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How It’s Supposed to Work

Sometimes the distance between the promise of writing for the web and the reality can be downright depressing. The article you thought would connect causes nary a ripple on Twitter — even your Facebook friends seem to have missed it. Rather than sparking a conversation, you get misspelled comments nitpicking at tangential points – or the sunny vacuousness of spambot remarks. The only mentions in Google turn out to be garbled bits of your stuff harvested for linkspam sites. Nothing works. Some revolution, you think in a moment of self-pity.

But every now and then everything works — and you realize just what a powerful medium the web can be.

My column from two weeks ago – in which I begged beat writers to slow down and pursue more-substantive stories instead of competing for commoditized news – struck a nerve almost immediately. That was satisfying, of course. But what was more satisfying was the response from other writers who took up my argument, analyzed it in different ways and carried it to new, more interesting places.

The first response came from Craig Calcaterra of NBCSports’ HardballTalk. Calcaterra, like me, had been thinking for a while about the increasing irrelevance of who had a bit of commodity news first – and about the greater importance of being first with what the news means.

“Since I started blogging four years ago, I have considered that to be my mission,” he wrote. “I’ve had a couple of minor scoops, but who cares? Others had the news three minutes later. What I value and what I think our readers value is how we try to put the news in context. To show its significance. To offer some insight, sharp opinion or humor to it in a way that makes hearing about news factoid x, y, or z at HardballTalk better than hearing about it elsewhere.”

Calcaterra then took the argument a critical step further, noting that some in the media deride that as “value-added blogging,” charging that bloggers, commenters and others are free-riding on original reporting: “As Fry argues, however, and as readers’ media consumption habits make clear, the opposite is true. No one cares where the factoid comes from. People care about what it all means and will read stuff from people who will help them figure that out.” (The credit was a bit too kind: I hadn’t considered the charge of “free-riding” or how it gets emerging media-consumption habits backwards.)

The next point came from a commenter on Calcaterra’s post – one with the somewhat unfortunate handle of motherscratcher23: “Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually ‘Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calcaterra has to say about that.’ And then I come here.”

I tweeted and then blogged that that struck me as a perfect definition of the “sweet spot” in digital journalism: Be a place readers go when they want to find out what something means. If you can do that, you’ve got an audience, a brand and everything else.

But the conversation was just beginning. Andrew Humphries of SB Nation’s Let’s Go Tribe had read Calcaterra’s post and had reservations. Humphries argued that Calcaterra wasn’t really doing what I’d advocated: His posts weren’t typically exclusive features, investigative journalism or long-form narrative, all of which I’d noted hold their value better than commoditized news.

“How is the work Calcaterra does not what Fry describes as ‘blog bits’?” Humphries asked. “I don't intend to say that Calcaterra's work isn't valuable to his audience. However, I do think Calcaterra's work is part of the tide that Fry is arguing against. As major news outlets have found the profit margins to be greater in the quick-hitting sort of work that Calcaterra can do from his home in Ohio, it has reduced the emphasis on (and budget for) the meaning-building pieces that Fry explicitly identified. Again, that's not to say his (or my) work isn't valuable; it's just that it may be less meaningful than we'd like to admit.” Humphries noted my “sweet spot” tweet, and was less than convinced. (In a bit of comity that might surprise blog bashers, he reached out to Calcaterra before publishing his dissent.) His post led to a fascinating discussion with fellow bloggers and SB Nation commenters – a conversation that covered everything from beat writing to the business models underpinning writing careers.

That led to another post from Calcaterra, in which he defended his work as adding meaning, but noted that “the signal-to-noise ratio of a machine gun blogger like me is probably a worthy offshoot of this discussion, actually, and it’s one I haven’t seriously considered before he mentioned it. Consider me to be considering it now.”

And now it’s back to me.

From a 30,000-foot view, I think Humphries and Calcaterra agree on the fundamental point: The quick-hits blogger and the long-form writer are both creating more value than the first through nth beat writers tweeting out the lineup. But Humphries’ smart dissent made me ask some good new questions. First, what if more writers talking about what the news means leads to fewer writers able to pursue the exclusives, investigative pieces and long-form stories I yearn for? Second, I realized I’d been too breezy in identifying the sweet spot for sports journalism – because there isn’t just one. There’s more than one niche that can attract an audience. Yours might be smart quick hits, wise statistical analysis, lyrical writing, character studies, independent reporting, or a method I’ve neither mentioned nor thought of. Whatever the method is, if it attracts an audience that makes you part of its reading habits, it’s a success. (That’s what I’d zeroed in on from Calcaterra’s commenter.)

On the other hand, the conversation made me a more forceful advocate on some points. Every sportswriter, whether they’re beat writers or bloggers, independents or part of a larger organization, should be thinking about what his or her sweet spot is and how to get there. The tragedy is that too many beat writers seem stuck far from any potential sweet spot – their superb access and years of incredibly hard work are being wasted on material that’s increasingly met with indifference. If you’re a beat writer spending any significant portion of your day in a false competition for commodity news, your talents are being wasted on a dysfunctional pool-reporting regime and you are mired in a remnant business – one dependent on the decaying value of your news organization’s brand. For the sake of that brand and your own sanity, start a conversation aimed at getting it and you out of that business.

Meanwhile, though, I’ve just been grateful to be part of a conversation that’s spanned at least five blog posts and more than 130 comments. Thanks to the power of the simple link, anyone dropping in anywhere in the chain can do a little reading and quickly be caught up with the entire debate. And each link in that chain of conversation – from my anguished post to Calcaterra’s exploration of media consumption to Humphries’ hard questions to Calcaterra’s response to all the smart comments along the way — has made that debate more nuanced and given all involved more to think about. This is how it’s supposed to work – and it’s wonderful when it does.

If this was all too meta, a promise for you: I’m going to spend this week reading Mets stories and blog posts and picking out the ones that feel like signal amid the commoditized noise. We’ll discuss next Monday!

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at 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, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter 

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