Baseball and Blogs
Bucco Blog is another blog on MLBlogs.com, run by a Pittsburgh Pirates fan who calls himself “Joliet Jake.” It’s one of the more active blogs on MLBlogs.com; according to StrikeTwo.net, it’s #16 on the list of “influential” blogs, ranked by TrackBacks.
(Note: The FutureAngels.com Blog hasn’t used TrackBacks, but I’m going to start doing so just to see whether it matters.)
Jake posted an entry on January 12 titled, Memo to Pirates Front Office: Bloggers Exist. Essentially he raised the question of how seriously professional baseball organizations should treat bloggers in their media relations.
In a subsequent column, Jake wrote that he’d received many e-mails from fellow bloggers (I was one of them) sharing their experiences with the organizations they cover.
Overall, their experiences have been a mixed bag, although it seems in general that they’re blown off far more often than they’re treated with credibility, much less respect.
FutureAngels.com began in April 1999, having evolved out of a hybird Angels/Lake Elsinore Storm site I ran for a year in 1998. This will be the tenth year I’ve been around. I’ve had a lot of experience at this stuff, so I wanted to add my own insights.
First, I can fully understand why the Media Relations people would ignore bloggers, or even feel threatened by them. Quite frankly, most blogs are just clueless rants by people who refuse to exert any effort towards educating themselves about the game. It’s so easy to hide behind a modem and use a fictitious name to rail at the perceived injustices of the world. To equate those people with so-called “mainstream media” performing a legitimate journalistic function would be ridiculous.
On the other hand, there are plenty writers in the “mainstream” world whose work isn’t much better than the bloggers. One example is Los Angeles Times scribe T.J. Simers, whose schtick is to write insulting cheapshots about those caught in his crosshairs. I’ve heard plenty of sportswriters and local sports talk hosts insist that Simers is actually a nice guy and a talented writer, and his column is simply a gimmick in the tradition of the late KMPC radio pundit Jim Healy. Making a living by inflicting pain on others is rather dishonorable, in my opinion, even if it’s in jest, but the fact of the matter is that Simers can get the Angels or Dodgers Media Relations people to set up interviews for him, whereas most bloggers can’t.
So why are newspaper columnists who have no interest in writing the truth given carte blanche access to the organization, while bloggers are not?
The obvious answer is that hundreds of thousands of people will read the beat writer, where no more than a couple hundred people might read the blogger.
So it isn’t really the quality of the work, the message, or the credibility of the writer. It’s the consequence of barring the writer, the bad publicity printed in a globally circulated newspaper.
In short, it’s what political consultants call “feed the beast” — if you throw the lion some meat every day, maybe he won’t come to devour you.
Bloggers in comparison are just kittens. At worst, they cough up a hairball.
Nonetheless, bloggers and webmasters have scored some serious news stories. I think that’s what scares the baseball folk. If you throw the lion some meat every day, you hope you’ve trained it to realize that eating you is a bad idea because then there won’t be any more free meals. Most bloggers prefer to operate outside the mainstream. They like the “outlaw” nature of their work. Some even brag that their work is more “pure” because it isn’t supposedly tainted by commingling with alleged spinmeisters.
But many bloggers are sincere about wanting to practice as serious journalists, and seek out the team’s Media Relations in an effort to do it by the book, thinking that if you act mainstream, you’ll be treated as mainstream.
Probably the best example in the baseball world is Jamey Newberg at The Newberg Report, who covers the Texas Rangers. Jamey started in 1998, the same year I did. We were both members of the Baseball America On-Line program, the notion being that BA would exploit the nascent fan web site phenomenon in the late 1990s to use them as the cyber equivalent of the newspaper stringer. Eventually BA evolved its Web presence to the point they didn’t need the affiliates, although many of those affiliates were actually bought out by commercial entities so the project died an early death, Jamey and I being two of the few survivors.
Jamey’s relationship with the Rangers is exceptionally positive. He has just as much access as any beat writer for a mainstream publication. The Rangers front office embraced him and established a positive working relationship. But Jamey has evolved into a commercial enterprise, publishing an annual book on the Rangers, whereas I’m just running FutureAngels.com out of my own pocket, hoping to sell enough photos to cover expenses. Jamey is an affluent attorney. I’m a computer programmer who started a site to archive Angels minor league history.
My experiences with the Angels over the years have run the gamut. In the early years, before owners voted to transfer their Internet rights to MLB, the Angels had their own site and I was invited to a couple meetings about helping their site. That changed after the owners’ vote, but I still contributed here and there. My photos were used in the Angels annual media guide, and I wrote articles for the souvenir game program sold at Angel Stadium.
Recently the attitude has changed, although it’s not just towards me. People such as boosters and host parents have been accused of leaking confidential information to the media. I’ve never done so, because that’s not my thing. I’m an archivist, or the reasonable approximation thereof. But I’ve been told that certain employees have been threatened with disciplinary action if they’re caught talking to me, members of the mainstream media, boosters, or anyone else not on the Angels payroll.
A few years ago, I was told by an Angels employee that they didn’t know what to do with me. Clearly I’d established legitimate credentials, but because I wasn’t a team employee or an employee of recognized media they didn’t know how I should be treated.
“We don’t know how to categorize you,” I was told. “Are you the media? Are you a fan?”
