On the ethos of being an internet jerk

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

I've been doing this for a while, and I have a few thoughts about what I should and should not write.

In light of the Late Unpleasantness, I have had some time to think about the nature of this blog and blogging generally. I was half-surprised to discover that I'd actually invested a certain amount of time in thinking about what this whole sports-blogging thing is and why we do it.

To begin with the title for the piece and the title for me, I'm not sure whatever I'm doing has a good title. I'd need to rest for a while to laugh if I tried to call myself a "journalist" or a "sportswriter." I guess you could call me a "writer," because what I do primarily involves writing. But I've known too many pompous jerks who you can hear capitalize the "W" in "Writer" when describing themselves. "Blogger" is probably the closest thing to a technically correct term, but I find the word kind of appalling for various aesthetic and other unprincipled reasons. So, since I am a jerk on the internet, I choose to title myself an "internet jerk." We are legion, and most of us do not limit ourselves to sports blogs.

The internet and the media are a giant trashheap. Mounds of waste obscure bits of things that might be interesting, or useful, or even beautiful or wise. If you care about the truth at all, your first premise in writing must be "first, do no harm." The trashheap isn't aching for more trash.

That applies as much to sports as anything else. A lot of the great writing in the last decade about baseball managed to be great and interesting simply because a huge volume of existing writing was already awful. The careless, thoughtless writings of thousands of morons had left a huge volume of conventional wisdom to be debunked. Lazy narratives had long substituted for careful thought. Unproven fallacies filled in where data already existed to disprove them. Tearing down what had come before was a necessary task, which is why so many early sites took implicit or, in the case of Fire Joe Morgan, explicit aim at baseball's many purveyors of nonsense.

My first job in writing for you was to decrease the amount of dumb already out there, not add to it.

* * * * * * *

The reasons why bad writing and bad thinking proliferated in baseball were manifold. One easy answer is that very few people wanted to think hard about baseball. Baseball is about escapism. Baseball is about great stories. Baseball is about personal drama. It's easier and more pleasant to think that player X went 4-4 on a particular day because he was really seeing the ball well that day or because he had some mental edge on that pitcher. It's less fun to see a 4-4 day as part of a larger, normal player trajectory, likely to resolve itself over a large enough sample size. Thinking is a buzzkill.

Another reason is that lots of people involved in baseball lacked the capacity to think hard about baseball. Players frequently succeeded because of innate skill, without the perspective or intelligence to see the larger trends in the game. Scribes and commentators looked to the athletes for commentary and were often incapable of adding to the players own limited and often incorrect insights. Demonstrably counter-productive strategies like the sacrifice bunt or the intentional walk thrived as part of the never-examined but constantly-reinforced conventional wisdom.

But perhaps as important as any of these factors, the schedule of the newspaperman and of baseball were poorly aligned. There's a new baseball game almost everyday between April and October. Different things happen in each game, but the team rarely changes substantially from game to game. Yet even though the team wasn't changing on a daily basis, the newspapers continued to demand new stories every day, sometimes multiple stories each day.

Publishing more than one truly new thought about a baseball team every day is a very difficult task. I think it is possible, though difficult, to do so. To publish multiple pieces daily about a game that varies from day to day but rarely changes requires both great intelligence and great vision. Often, I found myself lacking on both points. While I think the drains of having a family and a full-time job often further complicated matters, I believe I simply lack the creativity and vision to present three, four, or five new thoughts to you each day.

The vast majority of writers don't succeed in doing so. In fact, it's not clear that most writers ever tried. One of the most important reasons for bad baseball writing is that bad baseball writing is easy, while good baseball writing is hard. And not many newspaper editors knew or cared about the difference. In time, people began to think of bad baseball writing as if it were good baseball writing.

Bad baseball writing practically writes itself. The game is full of tiny dramas ready to be discussed. Lance Lynn lost his last two games; let's guess about why. Let's make a simple story out of why he's looked bad. He's tired! He's angry! He's befuddled by left-handed hitters! He can't get outs early in the game! He can't get outs late in the game! He doesn't pitch deep enough into games! He pitched too much early in the season! He can't pitch at home! He can't pitch on the road!

There are so many stories to spin, so many narratives to tell, and for decade in baseball there was zero check on those stories for any kind of factual basis. Nobody's editor knew or cared whether Lance Lynn (or his earlier equivalent) was actually tired or angry or having trouble early or late in games. The editor's job was to make sure that so many column inches were filled with stuff about baseball that the ordinary reader would digest and enjoy, without having to think too hard.

The reason why the tiresome phrase "small sample size" gets shouted so much is that for decades the small sample size was the crutch of the bad baseball writer. The small sample size story is simply too easy a story to tell for a writer on a deadline.

