Nationals Baseball: Zuckerman's Famous Gig

Monday, February 08, 2010

Zuckerman's Famous Gig

By now you've all heard about Mark Zuckerman's goal of getting Nats fans to send him to Spring Training to cover the Nationals. As you all also know this isn't just Blogger X trying to get a free trip. Zuckerman spent several years covering the Nationals for the Washington Times, building up relationships and covering the team professionally. It was only when the Times went in a new direction (toward bankruptcy) that he lost his job. So far, the blog coverage I've read has ranged from glowing praise of the idea to slightly less glowing praise, but on my end... I'm not sure it's a good idea.

Hey don't get angry yet! I said I'm not sure!

Let's get to the brass tacks. In effect, Mark is asking web savvy Nats fans to hire him as their reporter to cover the Nats. This is a bold and potentially empowering move for the fans. Don't like the coverage a newspaper, TV station, or radio is giving the team? Feel it is too biased, or hell, not biased enough? Just get a bunch of like-minded people together and hire your own man. Of course there are more hurdles than just putting together the capital, but in essence this is what we're talking about. It's using that close relationship the web allows between content provider and content user to allow fans to get exactly what they want.

Is that enough when it comes to what we expect from our news? When a reporter is part of a larger structure they have checks and balances that make them accountable. I'm not talking about Mark running off with the cash to live like a king for 2 days in Canada (though I suppose that's possible - Edmonton in March is quite lovely). I'm talking about the checks and balances that exist that (try to) make sure it's news that is reported and not gossip. The ones that try to ensure jobs are done in a timely and professional fashion. The ones that attempt to guarantee that when mistakes are made someone is held responsible. Yes, the system set up is often imperfect, but can you honestly say that no system at all is better? As a blogger, part of the fun is that I can say whatever I want. John Lannan is actually a android controlled by two sentient woolly caterpillars. See nothing? No accountability. I also don't get paid for what I do. I suppose that those that don't do the job correctly will not last long but is that enough for those that are being reported on. There's a certain level of professionalism you can expect when it's "reporter from the Washington Post". Can a team expect the same from "self reporter from blog site X"? There have been "blogger days", but that's still not the same access reporters are given.

On an even broader level, one of the one thing I learned from being on the finance committee at my college (don't ask) is that it was better for each student to put in $X a year in student fees, even if they had no initial intention of using anything funded by those fees, in order that they could have the opportunity to do so if they later wanted to. Have students pay for only what they think they'll want and the number of student organizations would be drastically reduced. The opportunities would be drastically limited. In some respects the media is similar. The user pays for things it may not use now, so the choices remain broad. It's even more integral to news. The more followed parts of the paper, the headline stories, the sports, the comics, allow the less followed, but no less important parts of the paper to exist. If we start separating that out, paying only for what we want, those parts are the first to suffer. Yes, there are bloggers doing that now, but will there always be for your local government? Will they always be good? Just relying on the spare time of strangers for your news seems like a bad idea.

Yeah, I know, I'm straying pretty far from the starting idea of paying to send Mark Zuckerman to Florida to cover the Nationals, but I can't help think there are larger issues here than just a reporter going to Florida.

In the end this is mostly very intriguing. There have always been massive hurdles to clear to have content reach the masses, which is why content sources have always been limited. Content broadcasting/publishing can be expensive, there are massive rules and regulations set up you have to deal with. The web though, drastically lowers that cost. There is no reason that an individual can't be paid to report on a team by individual fans, as opposed to a professional media organization or other proxy. While what Zuckerman is doing may not be the future of reporting on the web. It's got to be something like it, right?

Anyway. Feel free to tell me I'm an overthinking idiot.


Nate said...

Well, the "you're an idiot" part ought to go without saying if you devote time to writing a web publication about the Washington Nationals Baseball Club. But you're not overthinking so much as you are getting ahead of yourself.
Maybe this is the cutting edge of new journalism, or maybe this is just something for Zuckerman to do until he lands the Nats beat gig at HuffPo.

As far as I can tell the only advantage Mark has over you or Needham or FJB is a pre-existing relationship with the team from his Times days. I'm interested to see if he can leverage that into some useful independent reporting. The jury is still out on that one.

Harper said...