“Why do I need to be categorized?” I replied. I’d been around enough years to demonstrate I wasn’t trying to get autographs or a scoop. I was a service, one that cost me a couple thousand dollars each year out of my own pocket. There were many random acts of kindness I performed that the brass never knew about, such as giving a player a ride or picking up a player at the airport or feeding the young Latin players or sending photos for free to the rookie players at the summer league camp every year. Those people were always grateful and remembered the generosity, although I’m sure the brass wouldn’t have seen it that way.
“The problem is that we can’t control you,” I was told, and in the end that’s the crux of the issue.
The interesting implication in that remark was that they believe they can control the mainstream media — the “feed the beast” syndrome.
But when someone is motivated by more noble intentions, such as a fan with a web site or a host parent housing a minor leaguer, it’s not about being tossed red meat. It’s about doing a good deed.
Certainly, not all bloggers are so nobly intended. Nor are all fans. Even the occasional host parent has had more selfish motivations.
And some bloggers have demonstrated they can be bought off. One Angels fan who criticized the change of the team’s name from “Anaheim Angels” to “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” sang a different tune after the team arranged for him to be interviewed by local press as an example of a fan happy with the name change. In short, he allowed himself to be controlled in exchange for fifteen minutes of fame.
As I hear more and more stories about boosters, host parents and others being the target of paranoid accusations, the more importance I give to that explanation — “We can’t control you.”
As fans, we tend to forget that professional baseball is a business with billions of dollars at stake. The more money at stake, the more fearful front offices become of taking a risk.
Ironically, it seems that with the rare exception of the Rangers and Jamey Newberg, teams have failed so far to figure out they should apply the “feed the beast” metaphor to the bloggers and the Web in general. Why not set up a separate mechanism for those bloggers who wish to perform a legitimate journalistic function and allow them to participate in events separate from the mainstream media? Since few (if any) of them have had training in proper journalistic etiquette, establish a protocol for behavior, perhaps even a signed agreement. If they demonstrate responsible behavior, let them participate in the mainstream events, such as I did with teleconferences over the years. If the cyberjournalist violates the agreement, pull the plug.
If the agreement is too odious, e.g. “Write only nice things about us,” the blogger has the option of not signing it. I wouldn’t. And as I wrote above, some bloggers revel in their outlaw attitude, and will reject such an agreement outright.
Nor is it the responsibility of bloggers, host parents, fans, or even mainstream journalists to cover their eyes and ears should they stumble across something confidential. Put the blame where it belongs. Train players and other personnel in appropriate public behavior. Host parents have a certain responsibility because they see the players in private. But it’s silly to accuse someone of being a media spy just because he’s in a privileged position. Of course, if the players didn’t misbehave, then there wouldn’t be a problem, would there?
Personally, I’ve always been careful about confidential matters. For example, a few years ago I was filming players during batting practice. A coach started discussing signs. I turned the camera off and walked away. I wasn’t asked to. I just did. Because I didn’t want to be in a situation where I could be falsely accused. Where appropriate, I’ve always asked permission, although there have been times where someone got angry because I shot photos or video of something that was obviously public.
Recently there was a dust-up on the MLB Angels bulletin board about Tom and Casey Kotchman. Some of the usual wingnuts were claiming Casey was still ill and would never play again. I said he was going to play in Puerto Rico in November. I didn’t get that from any confidential source; it was from an interview Casey gave to MLB.com in September. Then someone posted claiming to be Tom Kotchman. I challenged that person to answer a few basic questions I’d pose about Tom from my interviews with him over the years. That person disappeared. It wasn’t that I had any personal link to the Kotchmans, it was just that I figured I could call the bluff.
All the while, though, I was worried someone might misinterpret this as my trading in sensitive and confidential information. Which is a shame, because then the fraudulent people win. Media Relations may not care about what’s said on the Angels board, but it’s a fact that the beat writers do read it, and do publish excerpts from the board, regardless of their accuracy. That’s true across baseball fandom; the Pittsburgh paper quotes Bucco Blog, and many publications quote The Newberg Report web site.
The so-called mainstream media is turning more and more to the Internet, for many reasons. One is it’s a lot easier to get “the voice of the fan” by sifting through a few rants on a bulletin board than it is to get out from behind the computer and talk to people. It’s not necessarily laziness, it’s a result of the ever-dwindling staff at newspapers with declining subscriptions.
Both the Times and the Register have gone through significant layoffs in the last year, with more rumored to come. The Times has been experimenting with mixing both their print and Web services, hoping that somehow they can attract more revenue by selling ads on popular web pages.
Personally, I’d pay to read certain writers, but not others. With most bloggers, though, you don’t pay a penny to read them. So if you’re a fan looking to read about Angels baseball, given a choice between paying to read Mike DiGiovanna or Bill Shaikin, or reading some blogger’s uninformed rant for free, most folk will go with Option B.
The reality is that a world looking for information is turning more and more to the Internet. That means more bloggers will be read, whether they’re accurate or not. If the ballclubs’ Media Relations stick their collective heads in the sand and continue to ignore this trend, feeding the red meat to a dying breed, then they shouldn’t be surprised when bad publicity is the result.
This article is copyright © 2007 Wordsmith Resources and FutureAngels.com. It may not be used elsewhere without the prior expressed written permission of the author.