A brief aside about the role of sports writers now and in the future

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Skip this post if you don’t care about  media stuff.

[waits for those people to leave]

OK, now that all of us reading this are people who do care, I direct you to a sharp column by Jason Fry over at the National Sports Journalism Center (you may also know Jason from the Wall Street Journal or the Faith and Fear in Flushing Mets blog).

The subject: the inanity of media’s continued insistence on getting a story first.  But the key point isn’t the “speed is bad because speed makes reporters sloppy” thing you see so often these days.  The key point is one I’ve thought about for a long time: that for much of the sports news we consume, who got it first is irrelevant, whether they got it right or not.

The kind of news Fry is talking about he refers to as “commodity news.”  The expected facts that come as a matter of course regardless of who is doing the reporting. Fry uses the day’s lineup as his primary example, but there are others. We all know Cliff Lee will sign somewhere. We all know that the manager will name a starting pitcher for Game One of the NLCS.  We all know that that night’s game is going to be won and that its descriptions will be disseminated in the form of a game story soon after it’s over. Here’s Fry explaining why it doesn’t matter who reports that stuff:

When it comes to basic information everybody’s going to have, all I care about is that it gets to me. Which individual source put that information into the combined news flow? The question is so unimportant that I’m unlikely to remember the answer five minutes later. Maybe not even five seconds later … Being first with commodity news no longer registers with readers — and readers, ultimately, are the ones who pay the bills, to the extent bills are paid at all in our era.

Fry believes that teams are going to start reporting all of the commodity news on their own soon enough anyway, so why bother trying to get the scoops? Heck, they are already to some degree, they just don’t call it “reporting.”  I’ve been in a few clubhouses and at a few media-heavy baseball events, and there’s always a table full of press releases and random information pages that, whether you know it or not, are available to average fans at MLB.com or wherever already. Even big time player signings are going to soon be reported first by teams.  I joke about Ruben Amaro being a ninja, but really, he’s just one step closer to bypassing Jon Heyman as a news clearinghouse than all of the other GMs. They’ll get there soon too.

Fry says, and I agree, that the key for media organizations is to move away from emphasizing and repackaging such widely-disseminated commodity news and to pay more attention to other, more nourishing forms of reporting:

Exclusive reports, investigative journalism, and thoughtful long-form features can’t be quickly matched or hollowed out by a competitor’s summary or retweet. There sportswriters still have a chance at a window of exclusivity and creating something that will stand out from the news stream and be remembered by readers – with credit where it’s due.

One other area of opportunity Fry identifies is very near and dear to my heart because it’s what we try to do with HardballTalk:

Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information.

Since I started blogging four years ago, I have considered that to be my mission.  I’ve had a couple of minor scoops, but who cares? Others had the news three minutes later.  What I value and what I think our readers value is how we try to put the news in context. To show its significance. To offer some insight, sharp opinion or humor to it in a way that makes hearing about news factoid x, y, or z at HardballTalk better than hearing about it elsewhere.  We don’t always succeed at that — we’ll occasionally do a lazy link regurgitation post, usually late in the day when we need a cup of coffee — but the intent is to always stamp the news with our own unique take.

I’ve been in media seminars when such an approach was derided by traditional media types sarcastically as “value-added blogging.”  The implication: that the real work is getting the near-fungible news nugget and that the sort of opining we and other bloggers do is lazy free-riding.  As Fry argues, however, and as readers’ media consumption habits make clear, the opposite is true.  No one cares where the factoid comes from. People care about what it all means and will read stuff from people who will help them figure that out.

I’m not very good at predicting the future, but from where I’m sitting now I foresee one in which there are fewer media professionals collecting the rote postgame quotes, writing the de riguer game story and tweeting that day’s lineup and more of them intelligently parsing the quotes from the postgame interview, composing a critical analysis of the game that just ended and not giving a diddly durn about that day’s lineup until they begin to fill out their scoresheet for that night’s game.

Getting there will be difficult. Newspapers and their reporters don’t like change.  But they don’t have a choice in the matter. The readers will decide what kind of coverage is critical and, ultimately, profitable.  Just as they always have.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
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Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.