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.

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Can Jason Whitlock Coach The Undefeated?

Note: ESPN announced today (June 12) that Jason Whitlock would step down as head of The Undefeated project.  The details are in this article by Rich Sandomir of The New York Times.

It’s an oversimplification worth heeding: Journalists should never be in charge of anything.  Don’t ever say to a columnist, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you do something other than criticize?”  Too risky.  We can organize words, sentences and paragraphs into an article.  Beyond that, we struggle to organize a BLT sandwich.

Kidding, mainly, but there is a grain of truth in the above.  Often, one of the worst things you can do to a gifted journalist is to turn him or her into an editor.

For decades, however, that was the only way for good writers to get better pay and promotion.  The results were often disastrous.  A chaotic office and the loss of a top-notch writer.

We see the same phenomenon in sports.  How many championship teams are led by former superstar athletes?  Popovich? Belichick? Meyer? Krzyzewski?

All of this is a long way around to talk about Greg Howard’s takedown of Jason Whitlock on Deadspin.  Howard generated plenty of heat talking about what actually are two separate issues: Whitlock’s competency in leading a major media project, and his personal philosophy of race.

Mashing up the two in a longer essay implies a connection.  With the negativity Howard applies to both, the problems might seem to multiply exponentially.

But these are two separate, unrelated issues.  A top-flight media manager might be unable to keep up with this better writers and come off as a lightweight, even as his or her own publication features those writers generating thought-provoking copy.

An incompetent media project manager might have a well-articulated philosophy on controversial topics that leaves others saying, “If the boss is so smart, why are we in so much chaos here?.”

But neither scenario is dependent on the other.  And Whitlock seems to be the latter — at least as a media project manager.

The reason Whitlock, like most popular writers, struggles as an editor is that the two roles require different tool kits, and those too are often unrelated.  A writer must direct passion and focus toward his or her personal projects and see them as an extension of self and worth the expenditure of concentrated energy.

An editor, on the other hand, again to oversimplify, is judged by the success brought to other writers and their products in creating a unified product.

To me, the most effective editors are “servant leaders” — subsuming their egos to serve their writers by creating an environment where those writers can succeed, knowing that the project (and the editor) will benefit as a result.

When an editor becomes as central to a project as Whitlock perceived himself, then the project serves the editor, rather than vice versa.  Passion is needed in any media project, even in the front office, but too much sends it over the top of the bell curve, and effectiveness decreases.

And for someone like Whitlock, his personal ebbs and flows apparently could not be mediated by skillful leadership when it involved other writers and editors.

Managing writers is like herding high-maintenance cats with an ego.  All of us remember editors who inspired us — a combination of tough love, exhortation and red ink, sweetened with a protective instinct that would allow no one to hammer except the editor.

Any editor who does so successfully probably goes home at the end of the day and needs a good workout at the gym or the bar to decompress.

Obviously, the proof in the pudding will be how long The Undefeated’s ingredients stay in the mix.  Pay alone will not keep them; they will need a sense that they are crucial to the mission.  Let’s be fair: It could be that Whitlock still can pull it off.  The delays are troubling, but not fatal.

The solution is for Whitlock to hand over editorial control to an editor who shares his editorial vision for what Undefeated can be, but who also has the authority to run the project.  Whitlock’s leadership and inspiration still fit in, but filtered through someone with authority over the writers.

I won’t address Howard’s take on Whitlock’s philosophy, because it’s simply a debate, a difference of opinion.  Howard’s criticisms of Whitlock are deep and thoughtful, and maybe Whitlock’s approach to race is a dangerous retread of a previous age, but that is not the danger game on the schedule for The Undefeated.

If Whitlock were a better manager, The Undefeated would be sure to attract, motivate and publish the best writers, and their thoughts, not Whitlock’s would carry the day, as they should, in thinking through the tough issues Howard raises.

So in that sense, Howard is right.  If Whitlock cannot manage the Undefeated so that it retains a staff that consistently produces top-notch copy, it will have to rely on not only his vision, but also his production to power The Undefeated.

And I don’t think ESPN is interested in a glorified blog.