Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Dividing Line

Green on one side

It would be one thing if the Washington Post was running a competition, call it DC's Top Blogger, in which the winner gets a paying gig off the street as a sports writer at one of the nation's top newspapers. It is another thing entirely that one of the most respected media outlets in the country is banking on its name to solicit volunteers that will write stories for free.


When Curly R started in August of 2006 there were already at least 250 NFL blogs, maybe closer to 350 as tracked in the early days by Fair Catch, a rating service for NFL blogs, Fair Catch was replaced by Ball Hype which itself has reached end of life.

Since then the number of NFL related blogs has exploded, I am sure there are thousands now and I am not even sure there is an easy method of quantifying them. The growth has been very exciting, new voices, new perspectives and new outlets most benefit the fan, which is what professional sports is really all about.

The rise of this independent and or alternative media has had a profound effect on the traditional media, newspapers, radio and TV broadcast and cable news, the sports media and the net effect has been deleterious to those established and closed business models, the decline of traditional media is well documented and not at issue here.

If we then view the decline of insular media as a neutral concept, neither good nor bad but simply a fact, and we understand that money and eyeballs fuel media, then as money and eyeballs migrate away from traditional media and into alt media then the invisible hand of the market will eventually push the traditional media to adopt practices to win back or retain those eyeballs, or else suffer a permanent reduction in market.

The invisible hand first happened in 2006 when the Washington Post launched its series of in house blogs, including Redskins Insider and DC Sports Bog, both in the same month Curly R debuted. At the time I thought it was a great idea, as long as the in house bloggers, who were really the beat writers for their sport, were to be given the freedom to practice the arts that have come to characterize what we call quote blogging unquote: timeliness, non neutral viewpoint, broadness of scope, flexible adherence to style conventions.

Well they were and both have become very good and very popular, former WaPo Redskins beat writer Jason La Canfora in particular cultivated a blog culture on Redskins Insider, to a fault at times considering how often he angered Redskins management with his skeptical approach to news coming from the team. Jason Reid and his team continue the success of Redskins Insider, it is hands down the best source for first cut news as it happens, many of the posts that hit are short and not polished but highly informative, later the reader can compare the print versions and see how they were Postified.

Now the Washington Post wants to take what it no doubt regards as the next logical step, the paper has announced it is creating a new in house blog run by fans, this Fan Blog will cover Washington sports from top to bottom and from the sounds of it they want quite a commitment. Interested parties were invited to submit an application via a web form by midnight Sunday and the blog rolls out in September.

Immediate reader reaction was crickets, this Redskins Insider post on the Fan Blog has one comment, about the fact that there are no comments and this Early Lead post introducing the blog and application process has exactly none comments.

Later that evening Sports editor Cindy Boren posted an FAQ on the Early Lead blog, here we learn about whether or not these writing positions are compensated, that

Sadly, the answer is no. We hope that for some people, the large audience a site like could provide is enough motivation to post here, but we understand [zero compensation for generating content at Washington Post] may not work for everyone.

Clarification in brackets by me. Later in the comments of this piece (comments do not have permalinks) WaPo writer Jon DeNunzio writes that the paper is working to keep the focus of the blog narrow, establish schedules for topical or team based content and moderate, read: edit, the posts.

So let us recap: The Washington Post, the newspaper with the fifth largest print circulation in the nation this year and the second largest online audience last year by this metric, wants to add what amount to unpaid interns to churn out moderated and scheduled content that will compete directly with the work of paid professionals. Likely the WaPo will sell advertisements onto the Fan Blog webpages and excerpt content into the ad supported print edition where it will also crowd out the work of professional journalists.

This is called cannibalizing your market and it is easy to see why this is unpopular, I will bet you it is as unpopular with the Post writers whose work and therefore value it will dilute as it is unpopular with the readers leaving comments that ask rhetorically why would I write for the Post if I was not going to get paid, get a credential or own the work, and why would I want to read the amateur work of comment whore yahoos promoted to the front page?

This is the apocryphal dividing line of the title to this post, the barrier which cannot be crossed.

I love doing what I do on this blog, I can tell you that if the Washington Post came and asked me to join their staff it would be hard to say no to unless they offered not to pay me then it would be very easy to say no. I already do not get paid for Curly R and for not getting paid I have no schedule or content moderation standards other than that which I put forth. I have no mommy on this blog and no payroll to make.

The Washington Post on the other hand is part of a giant and profitable conglomerate and even if the core newspaper operations are not profitable in themselves the Post employees are not refusing the subsidies from the other units in the form of salaries. Anyone that would take this gig is essentially crossing a picket line and taking work from a professional journalist and generating free work for a company that will profit from it and deny you the rights to ownership.

I do not understand why the Post is doing this, they could ask any one of us bloggers toiling on our own time and own dime to contribute and we would, they could ask to re post our work and we would let them. That will not work for the Post though because the Post would have to credit our work in the agate type, and the Post gets cited, it does not cite.

Instead, competing amateur writers out then not paying them and putting them on a schedule to publish moderated work is going to result in a product that is substandard to the main work of the Post. If readers want to read fan rants or amateur work dressed up like real journalism then they can get it in a million places other than the Post. The Post should stay far away from this.

I also know the Post and other traditional media outlets subscribe to Sphere and other content syndicate networks, Curly R is in several of them and the linkbacks from random media sites appear in the Sitemeter all the time, I do not get any money for that because that is not the model; the business model for an independent outlet like this one is to sell ads directly on my site, the more people that come the more ad impressions are delivered, the Post pays the syndicate and gets the content on its site, the syndicate delivers the eyeballs to me, I am on my own for a business plan.

All this said, anyone with aspirations of real journalism and the time and inclination to donate their services, I wish them luck, I have been there, in 1995 I interviewed for and was offered an intern position with WRC NBC 4's George Michael in sports, the reason I ended up not taking the gig had nothing to do with the fact that it was unpaid.

I will read the new blog and will apply exactly the same rules of engagement to this new blog as I do to any content I encounter on the internets: Quality is king, if the work is good I will patronize it. If it is crap it will be ignored.

Dividing line from here via here.


Wilbert Montgomery


To Arms Comrade Ben!