NotGraphs Fireside Chat: On the State of the Biz


The NotGraphs Fireside Chats are a series of dialogues between two unimportant outsiders. Their primary focus: baseball, and writing about it. Please note that what follows is somewhat aimless and entirely TLDR. If you’re the sort of person who believes that metaphysical discussion of a subject ruins that subject, you should probably turn back now. What follows is dangerously reflective.

Today’s topic relates to a series of tweets made last Friday by Mr. Sports Journo (twitter: @BIGSPORTSWRITER), an anonymous career sports journalist. You can read a transcription of his monologue here. My colleague Robert J. Baumann and I will explore how we felt about these comments, and how we feel about an industry that finds little use in us, nor us in them.

Patrick: Friday morning I stumbled across a string of tweets by this anonymous figure, chronicling the state of sports journalism. He seems to think that things aren’t going that well, and that we’ve grown attached to the lifestyle of the athlete rather than the game itself. The journalist has succeeded in making him or herself the story, and twisted sports news into human interest and groundless opinion. Now that I’ve asked you to stop what you’re doing and read all this, Robert, how does it make you feel?

Robert: My initial reaction is twofold:

1. If there are good writers out there doing good journalism, read them instead. The pool is vastly bigger now because of the internet, etc., which means there’s going to be vastly more shit.

If you’re going to be bitter that you’re no longer a talking head, I don’t know what to tell you, times change, and you either carve out a niche or fade away.

2. I don’t think the impulse of contemporary journalists to “paint personalities” is a bad one.

Patrick: Most people would see “painting personalities” as something generally undesirable, or at least carry a negative connotation. Why do you feel differently?

Robert: Well, maybe I am unclear about what he means by the term, or how the term is understood by the general readership. I should disclose that I do not have cable, and so I never watch ESPN. I never visit their website unless it’s for a few baseball stats that they have more readily available than other sources. I don’t really read mainstream sports journalism. I read blogs, analytical sites, etc. I don’t feel elitist about it, just that ESPN doesn’t interest me.

Could you define the term “painting personalities” for me?

Patrick: Maybe. I’d venture that he’s talking about building narratives that center on the characters of sports rather than the actual achievements they perform on the field itself. We (in a widespread, 2013 sense) seem to care as much about how people feel about the news as they do about the news itself.

I’ll make a confession here: I am a reformed ESPN reader. In my foolish early years I used to read ESPN religiously, worry about every power ranking and collate the opinions of every single expert. I was pathetically uncritical and needed other people’s evaluations to tell me how to feel. I felt proud when an insider liked my team, spurned when they didn’t. That was all I needed to carry from one game, and one season, to the next.

What I wonder is this: did ESPN create me, or did I create ESPN? This journalistic trend that our anonymous friend laments is unquestionable, but what drives it? Does it succeed because we as readers want it, or should more people take the time to “know better” and find that good journalism that isn’t promoted or paid for?

Robert: Well, I think that question has been around for ages, in terms of literature and art and music. Is it the individual’s responsibility to seek out “quality” writing, art, etc.? Or is it the role of some greater entity — the “industry leaders” in today’s terms — to drive an aesthetic, to have an ethos?

Patrick: I worry about adding an ethical responsibility to the invisible hand. In this case, I don’t think we can depend on an “industry leader” to guide us toward the highest art, because the highest art hasn’t been the most profitable since Dr. Zhivago got published in the fifties. Even if a piece of writing is what the people want most, it’s never the easiest, cheapest, or quickest to create.

If we can’t trust the worldwide leaders in sports, whom can we trust? Is there some sort of maven or network who thinks of their work as expression, who simply wants to share what they value most? Can we trust that source to share our opinions?

Robert: Yes, I think plenty of people do that – i.e. simply want to share what they value most — but they aren’t getting paid much money for doing it, if any. They are not “industry leaders” in the sense that they have the greatest market share.

Also, I do think that critical consumption is the responsibility of the individual to some degree: not everyone has to come to the same conclusions, but I think everyone should explore and not settle for the loudest noise.

Patrick: I can get behind this idea. But it seems like a skill, and if it’s a desirable one, then it should be a skill that we as a community foster and help to develop in the individual. So should it be taught, and if so, where does that responsibility lie? Do we owe it to our friends? The people we follow on Twitter?

We’re back to where we were before. But these are essentially a rhetorical questions. We’re all salesmen for what we believe in, in writing as in social behavior. A pragmatist (which I try to be) would say that modern journalism is here to say, and whether it’s a machination or a collective action problem is beside the point. Instead, let’s worry about ourselves.

We’ve talked in the past about why we write about baseball. But why do you read about baseball? What are you hoping to get out of that experience that you aren’t getting from the game itself?

Robert: I read about it to understand it better, first and foremost. But I think the way that I want to understand it is not the way our anonymous friend is talking about. What Dave Cameron writes, for instance, helps me to understand the game in the ways that I want to understand the game, but it’s nothing like what the old journalist sitting at the ballpark with a typewriter would write. I want to understand MLB as a business, and from a greater [maybe] phenomenological context, if that makes any sense. Watching a game is pleasurable in and of itself, yes, and so is reading a vibrant recap of a game, but it’s more pleasurable to me when I can put the players, the stats, the happenings of that game in a greater context. That’s not for everyone, sure, and like I said, I’m not elitist about it.

But I sense that our experiences and motivations are somewhat different. Is that true? What does reading about baseball, or consuming auxiliary baseball things do for you?

Patrick: I do want to understand the game better. I also want to be in better shape, beat the French Defense with White, and learn how to keep my plants alive. There are a lot of ways I could be a better person. But in truth, I have to admit that I’m a mediocre fan from the self-improvement standpoint. I’ve learned statistics to the point where I rarely embarrass myself, but I understand my limitations as an analyst; I lack both the access and the drive.

