You may or may not have read about what the smart kids up at Northwestern have concocted: a self-generating, self-reporting baseball news system drawn from raw data from box scores and play-by-play breakdowns.
You may or may not have also heard both of the expected responses to such an announcement, one based in horror and the other based in some combination of spite and awe. Some will decry such advances, pointing to the time-honored tradition and necessity of the beat reporter, insisting (and rightfully so) as they often have that nothing, repeat, no thing (two words) can or will ever accomplish the work of the well-traveled scribe with his or her long-cultivated sources; others will simply say sports journalists are a frivolity in this day and age and good riddance to the whole lot of them. Both, sadly, will be missing the point.
Before we continue: this is not a condemnation of either computer-assisted reporting or of old-school beat reporting. In fact, I’ll go a step further and actually stick up for both while adding that one just made the other’s job a whole lot easier.
(“Job,” not “industry.” We’ll get to that in a moment.)
By this point, we’ve all heard the old access-versus-analysis argument too many times to count or to really even care anymore, but what the brains at Northwestern have done is to take this debate to its theoretical end: assuming it works (and at some point it, or some extension of it, absolutely will), both sides are effectively left without any ammunition. To put it another way: when the beat reporter and the analyst are working with the exact same source material, do both really need to exist?
“But the quotes!” some will say. “Someone has to get the quotes!”
Let’s compare two versions of the game story from the Sox’ final game of 2009, one from the team’s official site and the other from the October 5, 2009 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Good Guys, you may recall, finished out the season with a 5-3 loss, handing an extra foot of lifeline to the Tigers in the process. So what can independent, unbiased access tell us that the team-subsidized version can’t? What did a free and unfettered press bring us in our hour of need? To the copy boards!
Ozzie Guillen was disappointed by the 2009 White Sox
Sun-Times: “After you spend all summer the way we did and you don’t get to the point you want to get, it’s frustrating because you want to be in the playoffs, you want to be a part of that. You want to continue the season, but in the meanwhile, you cannot wait to get it over with and prepare for next year.”
WhiteSox.com: “After you spend all summer the way we did, and you don’t get to the point you want to get, it’s frustrating because you want to be in the playoffs,” Guillen said. “In the meanwhile, you cannot wait to get it over with and prepare for next year.”
Jermaine Dye faces an uncertain future
S-T: “I don’t really have a feeling,” Dye said of his future with the Sox. “Right now, I just want to get home and get away from baseball like I always do. Take two weeks off and re-evaluate the situation. Then get into my program like I always do.”
WS.c: “I don’t really have a feeling,” said Dye of his White Sox future. “I’m just ready to take a little break and do the same things you do every offseason – get home, get some rest and get off my feet. That’s about it.”
Seriously, the Sox were terrible
S-T: “You’re always in until you’re eliminated,” Guillen said. “I made it clear, the way we were playing, we’re not going anywhere. I said no matter what Detroit does, we’re not going to be in the pennant race because the way we play. We’re killing ourselves. Our offense was very bad for three weeks, and that’s the reason [we are] where we are.”
WS.c: “Our season? Our season was very bad,” Guillen said after Detroit’s win left his third-place team seven games behind the Tigers. “We weren’t playing good baseball for a period of time. That’s the reason we are going home. That’s why our season was short.”
See kids? Don’t let The Man dictate your sports stories to you because He’ll totally twist and turn words into advancing his own agenda. Access! Free press! First Amendment issues! Trade rumors! We need our man in the inside, people. Need him. He’s the only one to set the story straight.
At the same time, this is where the discussion always gets good, in the differences between sports reporting, sports journalism and sports writing – three interlinked pursuits, each a mighty challenge in its own right, but all three highly divergent occupations usually drawing nothing but scorn and ridicule from the other two. The sports reporter is seen as a blowhard simply yelling platitudes to an increasingly stupider audience; the journalist viewed as an outdated relic of a news era well past its expiration date; the sports writer looked upon as the pompous jackass trying to elevate low culture into some form of high art. And the thing is, they’re all really just facets of the exact same job, all means to the exact same end; to favor one over the other would be like saying violinists are somehow more valid than pianists – each does essentially the same thing, merely employing a different toolkit than the other.
Gary Smith has his glorious, winding poetry; Joe Posnanski has his astute conversationalism; any number of beat reporters have their notepads and press passes. And for what? To take something active and turn it into something passive, something in motion etched forever in ink and 10-point Times New Roman.
Thing is, two of those can’t be commoditized. But, you know, someone’s probably working on that.