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Five myths about blogs

Blogs have served as springboards for sportswriters working outside traditional channels, bringing more competition for fans’ attention. They’ve also provided new outlets for established writers, giving them a broader audience and a higher profile. Their proliferation raises questions about fairness, access and the very definition of a sportswriter.

I find the ongoing conversation about blogs and sportswriting fascinating and don’t mind when it gets raucous. But to keep it well-informed, let’s jettison five myths and misunderstandings about blogs: 

Blogs are all about speed.

Yes, publishing to the Web is blindingly fast. But what’s fast is the process by which words are moved from the writer’s screen to the reader’s — the chugging presses and rolling trucks of the newspaper world can’t possibly keep up with electrons. That other process — the writing process — is much the same, a subconscious shifting and weighing of ideas that hopefully culminates in a flurry of prose.

If anything, Web publishing’s speed lets Web writers take their time. Dan Steinberg, the ace voice of the Washington Post’s D.C. Sports Bog, recalls that his recap of the New York Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XLII was due literally five minutes after the game ended. “There is a reckless speed in such deadline work that I never, ever, ever have encountered in blogging,” he writes, adding: “My blog posts might be juvenile, obnoxious and just plain dumb, but they’re almost always more carefully constructed and edited than that particular A1 Washington Post story.”

Blogs are all about dishonesty and cruelty.

Every time I think we’re done talking about this one it pops up again, usually with the tired “mother’s basement” cliché riding shotgun. (At this point honesty compels me to admit I’m typing this in my basement office. But Mom doesn’t pay the mortgage.)

Blogging is ruthlessly democratic, and audiences don’t stick with blogs that prove consistently dishonest or incompetent. Leaving aside the dank waters of political commentary, I defy you to show me a blog that habitually deals in dishonesty and cruelty and has any kind of audience and impact.
 
Can an occasional blog post can be cruel? Sure – just as photographs, newspapers and books can be. But reasonable people don’t turn a cruel photo, article or book into a referendum on the entire medium. Blogging ought to receive the same courtesy.

When you dig into why people think blogs are cruel, you often find they’re really talking about commenters – that was at the heart of memorable rants by Bob Costas and Buzz Bissinger, for instance. But this isn’t a blogs problem so much as it is an Internet problem – search the comments of your favorite newspaper site and you’ll find no shortage of bile and stupidity, not to mention lots of typos.

Unfortunately, people are more likely to behave badly when they’re anonymous. But even if we could ban online anonymity, we might regret it. Sure, it would be satisfying to require fans slagging a slumping reliever (or columnist) to be accountable for their words. But what would that mean for, say, corporate whistleblowers, incest survivors and Iranian dissidents?

I believe bloggers should post under their real names unless they have a good reason not to. I think they should be accountable for their words, and I don’t think they deserve a free pass for their commenters’ behavior. But let’s be careful about making blogs answer for the drawbacks of anonymous comments.

Blogs are unedited.

I’ll let my friend Will Leitch, the founding editor of Deadspin and now a writer for New York magazine, handle this one: “I have 200,000 editors every day, quite eager and willing to tell me I got something wrong or call me an idiot in language not even the most salty editor would use. They don’t miss much.”

Any blogger who takes the craft of writing seriously soon learns the importance of being one’s own editor. If you don’t do it well, your readers will – publicly, and for posterity.

Bloggers aren’t there, so they can’t tell you what really happened.

In the age of black-and-white TVs and single camera angles, the press box was one of the best places from which to watch a game. In the era of multiple camera angles and high-definition TV, it might be one of the worst. The press box’s lone advantage is that it’s near the locker room. But what do beat writers get from the locker room? Increasingly, they have to make do with canned answers from athletes who see them as adversaries or annoyances. (And who may be saving real news for their own blogs.)

Bloggers also have more freedom to call it like it is. Beat writers have to be diplomats as well as reporters, building relationships with people who often don’t want to talk with them and have been trained to say nothing interesting. Every serious fan knows that the best time to get insights into a player’s relationship with teammates and management is after his or her departure, when the beat writer is finally free to talk. The blogger doesn’t have to be a diplomat. He may not know the whole story, but when it comes to what he does know, he’s more free to tell it like it is. Often that’s more valuable to readers.

A megaphone is the same as an audience.

It only takes a couple of minutes to become a blogger. And it would only take me about 30 seconds to find something incorrect, stupid or vile written by one of those bloggers.

Put those things together and some bemoan that we’ve given every fool and ne’er-do-well a soapbox for frivolous or hideous speech. And we have. But we wildly overestimate the importance and impact of much of that speech.

The problem? It’s that we don’t understand search.

I don’t mean that we don’t get how Google and its rivals work. We do. What I mean is that search works so differently than things we’re used to that it leads us to the wrong conclusions.

In the physical world, important things are easy to find, while obscure things take time and effort to ferret out, if they can be found at all. But when you search online, there is no obscurity. If what you’re looking for exists, you will find it instantly. This has a spooky power, and it causes us to assume what we find is important and influential — particularly if it upsets us. But on Google we only find exactly what we’re looking for. The fact that it is there does not mean anybody else is finding it, any more than writing something on a blog means someone is reading it. As many bloggers have discovered to their dismay, the existence of a blog comes with no guarantee of an audience.

Jason Fry spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy, and is now the Web evangelist for EidosMedia, a maker of editing-and-publishing software for newspapers and other publishers. While at www.WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at  www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.
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