There was a bit of a hullabaloo in local media circles when Toronto Maple Leaf Iced Hockey team player Phil Kessel didn’t talk to the media one day and a lot of newspaper beat guys lost it a little. The Maple Leafs site Pension Plan Puppets nails the dynamic really well here. The point here is that the media may not be making the best use of their access to players:

That presser-fed formula is really what we’re talking about: interview scrums that generate easy quotes, but not interesting ones. Lazy narratives, rather than valuable ones. But beyond tearing down the shoulda-been-obvious, I was wondering what makes sportswriters worth following – how can an author avoid rehashed, mealy content?

The author “Bower Power” goes on to suggest three pretty reasonable alternatives to the current “quote-and-go” approach that marks the current approach: timeliness, analysis, and unique insight.

I think the issue here isn’t really with those “damn lazy reporters,” but with the entire mode of newspaper reporting described by PPP above. This is the culture of, there is a match—go write a report about it in the newspaper, and include quotes for colour. It basically presumes the Internet still doesn’t exist, and if it does, it’s just a bunch of nerds wanking off to stats.

To be fair, I think a lot of the better, seasoned beat guys are moving away from this approach, even if some of their editors are not. But sometimes you wish they might move a little quicker, you know?

Here’s why, and this will likely fall under the “analysis” category. I’ve witnessed Kristian Jack doing his thing lately at Toronto FC matches, and it’s really cool to watch. He doesn’t sit in the press box with a laptop counting the plays. Instead, he wanders all around BMO Field taking countless photos and making notes. And then he’ll sit it in on the post-match press conference and ask a very specific question to the manager, often outside the conventional line of questions that usually involve “Ryan, tell us about the last minute goal.”

Finally, he’ll fly out to do approaches with the players, as he did with Tim Cahill for this incredible post on how the LA Galaxy and former Evertonian attacking mid prepares to defend set-pieces as well as use them to pivot into attacks.

Here’s why what KJ does is unique, though. It cuts through the cliche about dumb players not offering up anything more to the media than tired motivational quotes (a lot of players say boring things only because they’re performing in the same kabuki theatre as the journalists). It also goes even further than the long-form interview which puts sports aside to get a sense of “who the player really is.”

KJ is a studied enough football guy to know which players are doing layered work on their game. He had a specific plan of attack that would provide a story that would live well-beyond the single match outcome, and moreover, he got some genuine insight into how Cahill actually prepares to play a football match. You read this, and you’re smarter for it. It’s the same as our very own Drew Fairservice did in his talk with Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox. No personal sob stories, nothing about “trying harder everyday to win it for the guys.” Actual insight into what Pedroia does to get better, in concrete terms.

I always think it’s facile to point to something that’s getting old and say, “This is why the newspaper business is failing.” More interesting match reports aren’t going to revolutionize the business. But there’s evidence that a lot of these guys could do a hell of a lot more than write a broad match report. Working under the assumption that readers already know what happened on the pitch, reporters might consider going to games once in a while to work a particular angle.

The problem with any changes to the current status quo though might mean a more targeted use of personnel in an industry that is hiring less and less and buying out guys left and right. But it’s hard to see the value in continuing with the current approach.

Comments (9)

  1. Just read that article on Cahill and the Reb Bulls goal. Bravo! That was well put together.

  2. One other issue here is that most sports personnel at newspapers, radio, and television media are “generalists”, which is to say that they go cover a high school soccer game in the afternoon, a football game over dinner, and then a hockey game later evening.

    If you read most articles about these three sports, they read almost the same. Doing something different about any of them (such as your examples above) essentially requires specialization, which none of these current guys can do because they’re expected to have 4 people cover for a sportsroom that should contain 10.

    Noting, of course, that specialized sports media (ie, The Score, TSN, Sportsnet, The Sporting News, etc) are able to specialize and do something different, but the print media? They know hockey details… if they’re lucky.

  3. I like the angle on this post, although I’m not sure it should be solely targeted at newspaper reporters, but certainly they’re worthy of the criticism.

    I too lament the cookie-cutter call-and-response form of athlete interviews now, and it’s even more regrettable when I hear radio or TV personalities get one-on-ones with someone and invariably their questions start with “Talk about…” and then lead into the lowest hanging fruit of queries.

    I think a large part of the problem for this brain-neutral questioning issue is the system that constructs it. You’re told of media availability, you’re told the time, and you’re trotted out an athlete or coach and then they’re whisked away by the handlers. Sure, there’s some opportunities to get an athlete in a one-up situation in a pre-game skate or shoot, but rarely does that apply to the athletes whose time are most coveted. Add on that, in the case of a post-game, you’re working against an increasingly more challenging deadline, and you have a recipe for “What’d you think of your teams play”-type questions.

    This isn’t to excuse reporters, heaven knows I have grown more than tired of the guys who have the chances to ask questions and instead concoct the softballs that are lobbed only to get answers that can fill time or inches.

    I’d also argue that reporters being embedded in a team beat can also fall victim to this, as their close-knit connection to their subjects, (and their subjects’ hesitance to show their hands too much, lest they give away too much) lead them to shy away from probing or analyzing anything more than what will fill the space they’re required to fill on-air, on the pages or online.

  4. Much depends on the ability of the person not only to ask a thought provoking question but also a quality follow up question. I listened to, watched or read a number of interviews involving Julian de Guzman in last 12 months and all that I saw was a guy given a soap box from which to vent spleen without any tough follow up questioning to get him to admit to his role in the problems during his time at TFC.

  5. Deadlines, folks. It’s all about deadlines.

    Print, radio and TV reporters all have hard deadlines they have to it. Are those reporters capable of producing high-quality, thought-provoking stuff? Some of them, sure. But more often than not, it’s simply not feasible within the timeline they have to work with.

    When you’re producing something online, on the other hand, there are no presses that need to run at a certain hour, no broadcast schedule that must be adhered to. So if it takes a bit longer to dig up those stats, or to track down that better quote, hey, it’s not a big deal.

    That’s what it comes down to, really.

    • The interviews done with JDG were all done by bloggers, not mainstream media. The interviewers’ inexperience, lack of craft, “fan first” mentality, or all three in combination, were in evidence. A good interviewer can ask that key follow up question, like an investigative journalist would, to provide more scrutiny to the subject. In law, it’s like a witness cross-examination. Interviews that are like infomercials for the player’s POV are as useless as inane questions with cliched answers, IMO.

  6. Not referring to Sharman’s interview: thinking of a few others. I missed the Sharman interview.

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