The Portland Tribune's Dwight Jaynes wrote a fine column earlier this month addressing the inherent problems with beat reporters and the well publicized newspaper writers vs. bloggers war. I've paid some attention to the infamous Buzz Bissinger/Will Leitch (Deadspin) debate, but I'm largely a spectator on this issue. I don't feel any special affinity for bloggers because deep down I have to admit I enjoy the stereotype of them "typing from their mother's basement." If it knocks the snarky-ness level down a few pegs, then I'm all for keeping that amusing image going. On the other hand, the dinosaur newspaper cretins who can't accept change for the better and insist on upholding the fallacy of the innocent past are probably even more annoying than the vengeful basement nerds. If you don't really understand what blogging is and how it can be beneficial to readers, you should probably just shut the hell up lest Job 38:2 be invoked: "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge."
You see, it's been a battle of extremists on both ends, and, as such, is ultimately more noxious than interesting. That said, Jaynes column is notable for its balance and hits on some interest points, especially regarding the conundrum of beat writers:
After all, how can those bloggers – with no inside sources, no background and no journalism training, in many cases – have as much credibility as trained and experienced journalists? Who would even bother listening to those yahoos?
Well, I’ll tell you what I think. And I’ll also explain how it’s led me to alter my approach to the way I do my job as a columnist, pushing me away from a philosophy I held dear for decades in this business. I changed, though, because the bloggers have taught me a lesson.
My guideline for years was that, as a beat reporter or a columnist, I would get to know my sources as best I could. I would be there constantly, in their face. I always felt I was impartial enough to write the truth no matter what. And my core values included being there the day after I wrote something negative about someone I covered – so they’d have their shot at me, their fair chance to confront me.
But along the way, at some point, the whole thing kind of went south. The problem with all that, I’ve come to realize, is that I got too close to the people I covered.
In the case of a beat reporter, you almost have to have a degree of that in order to come up with the constant flood of stories you need if you’re covering a beat like the Trail Blazers.
Over time, you realize that in spite of all your attempts to know athletes and public figures, what you usually end up writing about them is the cover story – the half-true piece of semifiction that those people want the public to see. You begin to realize you’re usually getting played. And you sold your soul to get it.
Oh, when you get close to sources, you get access. You get inside information. At least you think you do. You get close enough to players and coaches that it’s a fan’s dream. Sources become something very close to friends, and, I confess, I’ve been down that road.
But I also know that when that happens, you’re probably not going to do your job as well as you should. Yes, I’m old school, and I think it’s the job of a columnist or a beat reporter to always tell the truth and be critical when merited, even about the revered home team.
But if you’re critical, you risk your access. Forget about the friendships – you often lose your sources if you offend them.
In the past few years, my job as editor of this paper has kept me from having the time to get the sort of access I used to have with a lot of athletes and coaches. Lately, I don’t have time to schmooz them at shootarounds and after practice. I can’t get on the phone and shoot the breeze with them.
Once in a while, it costs me a story. But you know what? As a columnist, I don’t feel I need their information or their admiration. And I certainly don’t need to worry about making them happy.
I think I’m very fair to them. Some sources respect that fairness, and others would rather just own a piece of you.
I’m still accountable. The coaches and players know where to find me –as one did last season when he had a problem with something I wrote. I met with him for more than an hour and presented my side and listened to his.
He convinced me of a few things, and I didn’t buy into some other things. I stand ready to be critical again if I think it’s merited.
The point to all this is simple. What I’ve done, I think, is become a blogger in columnist’s clothing. The secret to the blogosphere is that bloggers usually don’t have that proximity to coaches and athletes. They aren’t hindered by a need to get along or kiss up to the people they write about. That affords them a certain freedom they can use or abuse.
Don’t get me wrong – those trained, experienced journalists are still the backbone of this business and they shouldn’t be insecure about their role. The mavericks out there blogging provide a welcome supplement to their work.
Like the mainstream media, bloggers usually search for some version of the truth. Some are good at it. Some are not. On the whole, the best of them serve up fresh, creative, unvarnished, unrestricted and entertaining thoughts about the issues of the day.
I think that’s what columnists are supposed to do, too. If we do it the right way, we’re really not all that different.