June 10, 2005

Red Sox Beat Writer Roundtable, Part II

Part II of the Beat Writer Roundtable -- Ian Browne, Gordon Edes, David Heuschkel and Art Martone -- focuses on "off-the-record" conversations, job burnout and how writers and editors are dealing with the Internet and more progressive stats. Part I is here.

Are there female beat writers? It seems rare. The female sportswriters that write about baseball at the Globe (Jackie MacMullan) and Herald (Karen Guregian) are columnists.

Edes: The Globe has two female beat reporters: Shira Springer on the Celtics and Nancy Marrapese on the Bruins. Their numbers are fewer, it seems, on baseball, but I think that is a lifestyle issue more than anything else.

Heuschkel: There are few female baseball beat writers. I'd say the male-female ratio is something like 20 to 1. I used to cover hockey and there were a lot of female beat writers. The last female baseball beat writer at the Courant was Claire Smith. She covered the Yankees in the 1980s. But it's an interesting question to ponder, why there aren't more female baseball writers.

Edes: Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle is an example of a veteran beat reporter (she covers the A's). Cheryl Rosenberg of the Orange County Register is no longer in sports, but she used to cover the Angels and when in Florida, the Marlins.

Martone: There are no female beatwriters on the Red Sox, and now that I think of it I don't think there ever has been on a major paper. I don't know why that is, really, since there’ve been women on all the other major beats. The women on our staff (Carolyn Thornton, Shalise Manza Young) are reporters, not columnists, and they occasionally cover the Sox.

How often do columnists like Edes and Tony Massarotti of the Herald travel with the team? How many writers will the Globe and Herald assign to a home series -- and how many to a road trip?

Edes: Both the Globe and Herald generally assign two reporters to every trip, and on big series like the Yankees or the upcoming Cubs series, at least three. Bob Ryan, Nick Cafardo, Chris Snow and myself were in New York for the last Yankees series; the Herald also had four people there. Dan Shaughnessy, Snow and myself will be in Wrigley Field this weekend. Home games, the Herald will always have at least four people there. The Globe sometimes tries to get by with three, but the usual number is four, and for a Yankee series, it can be a half dozen. Playoffs, we had at least nine reporters, I believe.

How does the Journal work with two guys (Sean McAdam and Steven Krasner) that seem to switch off? How do they keep up with the inner workings of the team if they are absent for a week or two? Or is that important/necessary?

Martone: The way it's evolved is, Steve focuses mostly on the individual games and Sean is responsible for the overview of the team. They work together quite a bit when the team is home, but generally only one goes out on road trips, at which point that person is responsible for everything. Neither of them is ever away from the club long enough to lose touch, and it's pretty easy to catch up quickly when they return.

Heuschkel: Because I don't share the beat with another reporter, there isn't another writer who sees as many games as me. Ian Browne is in the same boat. We probably spend more time in the clubhouse than anybody. There's no substitute for being with the team.

You must hear and see a lot of stuff that cannot be reported – or simply does not get reported. What are the guidelines?

Heuschkel: It depends. If I see a player do something or blurt something to no one in particular, I'll usually approach him and ask if I can use that. They appreciate it. Anything said to you during an interview that doesn't have a "off the record" might end up in the paper.

Browne: Report everything that is relevant to the team. If you happen to hear players talking about their private lives, there is no need to report that stuff unless the players are speaking directly to you about it, and on the record. It's pretty self explanatory what you report and what you don't report. There is a lot of good-natured banter in the manager's office that doesn't get reported because it is more of casual conversation than actual news gathering.

Martone: If we don't get it on the record, or if we don't get it from at least two sources, we don't report it. If something's important enough, we'll push to meet those guidelines. There was one specific instance from a couple of years ago where Sean, Steve and I were on the roof of the press box debating one of these issues, and I remember I kept saying, "We haven't got it. It's not enough." And we didn't run it. (And I'll be damned if I can think of what it was right now.)

Edes: I don't discuss a player's personal proclivities unless the team makes an issue of them or they directly affect the outcome of the game. If a player shows up drunk, of course that's fair game. If he was out late the night before, that's not, unless it was a direct violation of a team rule, like a curfew, and he is subsequently disciplined. I'm not going to write about a player's divorce, say, unless he brings it up, or a team official does.

Martone: These things happen often. It's one of the reasons I personally get so angry when journalists are accused of having no ethics, because if that were true we'd run these things all the time. In fact, we're very careful about what we go to press with. Any mistakes we make are not made cavalierly or through indifference, as so many seem to think.

Edes: One thing people should realize is that even though we enjoy far greater access than our readers do, we still only see a small fraction of what goes on. I heard Tom Brokaw say the same the other day of his experience as a Washington reporter; despite his entrée into the halls of power, his knowledge of what was really going on was extremely limited.

