There’s a long story over at The Big Lead today talking about reported low morale at CBSSports.com. It’s something of an unwieldy piece which conflates a lot of issues pertaining to modern journalism, some valid, some not-so-valid, and ends by taking us back to 2005 or so, with the venerable conclusion that bloggers and aggregators are thieves putting hardworking journalists out of business.
It’s not subtle. I mean, there is a photo of actual vultures picking meat off the carcass of a literal dead horse in the piece, no doubt meant to symbolize what is happening to Serious Journalism. A bit on the nose, no? I figured we were done with that sort of stuff several years ago, but I guess not.
To be fair, it does hit on some interesting and noteworthy points which may be relevant to media professionals who may have dealings with CBS. I was upset to read about Dave Brown, who I consider to be a friend and who is an excellent goddamn writer, being let go. It likewise sounds like the manner in which CBS chose to start evaluating its writers (i.e. strict page views quotas were apparently imposed) was draconian and, in my experience, counterproductive. All of that is regrettable. I’m sure it’s also the case, however, that every single media outlet has skeletons in its closet in this regard, so even if CBS has acted less-than-honorably in some respects, it is being somewhat unfairly singled out, I suspect.
What I take more serious issue with is the article’s total lack of subtlety and its credulousness with respect to the claims of its sources, all of whom appear to be traditional media personalities who, it so happens, have been let go by CBS.
like Jon Heyman who, without question, is one of the best scoops reporters in baseball and who could not come to an agreement with CBS on a contract at the end of 2015. He slams people who “lift material from elsewhere … lift other people’s work, slap the word ‘report’ on it and call it [their] own.” What he doesn’t talk about, however, is the inherent value of a scoop – something I’ve gone on about at length in the past – or about how him getting a scoop that he would invariably tweet out well before writing a story about it at CBS benefitted CBS in any way. Or, for that matter, made readers want to read more than his tweet.
To be clear: Heyman is to be credited for getting that scoop. Being in the position to get it took years of reporting and relationship-building on his part. But CBS has bills to pay. That scoop may help build Heyman’s reputation, but it does not, in and of itself build CBS’s business. What would help that is Heyman reporting those scoops on a platform CBS could more easily monetize or marrying those scoops to CBS content which readers will seek out. Heyman is a great scoop reporter, but he’s not a great analyst or a great story teller and people have not, by any measure, sought him out for those purposes. Video is the most lucrative thing going these days, but Heyman has put almost all of his efforts in that regard forward for his other employer, MLB Network.
This state of affairs is lamentable in some ways as it represents the end of a bargain that people in the media felt party to for a long time: that good reporting would lead to readers willing to pay for it in some form, direct or otherwise. But readers want more than Heyman’s scoops. They want to laugh, or they want insight, or they want to read good prose, or they want a tick-tock on the back story that led to the news he was breaking, or they want human interest stories or they want lists, or they want video, or any combination of those things. If Heyman was delivering that to CBS in a way that justified the salary or terms Heyman sought, he’d still be working for CBS, I suspect.
Which really is the broader issue here: what makes a buck for the publisher. I suppose that’s a crass consideration – and it’s certainly discredited as a valid motivation for a media company to have in The Big Lead piece – but it’s not a new or surprising one. There may have been a time – maybe around Watergate – when journalists convinced themselves that journalism was not, somehow, a commercial enterprise, but it always has been. The monopoly power of a local newspaper or the oligopoly power of a small number of overall news outlets is over and readers now have a choice of where and how to get their information. And, for that matter, what information they even want and in what form they value it. As someone recently wrote, you gotta have readers in this business. Even if you’re dropping big scoops a few times a year.
A lot of journalists – especially the ones quoted in that Big Lead piece – have forgotten that, it seems. They’ve taken the position that, if customers are no longer interested in buying a product, it’s not worth acknowledging their changing tastes and not worth trying to adapt their business approach to provide it. Rather, they seem to think, the solution is to excoriate the competitor who came in and supplied it. I can’t think of any industry in history where this impulse was ultimately validated, but the old-line journalists are still making the effort.
I’ll get criticism for saying all of this, of course. I’ll be told that I’m overlooking the notion that there are online outlets that are simply stealing the content of others and otherwise acting in underhanded ways. I’ll grant that there are some. But I’ll also note that the only example of this provided in The Big Lead piece is the Washington Post – home of Woodward and Bernstein – stealing some content from a Pittsburgh paper. The people who CBS has decided it would rather have putting out its baseball content – Dayn Perry, Matt Snyder and Mike Axisa – don’t do that. They attribute and link the work of others and provide their own analysis and insight. As do my coworkers at NBC. As do the bloggers at Yahoo. As do many other excellent and hardworking writers, reporters and analysts in the business who do not deserve to be painted with the big, broad plagiarism brush Heyman and the others quoted in that piece have in their hands. If someone is truly stealing work, by all means, point us to them. We Internet writers are good at pillorying people, I’ve been told. I can assure you we’ll spare them no pillorying.
In the meantime, I’ll grant that sports media is an incredibly tough business these days. A lot of good people have been laid off in the last year and more likely will be soon. I hate that and I am sad when anyone loses their job. Even Jon Heyman who, though I know he doesn’t care much for me and who I know is still doing fine over at MLB Network, I hated to see part ways with CBS. He’s got a daughter the same age as mine and I know what it’s like to be let go when you have kids to feed, even if you know you’ll be OK. That all sucks and I wish him absolutely no ill will whatsoever.
But I’ll also not accept, for one moment, the framing of that article. I will not accept the idea that the sole reason for long-tenured journalists losing jobs is the allegedly unscrupulous practices of young and allegedly untrained writers or the callousness of media companies who think of nothing but the bottom line. There are a lot of online writers who didn’t go to J-School or who didn’t get their start doing agate at the Daily Herald who do damn fine work readers want to read in serious numbers. There are also a lot of media companies who do a damn fine job at balancing their commercial interests and their interest in putting out a good and worthy product that even old school scribes might properly call Serious Journalism. This may sound perverse, but I think we’re in a Golden Age in terms of content in some ways, even if the business side of journalism is rather medieval at the moment. There is a TON of chaff out there, but the wheat, when found, is some high quality stuff.
Sports media is a complicated business. You can, as one person in that article does, dismiss the idea of writers maintaining a Facebook presence, but doing such things could prove to be the key to professional success for both the writer and his or her employer. You can slam people who are writing things readers want or slam readers for wanting it, but history has shown that delivering products that customer desire is a pretty decent way of staying in business.
Luckily, fewer and fewer people in sports media are doing those things and are, instead, appreciating reality. I’ll place my bets on them, not the ones who refuse to do so.
UPDATE: MORE SPORTS MEDIA THOUGHTS HERE.