and what makes me interested in the Blogs with Balls conference -- is how to bridge this divide.

It would be interesting to know what other WNBA bloggers think. One thing I find interesting is the variety among bloggers: there are league-wide blogs and team-specific blogs. Fan blogs and journalists with blogs. Blogs that post essays and those that post links. Those that link sports and politics and those that remain politically neutral. And so I wonder what a conversation between WNBA bloggers regarding this question of their role in advancing the WNBA would look like.

I suppose I could have just emailed a bunch of WNBA bloggers…but isn’t transparency part of what makes blogging great?

Transition Points:

Berri’s poster child for the way people (mis-)analyze basketball
is Kevin Durant – a volume scorer who does little else for his team (although anybody in their right mind would admit the man has a ton of potential). The praise for Durant during his rookie season may have been overblown because of the fact that he was such an effective scorer. The fact that he rarely created for teammates and plays suspect defense therefore never entered into the equation.

Which brings us right back to the question of accountability and quality in sports journalism – if you believe Berri (and I think he supports his claim quite well), then the issue of bloggers not being effective at building a sport due to lacking accountability and quality becomes moot. Not only are bloggers merely working in the market of opinion, but in reality, many "traditional" sports journalists are not actually engaging in quality analysis of the game.

And in a sense, Berri’s blog embodies the critique that I would use the aforementioned post to advance – bloggers complement journalists not only by providing a market of opinions for sports fans to consume, but also by watching the watchdog and filling in the gaps when they provide shallow analysis.

Another point about the related issue of "objectivity": One of my favorite professors in college once said on the first day of his course in Reporting that any reporter who tells you they’re objective is lying – it’s an ideal that shouldn’t necessarily be let go of, but is ultimately unreachable. And when I think about the difference between bloggers and journalists, I see degrees of subjectivity within different motivating goals.

Another thing to think about regarding blogs
is the notion of "echo chambers" -- that many blogs become places where like-minded people talk to each other, not across difference as many people would hope the web would enable. Bad thing? No -- as David Weinberger points out, that's what happens in real life. But helpful for a league to expand its fan base? I'm not sure -- it might help strengthen and sustain an existing fan base, but I'm not sure how blogs could extend a fan base, even with connections to marketers...something to chew on, I guess...