Twenty or thirty years ago, fans listened to games on the radio, watched a handful of games on TV, and waited for the box scores in the next day's paper to see how every one had done. (Even then, east coast papers didn't print Monday's west coast box scores until Wednesday.) Now fans can follow any game they want pitch-by-pitch (either online or through the Extra Innings cable package), get up-to-the-minute box scores and all kinds of detailed stats. In light of this revolutionary change, how has the role or importance of a beat writer changed?

Browne: I think the beat writer needs to present things to fans that they can't see in the boxscore, or see while watching the game on TV. If a player hit a certain pitch, why did he hit it? What was his approach in that particular at-bat. Reporters have access to the clubhouse and they need to reap the benefit of that access in their stories.

Heuschkel: I consider game stories as "necessary evils" we have to write because fans usually know the score, what happened and how it happened by the time they pick up the newspaper. That's why I strive for exclusive stuff, 1-on-1 interviews, etc.

Edes: It makes it much more difficult. Even with the added access fans have online and on the tube, a beat reporter still can't assume that all of his readers have watched the game; he still must recite the essential facts. At the same time, he is aware that a lot of stuff, including interviews, are on TV or radio, and it makes it that much more of a challenge to come up with fresher stuff. The beat reporter must strive to give the reader at least some info that he hasn't been able to gather on his own.

Martone: What the Internet and cable television have done is take away a portion of the report that used to belong exclusively to newspapers (game description, boilerplate quotes, etc.). But what they've also done -- and my industry has been extraordinarily slow to respond to this -- is opened up whole new areas that the print media does better than anyone: depth, analysis, context, reporting. Developed pieces that tell a complete story. It's difficult under deadline pressures to do this well on breaking news or games, but I think that's where we're headed in the future.

Is that why game stories have evolved to include more narrative -- rather than the just-the-facts presentation that we see on the wire service accounts: "X pitched seven innings and Y hit a 3-run home run as Team Z beat Team Q."

Browne: Absolutely. Everyone is watching the games in this day and age. Put it in to perspective rather than just regurgitate what happened.

Martone: If a fan can follow a game pitch-by-pitch online, or on TV, as it happens, why would he or she waste time with a narrative version of what they watched eight hours earlier?

Heuschkel: I've always said the most difficult thing to do in this business is write a great game story. I try to keep the essential stuff (score, stats) as tight as possible. Everybody knows the what, where and when. I try to focus on the "why" part -- why something happened. To me, that's the most interesting part of a game story. I also try to give readers a behind-the-scenes look such as the mood of a player or the manager, the atmosphere in the clubhouse, etc.

Do you think fewer people are reading game stories for information or are most of them merely people who didn't get a chance to see or listen to the game? I've heard people say they rarely read game stories if they watched the game themselves.

Edes: That's hard to say. I know a lot of people say they don't read game stories, which is why notebooks take on added importance, but I still think many fans at least skim the gamers for answers to questions that might have arisen while they were watching.

Browne: I think perspective is more important than opinion in a game story. What does that night's activities mean in the grand scheme of things?

Martone: Web traffic indicates more people will read the notebook or a feature than the game story. I've had folks tell me they just skim a game story to find the quotes.

Is there pressure to insert opinion into the game stories?

Martone: I'm not sure "pressure" is the word, but there's an understanding that we have to give readers things they can't get elsewhere. I'd prefer that to be information, but sometimes it's opinion.

Edes: I don't know if it's so much of a pressure to add opinion as it is taking advantage of your access and presumably expertise to give some interpretation to events as well.

Heuschkel: You're not supposed to insert opinion in a game story. The only liberty a beat writer has is what angle to take, which can produce a favorable or non-favorable slant towards the team or an individual player. There are some beat writers who will occasionally write a column, complete with their mug shot. It baffles me how a reporter can show up to the park one day as a columnist and another day as a beat writer? To me, that's a conflict of interest. You're either allowed to have an opinion or not.

How (if at all) are the papers dealing with the internet? I know Edes conducts chats, Browne answers e-mail and a couple of the papers have blogs (Eric Wilbur at the Globe and Ed Kubosiak at the Springfield Republican). And then there's Art's much-missed Notebook. Do papers feel they have to compete? And what could they do in the future?

Martone: We have to be on the Internet, since that's where the audience is migrating. I think people discover that there's very little difference in game coverage from paper to paper, so I believe newspapers try to create varied sites that attract a wide audience which will return for the daily report. (That's what we did with Art's Notebook, and we're trying the same thing with an experimental audio blog. I record it daily, and it's usually live by 2 p.m.)

Edes: That's a major component of all of our futures. I do chats and a weekly mailbag, and occasionally will feed info to Boston.com on breaking stories long before our newspaper deadlines. I think papers are still trying to determine how to make best use of the 'Net; during the World Series, e.g., we did audio slide shows, which incorporated my commentary with images from that night's game.

