Avoid The Snakes, Support Quality Sports Journalism
When I launched my site Razed Sports, I wrote the following about the state of sports journalism:
“Working in the media world these days is a bit like crossing a rickety bridge. At night. In a thunderstorm. And there are snakes.”
It was an attempt at light-hearted humor to introduce the idea that it is a perilous time for this business and increasingly difficult to make a living as an editor, writer, reporter or photographer. There might have even been a little bit of a subconscious nod to one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite all-time movies, the “Why’d-it-have-to-be-snakes?” moment from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But when I wrote that, I did not mean for the snakes to be literal.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Unfortunately, to an extent, they are. And they don’t exist only in the obvious places you might think of like social media and comment sections. Some of them are writers and editors themselves. Some are in management and some reside in corporate offices. And the thing is, it seems an awful lot like they’re winning.
Ever since newspapers started imploding en masse in the late 90s, collapsing under the weight of their own arrogance and shortsightedness – with an underrated assist from the rise of Craigslist, of all things – the business has struggled to monetize the work of its employees. The traditional model – a combination of subscriptions as well as display and classified advertising – has morphed into something far different.
The chase for advertising dollars became a chase for clicks at all costs. And the chase for clicks came to mean churning out headlines, the more sensational the better, to take advantage of digital algorithms and maximize search rankings. Outlets like SB Nation have mastered this, paying their writer/editor/content producers peanuts on the dollar in exchange for a never-ending stream of stories – quantity over quality and often a regurgitation of someone else’s work. This is not meant to pick on SB Nation. I know people who have or do work there. They are talented folks who work their rear ends off. But they, and employees of similar outlets, are being taken advantage of by the snakes on high. Don’t believe me? Read this.
But unfortunately that’s not the worst of it. Not by a long shot. In fact, the content mills are relatively harmless compared to some other noted success stories out there, including one in particular that I’m not going to name because I cringe at the thought of sending even the smallest trickle of traffic its way. (If you really must know, first Google “Robert Silverman and The Daily Beast” and read the gory details).
These are snakes of a different breed and far more poisonous. They don’t avoid or discourage the trolls, they court them and they weaponize them. They delve regularly and proudly in a world of misogyny and hate, disguising it as non-politically-correct comedy. And when anybody calls them out for it, they sic their followers on the critic. Over and over and over again. Why do they not only do this, but revel in it? Because it works. They’re making loads of money and every bit of negative publicity only seems to bring more. That’s the harsh truth, and we could hire a team of psychologists and spend all week trying to figure out why without finding an answer. Maybe it’s better if we don’t.
That’s all pretty bleak, but there is hope.
In case you hadn’t heard, there is a brave little outlet called The Athletic that appears to be trying to suck up every last top journalist and place them behind a paywall. They’re putting all of their chips in the middle of the table in the name of “Subscription Model: Steroid Edition.”
It’s a game effort and should be commended. But is the subscription model really a true oasis for sports journalism, or a wavering mirage? I’m not so sure. The Athletic makes sense on the surface. You get big-name writers covering all the big-name sports and teams. The best of the best. People will have to subscribe, right? Just like you have to subscribe to HBO to get Game of Thrones. The difference, and this is rather huge, is that a single HBO subscriber can’t steal a full episode of GoT and post it to a blog. The Ken Rosenthal scoop, however, appears to be fair game. Maybe The Athletic has a bigger plan in mind. I hope that they do.
My hunch – and mind you that’s all it is, with zero scientific research to back it up – is that many people subscribe to The Athletic and other outlets with similar models not so much because they crave the content, but because they want it to succeed.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all should support what we love so that it thrives and grows, so that we can continue to enjoy it. But it does serve as a warning, in my mind, to the tenuous nature of it all.
That being said, not all is lost. The plates are certainly shifting, we’ve just got to shift with it. We’ve got to recognize what works – not on a lowest-hanging-fruit level, but on a delivering-important-journalism-to-the-consumer level. There is a ton of great work being practiced out there beyond The Athletic, at outlets large and small.
In the past week alone, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the authors of two great pieces of touching, smart, important journalism (here and here) for my podcast, which I also hope to build up into a worthy contributor to the industry.
And here at BSL, we’re working to provide smart, nuanced analysis for readers. We aim to give more than you can find elsewhere. I’m honored to be connected with a quality group. I’m proud of what we’re doing, and thankful to you for reading it.
As a journalist, I strive to keep searching for the best way to do important, quality work. To serve the reader and to avoid the temptation of the quick buck. But we need your help, too. We need your support and we need your feedback and guidance.
My thanks to those who support good journalism, here at BSL and everywhere you find it. Subscribe, where required, and click, if you will. And when you find something that strikes you as meaningful, tell everyone you know that they should subscribe, click and share as well. Tell us how, when and where you prefer to consume content, and we’ll deliver it to you.
We’re all in this together, and while there will always be snakes, I firmly believe there is space enough for all, and an audience for good, quality journalism as well.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!