Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Access is overrated

Following up on yesterday, so far I've read two major criticisms of my call for more journalism, less forum banter from MLS blogs. The first is that MLS bloggers would write more interesting stories on MLS if they had the time/resources/access. The second is that MLS is an inherently uninteresting league and therefore no amount of good storytelling is going to save the league from its synthetic self. Today I'll deal with the first argument.

When I said MLS writers should tell better stories, I didn't meant MLS blogs should try harder to imitate Steve Goff or John Molinaro. Not to pick these writers out of a line-up, it's just that their media outlet overlords require them to write on a certain topic on a certain way in a very short period of time. The MLS Cup final happened last night? Deadline is 3 AM. MLS draft coming up? Gimme copy for 4 PM tomorrow. Editors need copy, they need it clear, factual, and succinct, and they need it yesterday. This is why in many ways the paid soccer writing job sucks.

It's also why we've come to accept the brittle Sports Page match reports as real "sportswriting" over the past century, particularly in North America. And I'll be charitable and say that that kind of writing is a necessary evil. Late for work and what to know the general atmosphere at last night's TFC game? Bam, Molinaro's got the goods over at cbc.ca. But this kind of sportswriting should be the purview of the paid sports journalist, who trucks off all over the continent and churns out readable, easily digested match reports for newspapers or newspaper websites. And it's also the first kind of news reporting to become obsolete in the age of the instantaneously updated box score and online video roundup.

Yet MLS bloggers are still trying to do much the same thing as their print counterparts (and they do it well—the internet is a bastion of heat-and-serve MLS stats). Except they try and do it without the same primary source, on-field "access" as the paid print guys. What does "access" mean exactly? Well, accreditation. The right to stand in the press box for games and sit in on the press scrum. And what does that get you access to? Post-match player quotes, for one, which aren't exactly a bastion of interesting news. Much better to read their twitter account for novelty. Or you could try speaking to them one-on-one, which is impossible unless you're a big time journo, right? Well in my experience, in North America it's not that hard getting a player to talk to you even if you are a no-namer blogger (the hint is to say you're a 'writer'). Same with managers. Sure, it's great when they go off on one in front of a crowded post game scrum and give out some great quotes, but it's not like if Jimmy MLS Blogger had been there he'd of made the gaffer cry while the MSM reporters slowly turned around and started clapping out of respect for his question-asking abilities.

In any case, "access," which is what most bloggers mean when they talk about the resources they can't afford, is only as good as the reporter who is using it. And access is really most important when it comes down to getting the facts of a story straight. I would venture to say most MLS bloggers already have this kind of access at very little cost (which is why Inside Minnosota Soccer kicks ass—he makes phonecalls). Access should never be an end in itself anyway, and it can even be used to exploit reporters under constant deadline, for nefarious reasons. Did I mention Gay Talese? Here he is on that same subject:
I think most journalists are pretty lazy, number one. A little lazy and also they're spoon-fed information, such as the weapons of mass destruction back in 2003....you have these people who create a package of news, develop it as a story line, a scenario, and they find, as Mailer once said about the press, that they're like a donkey. You have to feed the donkey. The donkey every day has to eat. So [special interests] throw information at this damn animal that eats everything. Tin cans, garbage.
Hence the same sportswriters writing the same shit, year after year, even though they share the same incredible "access" as every other sports reporter on their beat. But to be fair, they have to write this, and j-schools train them for it because j-schools only know newspapers. And newspapers don't have the editorial mandate to include unique, non sportswritery story angles. They need the facts, quickly and easily digestible—that's their job. And so it should be.

But good news! We're bloggers! We're free to do whatever the fuck we want. Unfortunately, that includes making up shit, writing things without proper verification, spreading falsehoods and making the kind of grammatical errors that would make my Grade One teacher weep. Yeah, that sucks. But thankfully, bloggers who make a lot of mistakes don't get a lot of reader trust. Keeping the facts straight is all part of telling a good story. A beautifully crafted player profile with the name spelt wrong and incorrect biographical details is pretty much a waste of time.

So we're not accredited to stand in the glass box and write shit for deadline, fine. But MLS bloggers can still pick up the phone, we can still ask questions, follow good journalistic guidelines. And we can take risks, build networks, go to the library, read through archives. Much of this can be done at little cost, and not that much extra time, and the payoff is extraordinary. No, this doesn't mean writing epic New Yorker style features. Like I pointed out with Ronay's post yesterday, you don't need acres of space to tell a good, interesting story. But it does mean trying a little harder before we churn out another AP-esque MLS draft lead-in...


Charley said...


Adam Spangler wrote on a similar subject 5 or 6 months ago over at TIAS. I don't remember what it said exactly, but I think he tried to line out how to make it easier to do the good New Yorker style essays.

I agree with you both. Well written, Richard.

ian said...

This may be a British thing, but I cannot think of anything worse than being dependent upon access. Players and managers ceased saying anything interesting about twenty years ago, and the trade-off with independence soul be too great to have bear.

If we are talking about what benefits being full time would bring, time would be the only one that matters to me. I wouldn't have to rush something out at midnight after I've been at work all day and am more liable to make mistakes. I could research properly. That's the only thing I can think of.

Elliott said...

Great points Ricardo,

Here's a few other ideas.

1) MLS actually provides access to bloggers - I know lots of guys who go to team practices and get coach and player interviews on a regular basis - but that leads to

2) Ian's point - access breeds dependence breeds softball questions. It also begs the question - access to what? A handful of players are funny, some are sincere, but mostly the party line is read and re-read.

Some people prefer the New Yorker essays, others want their one paragraph match report. We all know which camp If all into - which is why I demand a AMSL MLS cup match report....yesterday