Dave at sister-site CanalStreetChronicles has called our attention to yet another article, this one in the New York Times, covering the ongoing quandary of what to do with blogs and new media if you’re in the business of sports. It references the obligatory Marc Cuban/Dallas Mavericks controversy and polls a few sports and media folks about their opinion. Since this seems to be the topic that won’t go away, I thought I’d put my two cents in as to why good blogs are important in the modern sports world.
A brief excursus to start: I say “good” blogs because I fully acknowledge that there are some not worth the virtual paper upon which they are printed. But I would hasten to point out that this is generally true of every media type. Just as you’d distinguish between the Times and the National Enquirer or between that sports-talk guy on your local pirate station and Mike Tirico, it’s important to distinguish between blogs. For purposes of this discussion I’m going to define a “good” blog as one that’s responsible in its reporting, critical yet fair and reasoned, presentable in style and civility, and run by somebody who is knowledgeable, passionate about the subject, interesting, and willing to learn and grow. It should be obvious to everyone that those criteria are hard to meet. We can all point out examples from all media venues who do not meet some or all of those standards. Nevertheless the good ones do exist in all media, including this one.
Which brings us back around to the main point: good blogs are crucial to sports coverage because of the unique, blended role they play and the audience they address.
Blogs generally fail, or at least pale, when they attempt to duplicate coverage which is the specialty of another media type. Using examples from our own base of operations, this blog could never do what Jason Quick, Joe Freeman, Brian Hendrickson, Kerry Eggers, and their respective newspapers do. All four are professional writers with years of experience. It’s their job to be at practice, to follow the team on the road, to ask the questions that will most immediately interest the masses, and to pare down that data into a succinct, striking form. Neither could we duplicate what the television media do with their professional cameramen, highlight packages, and grab-your-eyes-and-ears news flashes. Blogs are seldom first to break news. Blogs seldom have the catchiest delivery packages. Those that try end up a distant second and usually become irrelevant in short order. The perceived rivalry between traditional and new media has always seemed silly to me. As far as this blogger goes, anyway, we surrender. They win without a fight. We cannot do what the traditional media does. We never will be able to do what they do unless we become traditional media and not bloggers anymore.
That said, a question: How many acres lie fallow beyond the ground we’ve just covered? How many rows either cannot or would not be worked by traditional media sources for lack of space or interest? I would offer as an example the coverage this blog has presented this season alone. In addition to offering you interviews with many of the same media people you enjoy reading and watching we have given you interviews with the Blazers’ Mike Born, Chris Bowles, Pat Zipfel, and Monty Williams, to name a few. Chances are you weren’t sure who most of those people were or what they did before reading the extensive interviews here. Same credentials, same access, very different product.
“Extensive” also highlights another aspect which differentiates blog coverage from traditional media. Editing carries with it certain advantages, such as digestibility, but there’s also something to be said for letting people speak for themselves…for giving you, the reader, the raw data and letting you play with and analyze it instead of picking out the parts we think are most interesting or important to you. The space constraints of the average newspaper column or television interview makes interviews like the one we did with Chris Bowles a couple weeks ago infrequent, if not impossible. We can also give you the complete text and audio of post-game locker room interviews. You only need one person sticking a microphone in the GM’s face and asking if a particular player is on the trading block. But the potential for interviews and questions apart from that are near limitless to the point that even the most diligent beat writer could not cover half of them. If traditional media provide the Eiffel Towers and Taj Mahals that are obvious musts on any tour of the area, we fill in the rest of the neighborhood: the corner cafes, the bookstores, the artist on the curb, that nice little hotel by the river. Each has its role and no exploration of the city is truly complete without experiencing both.
One might ask rightly whether the team itself could not provide such coverage and interesting stories. Indeed most teams can and do. But here it becomes a matter of motive and credibility. The goal of any business is to be noticed and talked about, the better to further name recognition and sales. In pursuit of this goal every business will talk about itself in one way or another, usually though advertising. This is precisely the tenor such interviews take when teams do them. No matter how well the subject matter is treated you can never quite get past the idea that they are tooting their own horn and bringing out their own stories so you will notice and like them. In addition to being passionate and committed enough to pursue the stories that others don’t notice, a good blog is also detached enough to provide credibility to those stories. It’s a hundred times better for a business when somebody outside notices and talks about it than when the business talks about itself.