Here in St. Louis we have what is widely thought to be a pretty good group of beat writers working for the major in-town publication. I can't say I've digested enough out-of-town writing to be able to make a national comparison, but people who I trust in the national media agree we have a great stable of writers. I don't always agree with Bernie Miklasz and Derrick Goold, but I think they are both smart guys and both decent writers. Even for them, I think it's hard to write on a daily basis without engaging in that small sample size writing. They have a schedule to make, a Sports section to fill. That's a daunting task for anyone. I couldn't do it. Nobody's would print a blank page in the Sports section because it would hurt my sense of propriety to speculate why Allen Craig went 6 for his last 31.

* * * * * * *

My second ethical concern as an internet jerk is of more recent vintage. If you've been paying any kind of attention, you'll know that newspapers in America are not a growth industry. And there's a lot to talk about outside the scope of a narrow blog like this as to why newspapers are collapsing. It's pretty clear that the rise of the internet has quite a bit to do with the decline of newspapers. I'm somewhat troubled by that trend, even if I think newspapers deserve their own criticisms.

But what I find undeniable is that the Post-Dispatch writers and the MLB.com writers are investing their time, their energy, their employers' money into breaking stories. If Derrick Goold spends a week away from his wife and kid to follow the team to Philadelphia or LA so that he can get a couple quotes from ballplayers at the stadium, then he deserves that story. He deserves to publish it. It should be under his byline, and I have no business hijacking the substance of the article for my benefit and SBN's clicks.

While internet-jerk-ethics are still in their nascent or non-existent phase, depending on how you view things, I believe it's wrong for me to take the key parts of a Goold story about the Peralta signing and recite them here, requoting the players and staff that he quoted. I do think it's fair for me to cite the general fact that Peralta was signed and conduct my own analysis of the merits of the contract, because that analysis is my own. I also try to be careful, although I know that I have failed with some frequency, to re-direct visitors to the source material, to encourage good journalism from people I respect and reward hard work with click-throughs.

I could make more posts here every day, simply regurgitating the essence of what other people have written, without adding any substantial value of my own. I could draw posters here to see that material, so that our readers wouldn't have to visit each of stltoday.com, stlouis.cardinals.mlb.com, and mlbtraderumors.com to get their news. I hope that's not what I have done. I know there were posts I've made in moments of writer's block that at least flirted with that kind of bad writing, and those are among the posts I regret the most.

In an ideal world, the newspapers and the blogs could work in concert, with clicks shared back and forth between the two. I'd wager that the ordinary VEB pedestrian is one of the more faithful patrons of the stltoday.com site. Fan sites like this can nurture interest in the team itself in a way that feeds a steady stream of readers to the news sites. As for us, I don't think that anyone could deny that we've been strongly touted and our audience boosted by Bernie and Derrick, even when we've occasionally (often?) tweaked them for faulty analysis.

* * * * * * *

I don't think my meaning here has been obtuse. There are real challenges in setting a goal for a single-team site to churn out 4-5 meaningful, ethically-done posts daily. I've spent some time in the last week or so looking around at various SBN team sites, and I'm not sure I found a good example of a team site putting out 4-5 posts a day where each of those posts were consistently interesting, ethical, and thoughtful. I didn't look at all of them by any means, and I have no intention of calling out individual blogs. Criticizing individual blogs is not my aim.

I hope the tone of my post conveys caution, not despair. I think the future for vivaelbirdos.com shouldn't be painted too darkly. None of the similar team sites look like buzzfeed spinoffs. I wasn't navigating through listicles at the sites I visited. The realistic future of VEB under new management probably looks more like sister SBN team sites than anything else. I'd recommend that you spend some time visiting those sites (and other non-SBN team sites) to see what you like and don't like, and whether there are things to be avoided or praised at those sites.

But you as a reader can and should demand original, substantial, ethical writing from this site on a regular basis. Articles that focus on ephemeral small-sample-size trends for the sake of padding daily page views should get called out. Articles restating the essential elements of stories broken elsewhere without substantial value added should get called out.

I hope that the mandate for increased views can be successfully combined with VEB's tradition of interesting and analytical writing. I wouldn't call myself optimistic, but I think there are ways it could be done. I don't envy the next editor his or her job, but I hope you will all give the editor a fair chance to create something new.

Remember that you are not just a passive consumer here; if you see a gap in content, maybe you can offer assistance in creating better content. Where the content falls short of your expectations, say so. Politely.

* * * * * * *

I would be amiss if I didn't also take a moment to thank Dan for running this site so well for years. The site has become a spot for good, intellectual debate about baseball as well as creating a wonderfully quirky community of people. Dan asked me to write for the site several years ago for reasons I still don't completely understand. I am deeply grateful for him offering me the opportunity to blather at you weekly. I don't feel like I owed SBN four or five more posts every week, but I have to think a lot harder about whether I owed more production to Dan.

Personally, I've always been deeply impressed by Dan the person. I probably have ten years on Dan, but he's always presented as the more mature, even-keeled person in the electronic room, so to speak. We have been lucky to enjoy his writing and editorial guidance for 5 years.

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