Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Brave New World Post that Doesn't Cover the Braves

Last night, I waded through Paul Starr's long essay on the decline of American newspapers and the unfortunate consequences for our democracy. The difficulties of the newspaper industry do not pose the same dangers for sports that they do for honest government and business. I can live without a number of reporters following the Braves or reporting on the Final Four on-site; I prefer not to live without the AJC properly staffing its coverage of the goings-on at the State Capitol or the behavior of our elected officials in Washington. That said, Starr's description of a world with fewer metropolitan newspapers did have some parallels to the world of sports:

Metropolitan newspapers have dominated news gathering, set the public agenda, served as the focal point of controversy, and credibly represented themselves as symbolizing and speaking for the cities whose names they have carried. They have tried to be everyone's source of news, appealing across the ideological spectrum, and to be comprehensive, providing their readers with whatever was of daily interest to them. Some newspapers, a smaller number than exist today, will survive the transition to the Web, but they probably will not possess the centrality, the scope, or the authoritative voice--much less the monopolies on metropolitan advertising--that newspapers have had.

The news media emerging in the digital environment seem likely to be more concentrated in some respects and more fragmented in others. Readership is already becoming concentrated in a national press. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post seem well-positioned to capitalize on the abandonment of international, national, and cultural coverage by regional newspapers. The likely closing of some papers, or their retreat from daily to weekend print publication, should only intensify this shift. In Europe, the press has long been dominated by national papers; now American newspapers are moving in that direction.

If the sports media follows this progression, what will our world look like? More consumption of national sports media and therefore more focus on a few national teams. There is a common complaint in England that the football clubs in smaller towns have a hard time drawing new fans because all the young people in their villages want to support Manchester United or Arsenal instead of the local club. In an American sports landscape dominated by an increasingly national media, we could be headed in the same direction. Just wait for the composition of the crowds when the Red Sox and Yankees come to the Ted this summer. A lot of the support for the rapacious northern teams will come from transplants, but a lot of it will also come from locals who chose to support those teams instead of the Braves.

The major factor cutting against a nationalization of sports issues will be the proliferation of blogs devoted to one team. Blogs can cover a local team far more obsessively than newspapers ever could. Blogs can also be totally forthright in their assessments because they have no access to guard. If we get our sports news from blogs instead of newspapers, then there's no reason why local teams won't get plenty of interest.

On the other hand, the Internet permits a fan access to the obsessive blog coverage of teams around the world. 20 years ago, I would have had no option to read in-depth daily coverage of teams outside of those covered by my local newspaper. Today, if I want to be an intense fan of F.C. Barcelona, I can read blogs about the team, as well as English-language articles from a number of publications about the team and its rivals in La Liga. I'll admit that I'm odd, but the decline of the metropolitan newspaper and the shift of news consumption to the Internet doesn't simply imply that the Cowboys, Lakers, and Yankees are going to become more popular; it also implies that they are going to have to compete with Manchester United, Barcelona, and AC Milan. In the end, metro areas will rally around one team with far less frequency.

Starr also predicts a greater gap between news junkies and the rest of the populace:

For those with the skills and interest to take advantage of this new world of news, there should be much to be pleased with. Instead of being limited to a local paper, such readers already enjoy access to a broader range of publications and discussions than ever before. But without a local newspaper or even with a shrunken one, many other people will learn less about what is going on in the world.

We can already see this phenomenon in the world of sports. Nuts like me end up with obsessive knowledge about our teams, while the average person, who normally would have known a little just based on having a paper including a sports section delivered to him home every morning, is left behind.


hoodawg said...

Great post, Michael. I get 75-80% of my sports news from blogs, but we sometimes forget that that blog-based news is essentially launched from local news reporting. If David Hale, Georgia blogger extraordinaire, loses his job with the newspaper, can he possibly support himself by attending Georgia pressers and posting all the details on his blog, begging for ad revenue? I doubt it, but someone has to start the conversation, and there's definitely a hunger for that information.

The big problem is that people expect the internet to be free, but they don't understand that the only reason internet news is free is that it's backed by a failing print media model. I expect the emergence of a fee-based internet media for niche news (local sports, for example) while an emergence, as you suggest, of a national free media that can always manage to attract enough ad revenue to support a print/internet free model. And, since the information sports bloggers will need to be current and interesting will likely lie behind a fee-for-service firewall, I see a culling of casual blogs down to those who care enough to pay for the raw reporting data.

Just another "there's no such thing as a free lunch" moment for Americans in the early 21st century.

Tommy said...

"Blogs can cover a local team far more obsessively than newspapers ever could. Blogs can also be totally forthright in their assessments because they have no access to guard."

Therein lies the rub. Do you want news or opinion. Because the same individuals who give you opinion can't (or shouldn't) give you news. And if local team coverage is bound for obsolescence, the bandwagon of commentary hitched to that coverage is headed the same way. If the news isn't reported, how can you have an opinion about it?

Michael said...

HD, I agree, but there will still be plenty of us who can write about what we see during games for free.

Tommy, the niche for commentary on team news will be gone, but the niches for commentary on what we see during a game will remain. The difference between sports and politics/government is that the former is a public spectacle and the latter typically goes on behind closed doors. I need someone with sources and relationships to report on what the Georgia Legislature is doing; I don't need that to tell me that the Braves lost last night because Bobby left the starter in too long.

hoodawg said...

Michael, I get your point, but I'd use your politics/sports analogy to liken folks who watch games and blog to the people who watch CSPAN and blog -- they are watching the raw essence of sports/politics, but they can't tell you the story behind the story. Unless he has as a resource a reporter in the locker room, or attending the press conferences, or using his network of contacts to know how contract negotiations are going, the blogger watching the Braves/Phillies game is inherently limited to what happens between the lines. If he wants to understand why Kelly Johnson didn't start, or how Cox plans to deal with the injury to Chipper Jones, or the story behind Chase Utley's hard slide into Escobar, he's just got to hope it's important enough to catch ESPN's eye. Otherwise, he's just speculating, and doing so with far less information than he'd currently have.

That world of blogging and reportage might be cleaner, more athletically-focused, and less prone to obsessions about A-Rod's love life, but it's much less interesting and very different than the one we have now.

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