This brings up yet another reason that teams should value blogs: a blog provides free, unsolicited advertising for the team every single day of the week. This doesn’t mean that we are selling the team per se or even speaking well of it. On some days we may be critical, even to the point it makes the team uncomfortable. But the truth is, every sentence with even a bit of grist causes more people to watch and follow the team, if nothing else to see if the perception was correct. This is triply true when people bother to comment on the team themselves in response to a post. Even a person who lambasts the team or a player (as unfortunate as that is sometimes) will later tune in to see if his point holds up. I would go so far as to say that a person who has committed themselves far enough to put their reputation on the line with a comment or argument has also, by default, committed themselves to following the team. The transitions that stem from discussions like this turn non-fans into fans and casual fans into hardcore. We don’t bring them in…that usually depends on how well the team is doing. But when they are in, or at least peek in, we cement them there. I would argue good blogs do this as effectively as any marketing scheme ever devised. You might be inspired by a slogan or commercial, but seldom do you truly commit to it. You’d have a hard time finding the “Rise With Us” people. But it’s fairly easy to identify the Blazersedge community. Heck, they’ll self-identify without you even asking and then they’ll tell you all the reasons they’re Blazer fans.
Which brings us to one of the most important assets of any blog: its audience. Blogs create a community distinct, and in many ways superior to, any other online forum. The comment section under online articles allows feedback but seldom committed discussion. The community formed there identifies with the article more than its subject or any larger group. Myspace groups have the converse problem. They allow community interactivity but seldom is it focused on much beyond the authors themselves. Forums which are unmoderated or moderated from above by non-members allow discussion but quality control is so spotty that they are seldom long-lived. They tend to be populated (and dominated) by a few “regulars” and don’t branch farther. A passionate, invested, and moderated blog, however, creates a community that is both welcoming and focused. That focus is less on the writers or any given subject and more on the team and development of discussion about it. We talk individually or in small groups but corporately we are all watching and discussing the same thing: the Blazers.
There’s one thing we haven’t mentioned yet that blogs do in spades…better than any other venue. The single biggest buzz phrase for marketing to the new generation, Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, is User-Created Content. Nowadays if people cannot monkey with your entertainment product they don’t want it. A blog is, by definition, user-created content. But more than that, the best blogs give permission for their entire community to engage in creating content by providing the tools (fanposts and fanshots) and the built-in audience. The greatest sports blogs aren’t written by one or two people, they’re written by hundreds. This, more than anything else, explains why blogs are livelier than most any other online venue.
At a certain critical mass that watching, discussion, participation, content creation, and the resulting investment in the team grow almost on their own. Once the excitement is kindled it’s hard to stop. You cannot buy or artificially create this kind of community. I have seldom seen it online outside of venues like this. For that reason alone teams should get very interested when it looks like a quality blog is growing in their orbit. Far from fighting it or being skeptical, they should be on the watch for such things and start asking themselves what they can do to help fan the flames...how they can get more meaninful content out there...how they can encourage more participation and investment.
I understand why from a traditional sports and media point of view blogs are viewed with almost instinctive suspicion. But obsessing about a critical statement or feeling nervous about not being able to control the content is not seeing the forest for the trees. Those are exactly the things that make good blogs work when many other online attempts fail. Besides no sports blog in existence is run by anything other than a fan. Given half the chance EVERY blogger will want to say wonderful things about the team and present wonderful content about the team. They will enjoy the bump in readership and national attention that comes with the team doing well. They will enjoy the feeling that comes with being a part of that far more than other writers…maybe as much as team officials themselves. It will always come around to something positive in the end. As long as the blog is responsible and at least somewhat fair there is nothing to fear long-term from blog coverage and a whole lot to gain.
I’d like to think that Blazersedge and its community have been positive examples of what good blogs can do. We have been fed so much by the team and the mainstream media. I’d like to think in some ways we are giving something back. I’d like to think that we’ve helped grow the Blazer fan base. I’d like to think we’ve helped make that fan base a little more committed, and reasoned, and aware. I’d like to think that we’ve shown that there is a market--no, a hunger--for more in-depth pieces, for nuanced coverage, for deep thoughts, and for interactive feedback…that throwing up an MVP Poll and a Trade Machine doesn’t suffice as coverage. Most of all I’d like to think we’ve brought everybody--team, media, and fans--a little closer together by the connections we provide. If you’ve read Blazersedge for the past year it’s a pretty good bet that you see farther into the team than you did this time last summer. It’s a good bet that the organization seems more real and interesting and human. It’s a good bet you understand more about the people who cover the team as well and that you feel closer to and more appreciative of them. I’m pretty sure you could read national and traditional and even team sources until your eyes fell out and never get quite that same feeling. That, more than anything, shows what we’re doing here and why it’s important.