Oh I'm totally getting ahead of myself.

One of the things I am interested in seeing play out is the logistics of the matter. Assuming Zuckerman does raise the money I assume that the Nats will issue him a press pass, but obviously (one would think) they aren't going to do the same for Blogger X out there. So where the line will be drawn?

I would assume most bloggers have jobs/responsibilities that keeps such a move from happening, but that's only most. What about in 10-15 years when there get to be more web savvy retirees? What about those damn shifty layabout 20 year olds with no ties and super minimal expenses? It can't be a floating target can it?

Steven said...

I would say that the onus will be on Mark to prove it's worth it. I'm glad there's energy for this, but if Mark doesn't deliver the goods, his oppy will be lost.

That said, I certainly think it's worth trying. It's not every day that an experienced pro volunteers to do this for cost.

And I'm also glad (and not at all surprised) that the second wave of reax are somewhat skeptical. The media in general is held in very low regard.

Wooden U. Lykteneau said...

I'm not sure if this is the future of web reporting, either. But I am fairly confident that we will be seeing fewer and fewer sportswriters covering teams both home and away.

Technology's making it possible for content to disintermediated from geography, making it cheaper to produce. But it's also making it more homogeneous.

To paraphrase an editor from my days as a sportswriter, "why should I pay you for a story when I can get a halfway decent one from the AP."

This is basically what ESPN is up to with its "ESPN Boston" and "ESPN Chicago" web initiatives. It's cherry-picking the Marks from the blogosphere and leveraging its brand name. And that's a scary thought, given ESPN's emphasis of style over substance.

Harper said...

Steven - If you're excited by this idea, then this is the right way to do it. Experienced reporter with an established relationship. What I wonder is though - how does that translate a few years down the road when there are less of those guys and maybe ore guys trying to do this right out of school. How would that work? How COULD that work?

Harper said...

WUL - That's why this is so fascinating. Can it be the successful continuation of the type of sports reporting we are accustomed to (and that is going away under a cloud of mostly bad bottom line based decisions)? Or will the fact that the site will have to constantly sell itself have an effect on reporting (not to mention several other issues)? Will the public even care enough to support it for a full years over several years?

Wooden U. Lykteneau said...

Harper - I just don't see it (Mark) as a sustainable model. I think you're right: The constant solicitation will either wear thin or he'll have to figure out a means of sponsorship, which will inevitably force him to make some hard decisions about what he reports and what he doesn't. And sooner or later, whatever means he is living on is going to run dry - and then what?

Harper said...

I think it'll be the former (wearing thin) before the latter. Let's say Nats fans do believe what he provides is worth sponsoring him season after season. Great. But who is going to keep track of the payments, set up the website with pay areas, etc. etc. It may be easier than I think but I assume that as a journalist, those are things he didn't necessarily sign up for. What is possible is something like cnati - a coalition of independent local reporters, but then the costs go up.

Still there's something here and now that Zuckerman hit his goal, I'm interested to see what happens.

Unknown said...

I think what's missing from your analysis of covering everything instead of "a la cart" services is that newspapers are cutting sports. The WaPo is talking about not hiring a full time Nats beat reporter. Our only other options for original reporting are MLB/Nats employee Bill Ladson and MLB/Nats owned MASN coverage. There is NO independent reporting of the team once Chico Harlan leaves for China or Japan or wherever he's leaving for. If WaPo would cover the Nats, then maybe this Zuckerman campaign would not be necessary. But right now it's essential because there is not reporting of the team going on, except what the team decides to report about itself. If your "make everybody pay for everything" model does in fact cover everything its great for all. But now WaPo subscribers who want to cover the Nats are paying for food reviews, and getting no Nats coverage in return. It makes complete sense they would look to an outside Nats source.

Harper said...

It's not an issue with this single Zuckerman gig, which as you say is justifiable based on the lack of coverage, it's an issue of what it could lead to. If Zuckerman is successful, then could say... the Redskins reporters leave the post to start their own entity? What would that then do to the Post's circulation and their ability to pay to cover various things? And what kind of accountability would that new entity have?

It's an interesting situation. I believe these are pertinent issues that need to be looked at to help the media, yet the media (in this case the Post) are the ones causing the issues to begin with.