The High Cost of Free Info

As news of the ESPN layoffs continues to roll in, it’s obvious that the “embrace debate” network is doubling down on the strategy. So many of those laid off by ESPN are among its best and most reliable reporters.

This development lines up with some thinking I’ve been doing about the evolution of news information. I’ve been wondering about why, with the Internet fulfilling its early promise to provide a variety of viewpoints and information, so many people stick to one viewpoint, reading and sharing and re-reading the same type and level of info, over and over again.

It happens in sports the same way it happens in politics

The reason I’m about to propose is troubling, because it makes me come off as arrogant and condescending.  That, plus it minimizes the mission of journalism programs like the one I teach in at Auburn.  But I also think it weighs in to what happened at ESPN today.

My fear is that many people in the audience, at their core, don’t want to deal with the complexity of information and arguments. They want it simple and to the point — to their point, reinforcing their viewpoints.

Within the realm of sports media, they do not want a lot of information about their favorite teams, athletes and sports. They do not want complex explanations of topics like concussions or college athlete compensation or race.

They want some guys (and a couple females) at a table yelling at each other about a couple of polarizing stories — over and over and over again. They want columnists to reinforce their emotions rather than challenge their intellects. They want the same rush from sports “news” that they get from sports.

For decades, a different form of simplification was provided by the news media, through a limited number of news outlets giving a similar roster of news stories about a similar range of topics. Be thankful that the news media in that day was acknowledged for its objectivity and its responsibility.

Now, the Internet throws so much at us, but at the same time, it gives us the power to access whatever we want from that information.  So what is our response? A large portion of the audience throws off that info and control, and begs for less.  They do not want to know both sides. They do not want to know the story behind the story.

And many out there are making a ton of money giving them that. Read Clay Travis’s take on today’s layoffs at ESPN. Of course the reasons are more complex than he writes. But a loyal segment of his audience eats it up, because it reinforces the simple answers they seek. And Clay knows they would prefer not to read the more complex causes behind cord-cutting and changes in media consumption.

So where is it all headed? As with anything media-related, it’s hard to say. We could be moving to a media economy where the information costs money, while the oversimplified debate junk food referenced above still streams for free.

If that is the case, and even to the extent that it is true now, I hope you’ll consider supporting those sites that employ the reporters generating the info that you consume — whether traditional newspaper sites or entrepreneurial efforts employing veteran reporters.

But for the present, know that many of those professionals, who worked in the trenches finding the information that enlightened our sports consumption, are now unemployed. Now we will find out how much the audience values the service that they provide.

John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn, where he teaches sports journalism courses and researches sports media history. His latest book, Frick*: Baseball’s Third Commissioner, is a biography of Ford Frick. It is available through Amazon by clicking here.  You can contact him at johncarvalho56@gmail.com. This and all blogs are available for reprint upon request.

Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.

Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.