If you ever need proof of how wonderful the internet really is, just stop and take a look at real life for comparison. The internet caters to one’s every inquiry, curiosity, fetish or need. The world of actual people, places and things? Less so. And so it was with a bit of trepidation that I attempted to explain my success as a writer in the former realm in that of the latter in my first appearance as a panelist at the well-known Blogs With Balls conference in Chicago last weekend.
I understand that this event comes off as a low-end circle jerk to a lot of you. For those more interested in my day at the event, you can continue with me after the jump.
A quick, unbiased aside: The guys behind Blogs With Balls fill a genuine need in our industry. Their three organized gatherings of sports blogging talent, insight and personality have been, in my opinion, without peer. In addition to hearing from some of the most accomplished online sportswriters out there, I’ve had chances to meet a variety of people at these events.
Some of those people, like “Wisconsin Rob” and Ryan from Rumors and Rants, were people that I’d been emailing and tweeting with for some time. Others, like ESPN’s David Jacoby, were sports fans in high places with whom I’d otherwise have no business associating. For people with equally woeful social skills, this is both refreshing and necessary. This This was the second trip I’d made to Blogs With Balls, and it was the second instance where I felt I was getting great value for my money and my time.
My panel was titled “You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right…to Blog?: A Legal and Ethical Primer to Sports Media in 2010.” Yes. I, who once spent an entire day posting donkey sex videos in the Deadspin comment section, would be speaking on the state of ethics in the sports blogosphere. I felt like this would be more “State of the Industry” and less of a “How to legitimize your web property when your parents just want you to go outside for a while.”
Heading into the event, I thought that our panel, in both “name” recognition and in range of insight, was among the best at the conference. Our discussion would be moderated by Jason McIntyre, who had found himself back in the mainstream news after selling his site, The Big Lead, to Fantasy Sports Ventures for a sum “in the low seven figures.” We had Alana Nguyen, Yardbarker’s director of programming who used to work as a lawyer (which everyone apparently missed in the intro). We had Dr. Nicole LaVoi from the University of Minnesota, a sports psychologist and advocate for girls and women in sports. And we had Jonah Keri, a trained journalist and author that is well-respected in both the universe of traditional media as well as ours. I thought we’d have a good discussion about some ethical dilemmas in covering recent sports news, and how each of us dealt with them for our respective outlets.
That’s not exactly what happened. I think that we collectively took an approach that was too piecemeal for the audience to absorb. Instead of discussing the proper criteria for ethics, we found ourselves in more of a “thumbs up/thumbs down” argument to what we covered. We disagreed amongst ourselves in un-constructive ways. We said “rape” a bunch of times. I’m not sure we ever connected with our audience. You can watch the video embedded below to see most of it unfold (the first 10 minutes or so are missing for some reason). I’m the handsome lardass on the left.
Watch live video from blogswithballs on Justin.tv
The fact of the matter is that this site is one of thousands of sports blogs that thrives in what is still a legal gray area. Issues of image copyright and the perception of athletes as public figures give enterprising blogs a great deal of leeway in their programming. Furthermore, if a blogger does commit any sort of perceived infringement, its editors will get a C&D asking for the offending material to be taken down, and when they do, that is typically that. So when I announced my policy of “Do it until you get in trouble,” naturally a few eyebrows were raised.
Michael Rand, a rather nice guy who writes the modestly-titled “Randball” blog for a Minnesota newspaper, owned two such eyebrows, tweeting:
Finding the views on ethics and news judgment from current #bwb3 panel kind of horrifying.
No, you don’t have to acknowledge complete BS stories. Sorry, @punte is dead wrong on that one.
More from Rand, from his blog:
During the panel on ethics and legality in sports blogging, the difference between bloggers and traditionally trained members of the mainstream media (or even the blogosphere) was never more evident. The casual approach to facts when putting together a blog post was stunning, laziness was offered as an excuse (or even a business model), comparisons were made between running a completely untrue, made-up story with no attempt at verification and a well-sourced story that turns out to be wrong.
I found him later at the post-conference booze-fest. We shook hands, and I expressed my disappointment that we didn’t see eye-to-eye on the value of that coverage, hoping he would elaborate on his position. He did not.
Spencer Hall, a blogger whom many of us hold in high regard, would eventually grab a mic (FF to the 24 minute mark) and rain thunder down upon the head of moderator McIntyre. Hall revealed that he was one of two people to anonymously email a rumor to McIntyre at “The Big Lead” about a relationship involving Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Hall explained that the rumor, emailed on April 1st, was totally false, and that McIntyre ran the item anyway. It’s worth noting that the New York Post picked up the story, citing TBL as their source. This seemed to be just cause for McIntyre to be targeted for Hall’s public “Gotcha!” moment, leaving one to wonder which party had acted less ethically.
Somewhere before Hall’s inquisition of good citizenship and his chugging an alcoholic beverage while moderating the subsequent panel, he asked how each of us handle tips that come in, and how we confirm them. I’ll answer that again now. For this site, I typically throw in the towel after a couple of phone calls, simply because of time constraints. If I’m on the hook for nine posts in a day, spending an hour or two on the phone to see if Brad Childress’ kid got a DUI isn’t the best use of my time. I’ve sat on a handful of items during my time here because I couldn’t confirm them, and if that’s the case, I won’t be the first guy to jump into that pool. But if someone else does, and that report itself has news value to us, why can’t I cover the report?
Hear me out. By doing so, I’m not presenting that item as fact. But I am doing two important things: I’m providing potential news to my readers and I’m holding accountable that original site that put that rumor into play. That can’t happen with anonymous emails, but it can happen if we hold that standard to other blogs. How else will we push the amateurs off the dance floor?
The biggest reason that blogs are thriving is that we’re picking up the stories that the mainstream outlets are either unwilling or unable to cover. Blogs succeed because our standards are different (not necessarily lower). This site and most others don’t automatically report the goings-on of other sites as fact. We may present the reporting of others and qualify it as rumor. Instead of thumbing our noses up as suspect reports, we mention them, and allow our readers to consider the source. Newspapers prefer to treat their readers as idiots. How’s that working out for them?
Putting someone else’s reporting on the hook isn’t “laziness.” Deciding to not waste time chasing rumors that may never see the light of day isn’t laziness. It’s maximizing the strengths and resources that I actually have. If Rand can articulate his position on that without summoning the indignation of the Shaolin Temple of the 5Ws, I’d love to hear it. Until then, we’re still left with different ideologies on how to validate the content we produce. I only wish that we could have done more during the conference to help other bloggers find their own way.