The Summer of the Blogger: AKA Reporting Above Replacement

There's a concept in sports statistics (pioneered in baseball) called "value over replacement player." The idea is that you can quantify the level of production provided by the average player off the street, the plug-in backup who provides little more than a body with no added skills. He's the replacement player, the baseline from which you evaluate all others.

Value over replacement is a great concept to remember during recent debates over the practice squad (Newsflash: none of those guys really matter much). But it also came to mind recently during conversations about the current state of NFL beat reporting. If you follow some of the stalwart Philly reporters, you may have seen griping about their jobs turning into an overemphasis on film breakdowns over "real reporting" or "compelling stories." 

But you can see that's what the people want. This summer, IgglesBlog's Derek Sarley was hired by the Daily News to cover Xs & Os. Blogging The Beast's Jimmy Kempski has a regular gig at now, where he can do film breakdowns, stats, and his patented stick-figure paint drawings. Sheil Kapadia continues to kill it over at Birds 24/7. Smart Football's Chris Brown is the hottest national football writer, period.

There seems to be a collective exasperation from the old guard of reporters (most of them aren't actually old) as to how to adapt to the Summer of the Blogger. Some are "blaming" Chip Kelly for the esoteric focus. But the truth is that this wasn't an overnight change, only the culmination of forces that have been brewing for years. 

It's easy to go back to say "the Internet changed everything," but I'm not talking about learning how to Tweet out links to stories. There has always been an intense hunger for coverage on our favorite sports teams, but it was filtered through a limited number of news outlets: newspapers and television. Now anyone with a Tumblr blog or a SBNation login can throw out their ill-informed opinions on a play call. Every roster change can be Bleacher Report-ized from three different sides before lunch. And, perhaps most important, the official Eagles Twitter account can be re-tweeted by every fan from here to Sweden and back.

When we're talking about value over replacement, until recently simply having access to the locker room, to the press box was enough to add value because only a limited number of people could be there. Now, largely thanks to, that's not true. Everyone can watch the press conferences, the practices, the locker room interviews. We can get all the latest developments directly from the Eagles mouthpiece.

The point is that the replacement reporter and commentator has improved. Fans no longer need their beat guys to fall all over themselves trying to re-cut the latest press release into "me too" Tweets. Nor do they need more barely-informed, warmed-over columns that they could find in any backwater SEO-factory. They need value above and beyond that, which is why the response to called-up bloggers like Derek and Jimmy have been so positive.

To me, there are basically four ways to provide added value:

  1. News Breaker: Tell us something we don't already know, or at least didn't know yet. And no, being the first to turn a Howie Roseman mass text into a Tweet doesn't count. For as many beat reporters as there are covering the Eagles, there's surprisingly little news broken by outlets other than the team itself. Tim McManus does a good job gathering sources, as do Reuben Frank, Jeff McLane and some others. 
  2. Enthusiastic Aggregator: Fans want everything on their favorite team, from minute-by-minute breakdowns of training camp, to interview transcripts, to photos of the smoothies players get when they come off the field. And they're busy, so they want to know what else is being intelligently said about their team elsewhere. Some of the older beat guys don't understand this obsession, so they've been reluctant to embrace coverage of such minutia. But Jimmy and Sheil clearly get it, as do the guys running Eagles Pravda. 
  3. Behind The Scenes: Where are the long form profiles of players across the roster? Where are the deep dives into the organization, the coaches, the decision-makers? Maybe I've missed them among other coverage, or they've been shut behind pay walls, but there's plenty of room for "compelling stories" about the Eagles -- and the major news outlets have the best shot at finding them. I'd love to know more about the people behind the curtain, but it seems reporters spend more time parroting the same talking points instead of rooting them out.
  4. Analyst: Whether it's from stats, film review, scouting, Xs & Os, there's a healthy desire to learn more about the the game of football and specifically their team. You can see it in the way fans adore Tommy Lawlor's independent scouting and even give props to anyone who can put together a competent set of game screenshots. They don't just want more coverage, they want coverage that asks why something happened, and then tries to answer. I'm not sure why that would ever be a bad thing. 

Basic news has been commodified, but value-added reporting isn't a zero sum game. A film breakdown doesn't detract from a player profile or a breaking news story. There's room for all of it, and in fact greater hunger for anything above-replacement than ever before. Instead of criticizing the change, embrace it, learn from it, be inspired by it. 

Babin to Reporters: Brush Your Teeth

Jason Babin, on Twitter:

Wow reading some of these articles, if u where in the L room & saw some of these reporters, u would understand. It’s like they never saw a; Tbrush, shower, and problly the only time they leave their mom’s basement….. I said some, other are dead on…

Poor hygiene, but at least we can spell?

Journalism is Dead, Long Live Reactionism

One of the biggest problems with journalism today is that it’s transporting a worldview associated with filling up the limited space of a printed page into a new media world where that page is limitless. This is true on the Internet, obviously, where opinion and analysis columns have become blogs and news reporting has moved to the Twittersphere. The shift is also apparent on television, where an increasing number of 24-hour cable news stations echo the same vast emptiness of air time demanding to be filled.

When the column inches of a newspaper or magazine ran out, there was no more need for additional writing or reporting. Journalists had to limit themselves to only the most important stories and only the ones to which they had something to say. Now that requirement is abolished.

Anything can be published, which has led to: everything should be published. As a rabid sports (or anything else) fan, this is actually a positive development. I’ve never heard anyone complain that there’s too much coverage of a topic they care about. For example, in this corner of the web there is an insatiable appetite for specific NFL and Eagles news. Local beat writers can publish a story about the fourth-string tight end and people will want to read it. They can tweet the mundane minutiae of training camp to a rapt audience of followers.

Again, this is good. Or it would be, if journalists could find enough real, solid reporting and analysis to fill the unlimited potential. But all it takes is a few minutes of ESPN coverage to clue you in to the fact that there’s a much easier way to fill those minutes: reaction, endless reaction.

Valuable reporting still exists, both at the largest and smallest levels. But the majority of “content” put out on the web and on TV is simple, uniformed reaction to those few original pieces.

When Bill Barnwell at Grantland throws some statistics out that question DeSean Jackson’s true value, the reactions came swiftly from every corner of the web. 140 characters here, a few sentences and some pull-out quotes there, giving half a shake of agreement or anger. Last night, Deadspin decided to react to a Michael Vick interview in GQ before the article even came out. Soon we had instant reactions to that first, ethically dubious reaction, with more certainly on the way. The state of reactionism is so bad that writers now complain when information about a player’s possibly life-threatening health concerns isn’t leaked to them ahead of schedule. There’s no appropriate response other than deference, respect, and relief, yet being first in line to make your voice heard matters?

Ultimately, journalists and publishers have to realize that they can never actually fill the vast server space they now have at their disposal. It’s impossible. So instead of trying to do so by focusing on endless, mindless reactions and retweets, it’s time to change up the pattern.

You don’t have to be first on anything by a few second or minutes. You don’t have to respond to every bit of news with repetitive drivel. More is better, but more crap isn’t worth the pixels it’s printed on.

Photo from Getty.