Generalist columnists: a vanishing breed. Probably for good reason.
This isn’t about baseball, but it does touch on what we do around here and at the NBC “Talk” blogs in general. If you don’t care for my media analysis you may want to just skip this one.
Dan Shaughnessy, who I’m pretty sure most of you loathe anyway, wrote a World Cup column. As Deadspin notes, however, it’s basically the same, recycled World Cup column he has been writing every four years for the past 24 years. Really. And, since it’s Shaughnessy, of course, it’s an ankles-deep-at-best dismissive gripe of a column.
I’m not much of a soccer fan myself -- I’ve been following the World Cup with some curiosity but from a pretty far distance -- but the column and the topic is nonetheless of significance to me. Not because it’s a basis for Shaughnessy-bashing (that’s sort of beside the point here) but because it shows the limits and, often, the absurdity of the old newspaper model of the generalist sports columnist.
To be clear: there are still a lot of excellent generalist sports columnists. I think we happen to have the best one in the business working for us here.* But for the most part, having one person serve as the voice and/or expert of your publication for all sports is outmoded and obsolete in this day and age and does little to serve readers. Or, at the very least, the readers you want to serve.
The amount of information and content available to even the most casual fan of any given sport is pretty staggering. Anyone more-than-moderately interested in a given sport has the means to watch a ton the actual games or events. This is true be it for big sports like football and baseball or more niche sports like cricket or equestrian events. Seriously: if you’re in Iowa and you want to watch The Ashes or, say, the FTI consulting WEF Grand Prix, you can with minimal effort. Likewise, if you are into cricket or show jumping (or football or baseball for that matter), there is no end of pre-and post event analysis, stats, profiles, and anything else you can imagine being produced about it, be it from primary sources (leagues or sanctioning authorities releasing information, produced or otherwise) or from specialized media.
This state of affairs robs the general columnist -- at least most of them -- of their raison d’etre. If they are writing one to three times a week there is little they can tell the enthusiast of a given sport that which they haven’t already seen. If they are writing in 800-word columns, there isn’t much room for the depth of analysis enthusiasts would find useful. Your content can come a few days after the fact if it’s useful and your content can be short or shallow if it’s quick, but old and short doesn’t serve anyone.
Looking at that Shaugnessy column, I find myself wondering who it’s supposed to serve. Certainly not soccer fans, who probably don’t wish to be informed about why the sport they love is dumb. But even if Shaughnessy wasn’t using his column inches to bash soccer, what is he providing for Boston Globe readers? Filler for the hard copy, I suppose. And raw meat for that certain breed of misanthrope who wants to nod their head along with him as they get off on his negativity. Maybe Shaughnessy has a large enough constituency where that works for him and the Globe, but I’m guessing he’s rare in that regard. For the most part, the generalist who neither works fast nor works in depth is caught in the increasingly vanishing middle-ground of sports media.
We certainly don’t go deep very often here at HardballTalk. Well, we do on some narrow subjects with which we are idiosyncratically obsessed, but it’s not like we’re doing 5,000-word breakdowns with graphs and stuff. But we do work quickly, providing a digest of what’s going on to baseball fans who want to quickly get updated about what’s going on. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, for example, does not update 35 times a day, but he is an absolute expert when it comes to baseball and provides in-depth stories about the people and events which shape it. FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and other similar sites provide all of the in-depth, hardcore analysis anyone could reasonably want. The same general setup can be found in football (Florio, Peter King and whoever crunches football numbers), basketball and everything else.
All of that serves the fans who want to know a lot about the sport. In this increasingly specialized age, it’d be journalistic malpractice not to serve the fans who want to know a lot about a sport. The business model of media (and sports in general) does not reward those who seek out the dabblers and tourists who aren’t going to spend a lot of time reading or watching content and who lack the commitment to put up with the little barriers like ads, commercials and, occasionally, pay-walls that help us keep the lights on. We have to give those readers and viewers what they want and have to avoid providing content which makes them wonder, well, what was the point of that?
When I read 800 words of shallow rambling which appear ten days after an event begins, I have to wonder who that’s serving other than the guy who is being paid to write the 800 words of shallow rambling.
*Joe is a rare one, in that he can write in depth and insightfully about many sports and, if he were told tomorrow that he had to be, say, just a baseball guy or just a football guy or just a golf guy, he could do it and be at the top of the business in any of them, I reckon. Also: being on the web instead of in a newspaper means that he can write at whatever length his story requires. All of that said: he’s a better baseball columnist than just about any baseball-only guy working today. Put less politely, Joe is a freak, in the best sense of the term and stands as the exception which proves the rule.