Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Optimized Baseball Media Diet and Why Motoko Rich Can't Count

40 years ago I started following the Philadelphia Phillies. I think that it started the month that my family rented a beach house on Long Beach Island. Every morning I would walk to the store to buy a newspaper- the Philadephia Inquirer- because I wanted to read everything about Apollo 11. After the astronauts got home safely I continued my morning newspaper ritual, and that's when I started reading about the baseball.

Between then and now, there were some years when it was hard to follow my team, and I don't mean because they were bad. When I lived in California, the local newspapers barely covered my team, even though it was a National League city. I would study the boxscores and the three sentences in the AP summaries to retain an emotional connection to my team. That's when I first imagined a newspaper of the future that could be customized and printed for me so that I could have the New York Times front page along with an Inquirer sports page with my morning coffee.

Then the internet happened, and all of a sudden I could track the Phillies games on Yahoo Sports and read articles on the Inquirer's web site, Philly.com, even though I was living in Mets and Yankees-land. I barely read the sports section of my local paper any more. With cable television, I could watch games whenever the Phils played Atlanta or the Mets. My baseball media diet had reverted to what it was growing up, except now I got it over wires instead of the airwaves and on paper.

Over the past three years, however, my baseball media diet has changed profoundly, and not just because the Phillies won the World Series. This season, I was able to watch most games on my iPhone or on my laptop via MLB.com. Every day I read the blog of the best sports writer covering the Phillies, Jason Weitzel. I get breaking news via Twitter from Scott Lauber, a writer for some paper in Wilmington, Delaware. I read game summaries from Todd Zolecki and other writers who work for MLB.com. I read news about Phillies prospects at PhuturePhillies.com, and I read stat-head analysis (partly enabled by huge volumes of game transactional data released by major league baseball) at the Hardball Times.

In my optimized Phillies media diet, there's not much role for traditional media, or even for transitional media aggregators like Yahoo or Philly.com. The media providors I've ended up with have all specialized in areas of strength. I don't have to endure sports writers I don't like just because they've managed to gain special access to the flow of information.

The same sort of change is happening all over the landscape of news reporting. Two weeks ago, I had a chance to see first hand how the professional media reported a rather minor event in a story I'd been following quite closely. I went to a federal courtroom in New York and witnessed a meeting of a judge and the parties of a lawsuit involving Google, copyright and ebooks.

At the end of my report, I added links to other reports published about the same event. It's interesting to read these reports, and think about how they fit into an optimized media diet. The most knowledgable report was by James Grimmelmann, a professor at NYU law school. Those of us who have followed the lawsuit closely have come to rely on Prof. Grimmelmann's blog for insight into the relevant law. The best written coverage, in my opinion, was that of Motoko Rich of the New York Times. She condensed the event down to its bare essence, and chose exactly the right story lines. At the event, I watched her in action. After its conclusion, she made a beeline for a publishing executive, sitting two seats away from me, and asked him exactly the right question.

But it seems Motoko Rich made a small mistake. If you compare her well-written story with my notes-dump, you'll note a tiny discrepancy. She reports that there were "fewer than 70 people" in the courtroom. I was amazed to see so many people, and it was my very first time in a Federal courtroom, so I decided to make a careful count. There were four rows of benches, filled with 12 people each. There were 8 members of the press seated in the jury box. There were 8 attorneys for the parties and the Department of Justice at the lawyers tables. Seated along the back wall were 16 people, eight on each side. So not including the Judge and his staff or the courtroom official and security, there were 80 people in the courtroom.

Where did Motoko Rich's "fewer than 70" number come from? Perhaps she meant to write "more than 70". Perhaps an editor or fact-checker could believe that so many people could fit in the courtroom. I don't know. I left a comment on the Times' website, but for whatever reason it was not approved. Perhaps the correction was considered so trivial that it was better to leave the mistake in the story. In fact, version of the story put the number at "approximately 70 people", and the print version omitted any reference to the audience size.

This episode got me thinking about the proper role of professional reporters in my media diet. I don't expect a reporter to have the expertise of a Law Professor, but I really want people like Motoko Rich to be asking the right people piercing questions. Although I can go to the same event that she can, it's just not my job to badger people with questions, even if I do happen to know them. But having been accustomed to the accountability of sports reporting that has to stand up to hundreds of reader comments, I would really like to see similar accountability in the news reporting I read. It should matter more, not less.

I'm also worried about the business models that support my news sources. I hope that Jason Weitzel is making enough from his blog to support himself- he's probably made only a few dollars from me (I bought his book last year). I'm glad Scott Lauber is supported by his newspaper, but it has close to zero revenue from me. Major League Baseball is getting significant revenue from me- I hope they're smart enough to add to the media that they support.

Whith the whole news industry experiencing the wholesale rearrangement of roles that has already happened for me for baseball, what is a reporter to do? Should she focus on developing contacts, asking questions and crafting stories, or should she focus more on building a reader contituency? Should a "newspaper" business focus on aggregating news or nurturing reporters? Should it be building a information access platform, or should it be developing a community news resource? Maybe it should be contributing to the cloud of linked data.

I don't have answers for these questions, but I can tell you why you should trust me to count courtroom spectators more accurately than Motoko Rich. I'm taller than she is. I can see better over people's heads. And somehow we should figure out a way for Motoko Rich's physical stature to not be relevant to her stature as a reporter.
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1 comment:

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Scott Rosenberg yesterday. He's working on a project called Mediabugs which is trying to help the media correct its errors. For now its just covering the SF Bay area, but it's definitely worth a look.

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