Thursday, February 19, 2009
Prayer for the beat writers
Back in mid-January, the Mobile Press-Register's Evan Woodbery--whose name I've been misspelling as "Woodberry" forever, oops--kindly tossed my playoffs post a link over at the Auburn Beat. So that was a first, and kind of cool. I had a reader kindly offer me a heads-up and congrats, which I appreciate, but he did add that "the journalists w/paid gigs are leaching unfairly off your work."
It's flattering, but the ironic truth is that I leach (not unfairly, but still) off the work of Auburn's beat writers 10,000 times more than I'm sure they leach from me. The number of times Messrs. Woodbery, Goldberg, Tate, Bitter, and Brietzke have felt the need to link to me can still be counted on one hand. Meanwhile, as long as the likes of Rivals, Scout and AUUndercover remain paysites, doing the JCCW properly requires me to link up their work almost that many times every single day. Without those guys, the JCCW doesn't have any news to report, no breaking stories to react to, no quotes to parse. At that point it's all Rumor and Speculation, and while there's always ways to dig through the topsoil of Rumor and Speculation to get to the truth buried underneath, it's not an easy or particularly fun process. Beat writers, in my view, are an essential set of cogs in this great big machine we call Being an Auburn Fan.
Which is why it always makes my skin crawl a bit when I see bloggers celebrating the death of the newspaper. (And make no mistake--the dead-tree version we currently know is dead. Kaput. Gone. So many revenue streams gone, so few of them--if any--ever coming back.) It's certainly true that newspapers don't really offer us much--and almost nothing, really, that blogs don't--in terms of commentary or analysis. For proof, you don't need to look any further than the take newspapers (and their devoted-to-the-cause former employees) offered on the "do recruiting rankings matter?" question when compared to the take the blogosphere offered. Arguing for the print media, we have exhibits A, B, and C. Exhibit A was duly torn to pieces by Orson, exhibit B--a statistical cherry-pick so obvious and blatant I still can't believe it was offered with a straight face--got its effective comeuppance in its own comments section, and while exhibit C deserves a gold star for its efforts, when compared to Dr. Saturday's two definitive "case-closed" efforts, it still looks awfully paltry. This is "newspapers" at their absolute worst--confronted with a new kind of information source they can't co-opt or control, instead of approaching it with an open mind and a willingness to figure out how to best use that information for their advantage, they try to paint the information as worthless and mock their own readers for wanting it in the first place. It's the equivalent of cramming their fingers in their eras and going "La la la, I can't hear you, la de da de da," and of course while they've been humming along to themselves the recruiting services have been busy making a killing.
But I put "newspapers" in scare quotes there for a reason, because it's not really--as many bloggers sometimes suggest--"newspapers" that are the problem here. It's the proudly ignorant columnists like Albom, the half-baked and biased analysis that newspapers will never be able to do as well as the geeks with all day on their hands ... and not the beat writers. Celebrate the death of Albom drawing a paycheck and Jenni Carlson having that kind of forum to break down a kid's postgame eating habits .. well, if it's possible to celebrate just that kind of death, OK. But newspapers are a big ship, and the beat writers are going down with it, too. Someone's going to have to hand them the lifeboat of a paycheck, and right now it's hard to see exactly who or what's going to willing to do that. I'm not really comfortable with a future where I have to pay 10 bucks a month just to read, say, why Tracy Rocker wants to coach both tackles and ends.
So what's to be done? I don't know, certainly from the reader's end. Time suggested last week that papers--who have more readers than ever, just precious few who actually pay for the privilege--should develop an iTunes-like method of micropayment, which sounds more promising than any other solution I've heard, I guess. The point is not to argue for some kind of pie-in-the-sky salvation scheme or issue a clarion call for people to re-subscribe to their local rag as an act of charity. The point is simply to appreciate that the death of the newspaper could very well mean the death of the beat writer as we know it, and that that's not a sacrifice I feel willing to just meekly accept. The point is to offer up some kind of hope that someone, somewhere, will find a way to lead the local journalism we need out of this awful, awful mess.