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Needed: $5 million — and fast — for a very good journalistic cause

Where is The Huffington Post of sports?

It's not Deadspin. Too many Brett Favre photos.

Nor is it ESPN. Good stuff, but it's all ESPN all the time.

At first, I was mystified that America Online would pay $315 million to acquire The Huffington Post. That's a lot of money for an online sort-of-news site, more than most any major metropolitan newspaper is worth. Huffington's value lies in the sensational aggregating/curating that has made it a first-stop habit for thousands of news consumers. It also publishes the occasional smart, funny rant, but those rare pieces only add to my confusion. They're usually written by folks working for free, as if it is compensation enough to bask in the Big Hair glamor-glow of the founder, Arianna Huffington. It is, truly, a capitalistic wonder to realize that Huffington used free and voluntary labor to build a thing she sold for $315 million.

To put today's question another way: is there a place for good sportswriting in this 21st century media revolution? A drecksite (Bleacher Report) cares nothing about quality, and there is no living wage in writing for a glamorsite (Huffington). We are all adrift in the leaking lifeboats of journalism. We don't know the direction to shore, let alone how to get there. The best a guy can do is guess. My latest guess is that sportswriters need to do better. smarter, harder work, do it with an understanding of what the reader wants, and do it hourly, if not more often.

So here's the proposition: bring $5 million in small bills and we'll build The Kindred Post, only without the big hair.

My thinking was prompted by a line on the Sportsjournalists.com message board. The line was Brian Cook's. He was once an engineer until, to quote him, he was "fired for not doing much actual engineering." He became "a pants-optional blogger," the creator and central intelligence guiding Mgoblog.com, a website that covers athletics at the University of Michigan. Posters to the message board had bemoaned AOL FanHouse's good work being dismissed by AOL's brass. Finally, Cook pitched in: "I think there's a major disconnect between what newspaper people think is quality and what actually attracts loyal readers on the Internet."

That line stopped me cold. I've always thought quality was quality, wherever it showed its beautiful head. I asked Cook to elaborate.

"I don't want to talk from on high, like I'm in possession of answers, because I'm not," he wrote in an email. "I've just found one thing that's worked. But I think there are three things my site does that make it a place people use as a bookmark:

"1. I grab anything of interest about Michigan sports and collect it into one spot. So instead of going to a dozen different sites that may write something worth a read, they can just hit mine.

"2. I do the UFR stuff ("Under Further Review," a study of Michigan game video) and try to educate both myself and other people about football.

"3. I write from within the fanbase. So when something happens that people feel powerful emotion about, I've felt something similar and can write something that impacts them more personally than a guy can writing from the distance traditional journalism demands.

"As a rule, it seems newspapers are still very much opposed to the first; linking out remains rare. They don't do the second, and can't do the third.

"So most of what they write that has Internet currency is columns and breaking news. A lot of the latter is press conferences and press releases that everyone has. What's not loses a ton of its value when linked. If there's a piece of news I link to, I describe it – ‘Detroit News reports Curt Mallory is going to be Michigan's DB coach' – and so remove the motivation of anyone to click through. The stuff I write isn't easily to encapsulate in two sentences.

"Newspaper columns, meanwhile, have not translated well. They seem too short, full of too short sentences and paragraphs, and they're only occasionally well written." Of one perpetual crab in the Michigan press, Cook says, "I'm sure he gets hits, but they're hits where people link him and say, ‘I hate this guy.' There are short-term benefits, but it doesn't seem like a good idea to have this guy who nobody likes as the face of your paper. That seems like legacy monopoly thinking – any attention is good."

Some specific ideas on how newspaper-driven sports sites fail: they fail with long-form narrative done poorly (as most is), with features that are cliches even in their concepts, with simplistic columns littered with platitudes, and with redundancy of big stories that are easily available other places. As Cook has written, anyone above a third-grade reading level knows Bleacher Report is not AOL FanHouse. But it doesn't much matter when each is failing in its own way. While BR is "offensive to the English language," FanHouse publishes "newspaper stuff mostly about things I don't care about. . . . Instead of being widely loathed, you're ignored unless you're breaking news, which is ephemeral."

But wait.

In talking about a team-centric blog, such as Cook's, aren't we really talking about glorified cheerleading?

Newspaper types believe that because experience has taught them that hundreds of fanboy sites exist only to exalt (read: lie for) the local heroes. Cook doesn't argue against that belief; instead, he argues there is another, better way to run such a blog. He made that clear in dealing with the stereotypical charge that he is leading cheers.

"Depends on whether the team is winning or not," he wrote. "When leveled from within a fanbase, criticism (of the home team) is met with less hostility because the assumption is we all want the same thing and disagree about the ways to get there. But you're not wrong. I think ‘cheerleading' is an unnecessarily derogatory way to put it, but a lot of what people want is someone to share their experience with, to extend good moments and explain bad ones, and do so as someone who watched a game with a vested interest in the outcome, not whatever made the best story. Newspaper-type writing has held itself apart from that."

Listen to my old Washington Post friend, Mark Potts. Now a consultant to online adventurers in the media revolution, Potts knows the conventions of journalism have made it uncomfortable if not impossible for sportswriters to do Brian Cook's kind of work. The surprise is that Potts isn't sure it ought to be that way.

"A lot of bloggers, I guess, don't come from that journalistic background," Potts wrote in an email. "They're more like fans, so they innately have more passions, and it shows. I think that's what Brian Cook is talking about. And why CAN'T (a Washington Post columnist) openly root for the Redskins?? I mean, seriously! He's paid to have an opinion, he's not paid to be objective, and he's writing for the DC paper. Shouldn't he write as a fan?"

Yes, it's possible for a columnist to write about the Redskins with a fan's passion and enthusiasm. It can be done without wearing war paint. Produce what Cook calls "outstanding, smart, high-brow content," along the lines of what Luke Winn recently did for Sportsillustrated.com. The reporter watched hours of Ohio State basketball games to create a graphic showing which teammate most effectively made post feeds to the star Jared Sullinger. An attentive Buckeye fan well might have intuited that the best work was done by the guard Jon Diebler. Still, the empirical evidence proving the connection enriches that fan's pleasure in watching his heroes. No need to be a cheerleader if you can provide intelligent detail born of a passion for the game.

That kind of reporting and writing is on the Internet every day. The Huffington Post's genius is in finding quality and giving it to readers in one hospitable place. For instance, Huffington's editors read The New York Times so you don't have to and then they link to the gray lady's bright stuff, if any. What Huffington does for the Real World, the aggregators, curators, designers, artists, editors, and writers producing The Kindred Post will do for SportsWorld.

Pardon me now.

I'm off to 7-Eleven.

Buying a lottery ticket.

I need $5 million, fast.

Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.
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