Martone: But the real advantage newspapers have is that while there's plenty of opinion and analysis on the Web, there's very little original reporting. That's our strength, and that's what we have to leverage in this new medium. Then we can take advantage of other elements -- not just timeliness, but audio and video and expanded photo coverage -- that weren't available to us when we were strictly print. People think the Web will be the death of newspapers. I think that while it may eventually be the death of ink-on-paper, it will save the industry.

That's a little simplistic, since there are many other elements –- advertising, classifieds, etc. -– that make newspaper companies profitable and that will have to be addressed in the new world order. But I believe the general thrust of what I said is true. As I constantly tell people, our business is distributing information, not printing newspapers. How we distribute the information shouldn't be the main focus of what we do, though it frequently is. Because, let's face it, less-efficient systems invariably fall by the wayside. If there's one thing we can learn from history, that's it.

For those of you who have done this for many years, is there burnout from the travel and long/odd hours?

Edes: There is a huge burnout factor. Fewer and fewer reporters want anything to do with the baseball beat, which in Boston is a 12-month-a-year gig. I've had sports editors tell me that the off-season in Boston is even more important than the games. And those young reporters who do take on the beat tend to have a short shelf life. The travel, and the fact that almost all games are played at night, which means you never get home before 1 a.m., are not elements conducive to a good family life.

Martone: I personally don't know how these guys do it, churning out as much material as they do under the time constraints they face, night after night for six months. I try to give the writers as much time off as they desire during the season, within reason of course, to avoid them wearing out, especially since we lean on them so heavily at the end of the year.

Browne: There are times during the year when the travel and the hours get to you. But after doing it for a few years, you have a better understanding of how to pace yourself over the long haul that starts in mid-February at the start of Spring Training and doesn't end until sometime in October.

Among fans who look at sabermetrics and more progressive stats, there is the feeling that many print (and on-air) people look down at newer ways of analyzing the game. This may simply mirror a reluctance in the general public for new and different ideas. Do writers and editors think the average fan isn't ready for these newer methods and stats?

Martone: While there's been a vast increase in the number of sophisticated baseball fans since Bill James's Baseball Abstracts became available nationally nearly 25 years ago, I know there are many people out there who are unfamiliar with/uncomfortable with/hostile to progressive baseball analysis. I know, because I hear from them. And I know, because I see slower Web traffic generated by the Web stuff in comparison to traditional stories.

Heuschkel: I think the vast majority of readers and editors are unfamiliar with VORP, WHIP, etc. That might explain why those haven't really made it into the mainstream yet.

Browne: Stats are becoming a way of life, let's face it. Teams such as the Red Sox and Athletics place a significant amount of their player evaluation on statistical breakdowns, so you'd be silly to ignore that stuff.

Martone: I think the average fan will accept sophisticated analysis if it's presented in an easily understandable way; the problem is, doing it that way sometimes alienates the sophisticated fan, who'll feel as if he's being spoken down to. Whenever I do that kind of analysis, I invariably find myself using different literary muscles for print than I used for the Web, since I assume a level of knowledge on the Web that I would never assume in a newspaper column. It can be done; it's just hard. And it's not really the job of the average baseball writer, since their main focus should be to report the news.

I have read a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at statheads, or at the front office guys of teams who use newer stats. Do some writers have a hostility towards these new ideas?

Heuschkel: Don't confuse beat writers with baseball fans. "Statheads" are like any other minority group; they want their voice to be heard. I'm all for progressive thinking and new ideas. I think the reason some baseball executives and scouts don't like Billy Beane is because he came off an arrogant know-it-all in his book. I'm quite fascinated with sabermetrics. I wish I had more time to delve into it, but most of my time is consumed by covering the Red Sox.

Browne: I don't sense that all. Especially in Boston, I think there are a wide range of ideas that are embraced by different writers. I don't get the sense any of the writers in Boston look down on statistical evaluation.

Martone: I really don't think it's anything more than the reluctance you spoke of earlier, the reluctance of people in general to accept new ideas. And if you've been in a job, any job, a long time, you're especially wary of accepting ideas put forth by people outside the industry.

Edes: I find myself relying more and more on numbers that I would not have paid attention to in the past, and I pay attention to what folks like Eric Van and others are saying on the SOSH board. I think the resistance to the numbers guys has come less from writers than from old-school ball people.

Martone: Another part of it, though, might be that reporters are exposed to the human side of baseball in many ways -- positively and negatively -- and some believe there's a certain naivete (they might use the term "ignorance") to the sometimes bloodless strain of analysis put forth by a few of the statheads. But I think progressive stats are being accepted more and more by members of the mainstream media, and conversely more and more statheads are realizing there's a human side to this equation that was frequently overlooked in the past. Maybe the twain will soon meet!

1 comment:

L-girl said...

Great interviews. Thanks!

Isn't it funny how everyone refers to "Moneyball" as Billy Beane's book?