When most people think of baseball writing, they think of journalism, whether it’s reporting or analysis or commentary. FanGraphs, though a very focused variety, is still journalism; they see what happened, they analyze it, use it to make projections. The growth industry of journalism has been in the commentary, and this is where we’re having all these problems our friend is talking about. But in the end, all of these aspects are essentially self-contained: we talk about baseball and what it means for baseball. The focus is primarily on winning, or occasionally, aesthetics.

From that perspective, I’m no journalist. I don’t enrich an understanding of the game from that aspect for any reader. I’m closer to the talking heads than anyone else: I also want to make the game about something other than the game. I want baseball to resonate with art and literature and culture. I just don’t want to do it the same way as Skip Bayless, drag everything through the mud and make it a reality show.

Robert: I think that actually speaks to what I was getting at about the impulse to “paint personalities” not being a bad one. I think that your work, for example, does paint personalities — both of certain players and of the game in general, anthropomorphized — but it doesn’t do so by digging up dirt on personal lives or whatever, it does so through creativity, through personal connection, etc. In that “old journalists” might have done the same things with individual games, I appreciate their work. In that many of them were better writers than almost anyone at ESPN now, I appreciate their work.

But to me, it’s just, well, you can still do that (i.e. write good shit)! Journalists might not get paid like they used to, but hey, newspapers are dead. I think you are a journalist, Patrick, and I think you do excellent, unique work. And right now you are doing what you do for very little money. Maybe you hope to one day be a “big star”, as any of us might hope. If that doesn’t happen, maybe one day you will just wear down and stop writing, but maybe you will also just keep presenting your unique voice in a variety of arenas, and the people who read it will continue to be enriched by it, and maybe that will be enough for you, too, even if you have to exist under the umbrella of ESPN.

That’s what gets me about this anonymous rant: no one is stopping him from writing about the game, and I bet many people would be enriched by the things he writes. That said, he does go on to say that he doesn’t feel sorry for himself, that he loves writing, so there’s that. But if one doesn’t focus on the reasons that one loves writing, one will probably drive oneself crazy in short order.

Patrick: Last year I read Roger Angell’s The Summer Game, the bulk of which is comprised solely of World Series recaps. Now that I’ve written a few recaps of my own, I know that it’s the hardest writing in the business: you have to take something everyone saw and add something to it. Adding is hard. Angell wrote fairly straight stuff, but he was so talented it worked. I’m not sure that kind of writing would work from nearly anyone else, now. People wouldn’t read it.

So I can get why he’s frustrated. Good writing gets drowned out in noise.

At one point Bethlehem Shoals added to the Twitter conversation by noting that “everyone wants to be every kind of writer at once. That’s not possible.” That’s the illusion of the “big star” at the major websites, I think, the writer who will be beloved and read by everyone. To be honest, I don’t think many of those writers really exist; we just get told they do. Everyone has tastes; everyone wants to read something different. As journalism diffuses and the number of writers increases, we get an increasing number of “flavors” for our baseball writing, and that’s great. But that same number of readers, that fame, gets spread thinner and thinner.

As for me, I’ve never really worried about it. I’m a niche writer, and I’m okay with being a niche writer. I’d rather keep alienating the general public than have to work hard at winning them over, and lose something in the process. But this finally reaches back to our original concept: as a political science major, I do feel that consistent need to draw the public in. I feel a weird responsibility to the layman, which is why I get infuriated that sportscasters make jokes about the arcane nature of statistics instead of using that airtime to teach statistics.

Maybe this is a sign that I’m reading too much philosophy lately; instead of providing wisdom to audiences, I’m more interested in just posing impossible questions and letting them stew over it themselves. Like I’m doing to you right now, coincidentally.

One of the things our sportswriting friend refers to is the lure of fame, the tendency to get drawn into the world that the journalist has ironically helped create. Do you feel that same pull for notoriety, to be part of the inner circle?

Robert: Not really. I think I did once, but I’m too old now, without much to show for my age. Now, I just want to know that some people feel enriched (or at least amused) — however momentarily — by the things I write. I don’t want to feel utterly alone, which is why I write, and I don’t want to appear completely stupid in the times when I am not alone, which is why I read (in addition to what I said about being able to enjoy games more thoroughly for having read — here, I’m speaking more generally: I read to have things to say and points of connection with other people). Beyond that, there’s not much to my life, my desires. Perhaps that’s grim, or pathetic, but ultimately, I’m not an unhappy person.

If the effect of having “more flavors” is a thinner readership, I’m fine with that. It leaves one with the freedom to be a flavor, as you insinuated: you don’t have to work to make your writing accessible to the general public. You can focus on other aspects of your writing.

Patrick: It’s funny, because that part of his discussion resonated with me in how little it resonated with me. I’ve never felt any urge toward celebrity, in baseball or in writing. This isn’t out of any virtue so much as the fact that I’m a terrible introvert, and it exhausts and terrifies me when I have to be anything other than my horrible self.

I want to be read as much as the next guy, but it’s more because I want my ideas to be interesting and popular more than me actually being interesting and popular. I want the value I add to the boring old baseball to be new and exciting, so that I can self-publish a collection of pieces and stick it on my bookshelf for my kids to read someday. The ideas are what make me feel proud, the connections I make. That has nothing to do with fame; in fact, the more known a person becomes, the greater the expectations they have to overcome.

There’s nothing virtuous in this; it’s still egotism, just detached by one degree, enshrouded by laziness. Maybe what I’m really saying is that greatness is just too much work.

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Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.

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