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Daily Box Score 9/25: Taking it to the Beat


We don't talk much about traditional sportswriters here on Beyond the Box Score. Part of that, I think, is appropriate. Our approach is so wildly different from those of beat writers that anything we say about them would either be negative or unrelated.

But beat writers have been with us since baseball became a popular sport. Now, many of them are faced with buy-outs and layoffs. The result is fewer local daily newspapers and greater reliance on national media. What will come of this?

Table of Contents

The Old Paradigm
Take it National
The Drawbacks
Discussion Question of the Day


The Old Paradigm

It used to be that each major city in the United States had at least one (but often two or more) daily newspapers. Each newspaper had its own reporters. In the sports department, editors would assign writers to a particular beat, and there was always at least one sportswriter assigned to each professional sports team in a city. This is how beat writers have traditionally been forged.

Being a beat writer is a demanding job. It involves travel with the team, short deadlines (gotta make that morning edition, even after a night game), and plenty of flak from readers. But it also demands tremendous versatility. Beat writers primarily write game stories, which summarize the events of the previous day's game. But they also write profiles of players and managers, conduct interviews, cover team acquisitions and trades, and analyze business and advertising deals. Compared with the cushy job of a columnist, covering a beat is exhausting work.

At least the mythic beat writers of our memory had a tireless dedication to accurate reportage. They had professional standards and practices that, combined with a narrow focus, led them to fact check and print corrections when necessary. Compared to yokels like me who, armed only with a text editor and a spreadsheet, blather on incoherently, beat writers had some serious professional standards.

Let me tell you, high-standards are a luxury good. With the recent (and apparently permanent) decline of the locally distributed daily newspaper, the beat writer--and his standards along with him--has begun to disappear. The signs have been growing increasingly ominous. In 2008, the gray lady pushed long-time beat writer (and later columnist) Murray Chass out the door. Earlier this year, Cincinnati Post beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans was fired from his job. Less than two months ago, we learned that Hall of Fame beat writer Hal McCoy was being forced into retirement.

Not all beat writers and local columnists were sacked. Some of the better ones (I say some because many of those forced out or fired were good too) were picked up by national outlets. Joe Posnanski has moved from the KC Star to Sports Illustrated. Todd Zolecki went from the Philadelphia Inquirer to (though he remains a beat writer of sorts). 

As beat writers are squeezed out or move to national platforms, it's worth asking whether anything is lost in the process.

Take it National

Recently, Jon Weisman of the LA Times has asked the same question. It is worth pointing out that the LA Times, once a national newspaper and a journalistic powerhouse, has been humbled in the last decade. Today, it teeters on the edge of collapse. 

Weisman began his blog, Dodger Thoughts, on Blogger. Then, he moved over to Baseball Toaster. Finally, in February of this year, he was co-opted by the LA Times' website. 

So we'll say that Weisman has a unique view on this problem. Here's what he has to say:

National baseball columnists offer opinions on the Dodgers that you might or might not agree with. That's just the way it is.

Too often, however, their opinions are based on factual errors that, while not intentional, clearly reflect a lack of familiarity with the team. And as much as it happens when people write about the Dodgers -- just today, I saw someone I respect write about Hong-Chih Kuo's ability to pitch multiple innings, when he hasn't done so once this season -- it's logical to assume that it happens with every other team.

The concern that national writers are stretched thin reporting on 30 teams is legitimate, but I am not entirely convinced that they necessarily can't get their facts right. 

Weisman concludes:

If you really want to know the scoop on opposing teams, I'm not sure there are any shortcuts. You have to seek out the local writers -- whether they're newspaper beat writers or bloggers -- with the best understanding of each franchise and stick with them. 

It is true that local reporters have a unique viewpoint, and it's one of the reasons I think SB Nation is such an intriguing platform. You see the same phenomenon reflected in ESPN's fledgling local reporting sites such as ESPNChicago and ESPNBoston (which is in fact different from regular ESPN, I was surprised to learn).

But what's so bad about national reporters? For one thing, sometimes they aren't really reporters at all. John Kruk, whom you should know is one of my all-time favorite baseball players, would have fit nicely into Wednesday's DBS (he retired with a .300 career batting average and exactly 100 HR). But as a writer/analyst, he leaves something to be desired.

Peter Abraham, who has been the best Yankee beat writer for the better part of a decade now, had some words for Kruk in one of his last blog posts as a writer about the Yankees (he's moving to the Boston Globe). Here's an excerpt of what he wrote:

Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And should not let John Kruk write for them.

But the important question to ask is "why not?"

The internet behemoth, obsessed as it is with ad revenue, desires only page views and visits. Bloggers obsessively check their Sitemeter stats, newspapers write headlines to attract links. Baseball fans of the thinking sort get mad when people criticize them or say something stupid, but how do they respond? Why, with links back, of course.

Which brings me back to my question. Why should any editor, any webmaster, any blogger, refrain from saying things that are incendiary and/or stupid? Don't nearly all of the incentives flow in that direction? In a world where journalism profits are scarce and uncertain, where ESPN even has a policy concerning its writers' Twitter accounts (where that Mashable article was tweeted over a  thousand times!), why not go-for-broke in the search for links?

I gotta say, the only people who have any way to control this spiral are you and me. Whether it's a conscious decision on your part to seek out reasonable, informed coverage (though if that's what you were doing, would you be reading me?), or voting with your money by subscribing to pay sites, you can't complain while being complicit. It just doesn't work that way.

Discussion Question of the Day

I would like to know who your go-to local writers are? Whether its an SB Nation blog, a beat writer, or an independent blogger, who is your most reliable source for considerate baseball writing?