Monday, August 10, 2009

Beat Reporting, Fair Use, Twitter And Free Expression: Mashing Up Some Thoughts

There are a few stories that have been getting some buzz this week for separate reasons, that when combined, paint an interesting picture of our current media landscape. The first was that some baseball reporters picked up on the current debate over fair use when it comes to reporting, aggregating and sharing the news. I think the focus on "fair use" in these stories is a bit misleading. Most people view web-based communications as a part of a conversation. And if you're talking about an interesting story you see, you don't tell that person I can only read you some of it because more would be illegal. You discuss what you think is relevant. That's just a part of the conversation. Holding back the natural flow of dialogue by way of copyright law seems like a clear limit on free expression and free speech.

One of my favorite beat writers, Pete Abraham for the Journal News, picked up on this story and encapsulated what I believe is the love-hate notion that many newspaper journalists have in these situations:

I'm usually flattered if some other blog links to my work. I figure anything that brings more readers here has to be good. But for every responsible blogger out there, there are other who cut and paste the work of others and either pass it off as their own or barely credit the author.

If you know the solution, contact the newspaper industry because you will be a well-paid consultant. The problem will soon be this: If newspapers decide they can't afford beat writers, where will that information come from? Somebody has to get on the plane, go to Toronto and ask the questions.
There are two separate issues Pete raises here, and I'd like to address both. The first is the question of "bad actors" in the space. These are the so-called "parasites" that the Marburgers discuss. The problem is that there's really no problem at all here. No one seems able to point out any such real "parasite" site that actually gets any significant traffic. Most readers who actually follow these issues figure out pretty quickly to go straight to the source itself. In fact, that's how I first discovered Pete's own blog many years ago. I saw him quoted in three separate places within a week, and thought "hmm, this is someone I need to follow." And even though I grew up in NY, I'd never even heard of The Journal News (apparently it publishes north of NY City in Westchester). But these days, I trust Pete's reporting over anyone else's and go to his site first for any news about the Yankees -- because he's built up that reputation, works hard to increase value and (most important of all) has done an amazing job cultivating community, mostly via his amazing blog.

This is a point that we've tried to bring up multiple times before. Many old schoolers view the newspaper business as being in the business of delivering content to the masses. But that's never actually been true. The newspaper business has always been in the community building business. It would bring together a community around local news and then sell their attention to advertisers. The problem today is that there are so many different places to get a community, that the newspapers have competition.

And, in NY, when it comes to the Yankees, there's a lot of competition. But by really building a community and cultivating it, Pete stands out above everyone else. The NY Times beat writer for the Yankees is a guy named Tyler Kepner. He's great as well, and you can get much of the same information that Pete posts on Kepner's blog (or Twitter feeds), but for some reason, Pete's blog feels more comfortable. The NY Times' blog feels... sterile. You can see it as you start to dig into the comments on both blogs. Sure, there are some crazy folks and some classic trolls (and, you know, Red Sox fans), but there's real community building going on in the comments on Pete's blog posts (and Pete participates at times as well). Plus, they've held real world get-togethers (such as at the Yankee's AAA minor league games).

And while I'm obviously not privy to the traffic numbers, I would guess that from the comments alone, it's pretty clear that Pete's Yankee blog for The Journal News of Westchester gets a lot more traffic than Kepner's Yankee blog for the gold standard NY Times. The content is often frighteningly similar, but the community makes a huge difference. Building up a community is a skill that journalists (and newspapers) need to learn. Whether on purpose or not, Pete's been quite good at it.

And, from that we get to Pete's second point: questioning how newspapers, such as his own, can continue paying for the expense of beat writers. Here there are a few different potential answers. Pete has attracted a large enough community, that if the Journal News hasn't figured out how to profit from him and the "expense" of having him on payroll as a beat writer, then they're doing something wrong. But even if a newspaper couldn't afford him, with the community that Pete has built up, if the Yankees would allow him to be an independent beat writer, I'd bet he could bring in a fair amount of money that way. Team Pete up with a business guy and a tech guy, and go to town. Everyone would benefit. The Yankees would get more awesome coverage and a huge community of vocal, loyal Yankee fans. Pete would still have a job. And us fans would still have a great place to gather virtually.

But there's a separate issue as well. I've already mentioned some of the overlap between Pete and Tyler. But those are only two of the beat writers. There are also Yankee beat writers from the NY Post, the NY Daily News, Newsday, the New Jersey Record, WFAN, and perhaps some others as well. I follow a bunch of their blogs and Twitter accounts, and there's a tremendous amount of overlap. I am not saying to just dump them all and have a single beat writer. But at some point you do have to wonder about why it makes sense to have so many reporters effectively reporting the exact same thing.

Also, there are other models that are coming out for paying for reporters. Mark Cuban has talked about actually having the sports teams pay the newspaper for coverage -- which certainly horrifies some reporters, but is yet another potential model, since the teams themselves benefit from the coverage. On top of that, we're seeing nationally focused publications -- such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated -- snap up lots of top reporters. Hell, just this week Sports Illusrated hired away another favorite of mine, Joe Posnanski. And while they don't do so yet, you could see national media like that add beat reporters as well.

Of course, if they're going to do that, they shouldn't do silly things like tell their reporters they have to limit their Twitter usage, as ESPN recently did.

Then, you have the fact that there are many impressive fan-driven blogs adding to the ecosystem as well. I'm certainly not suggesting that the fan-driven blogs replace the beat reporters, but it is an addition that fills in a lot more information and insight. I get a ton of insightful analysis about the Yankees via River Avenue Blues, a blog run by three fans, who are knowledgeable, thoughtful and insightful when it comes to the state of the Yankees. And, sometimes they get or break news as well. While these fanblogs and the beat reporters mostly have a pretty good relationship, you'd think that those could be leveraged even more, to enable the creation of more great content that drives more community. Teams should allow more access to the top fan blogs, and the news publications should be teaming up with some of the best fanblogs as well to leverage their insight and traffic for their own business models.

And, finally, let's not forget the fact that the athletes themselves suddenly have the ability to go direct as well. While the NFL is trying to crack down on players using Twitter, the fact is players have more direct channels to reach fans and provide information as well. Again, this is not a replacement for beat reporters, but does add to the ecosystem as well. And, at times, those players are breaking news themselves.

So you have a situation where there is more information than ever before out there about sports teams. There are more ways for fans to convene and converse with each other, with professional reporters and with the athletes themselves. Technology has made it cheaper and easier to do all of this -- and the ability to bring together a community of folks has not diminished even slightly. If you can't make money with all of that, then you've got bigger problems.

However, since Pete insists that anyone who has an answer to how to keep funding beat reporters employed can make a living as a well-paid consultant, he should tell his bosses at Gannett to contact us. We're more than happy to help put together a strategic plan for how to keep Pete and others gainfully employed.

Source: Tech Dirty

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