SABR panel discusses changing media landscape
Stark, Hagen and others talk about evolution of baseball coverage
PHILADELPHIA -- How does a reporter's job change when the news cycle never ends?
The Society for American Baseball Research posed that question to a distinguished media panel on Saturday at the downtown Marriott, and the answers were enlightening and expansive.
The panel featured two of the city's most tireless reporters -- ESPN's Jayson Stark and MLB.com's Paul Hagen, winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award -- and also included diverse voices like Leonte Landino, a Venezuelan reporter for ESPN Deportes, and Donald Hunt of the Philadelphia Tribune.
Stark, as gregarious in person as he comes across in print and on TV, told a few anecdotes that showed how the world has changed during his career. Once upon a time, he said, you could be content with scooping the competition in the morning paper. But now, the war of information never ends.
"It's much easier when something actually happens," said Stark. "When nothing's happening, it creates a lot of noise -- never more than the world we live in now. It's a 24-7 world, where all of us operate with no deadlines around the clock and we spread whatever we hear. With Twitter and social media, a lot of noise has spewed into the ozone -- and it's very difficult now to resist the temptation to just throw stuff out there. I don't know how many of you are on Twitter, but you'll see people actually say, 'I retract my previous tweet,' because they threw something out there and it turned out to be completely wrong. That's my goal every Trade Deadline: Never tweet, 'I retract my previous tweet.'"
Hagen, just a week removed from being feted at the National Baseball Hall of Fame for winning the Spink Award, shared his own view of the chaotic media landscape. Hagen spent nearly 40 years in newspapers before leaping to MLB.com, a late-career move that gives him intriguing perspective.
"I think the benefit -- especially for the public -- is that stuff gets out a lot quicker," said Hagen about today's media. "You can find out right away the lineups as soon as they're posted. But as Jayson pointed out, not every entity is as thorough or as strict about it as ESPN, so a lot of bad info gets out there. I think it's unfortunately incumbent on the consumer to parse things. I'm not sure that's a good thing. I think it brings down the credibility of all of us. But I think, probably, the benefits outweigh the negatives."
Both Hagen and Stark spoke about the delicate nature of maintaining a relationship with your sources, while servicing your reader with fresh information. It's not always easy to serve both masters, they said. Sometimes you have to choose which half of the mission is most important.
Stark, candid to a fault, gave the audience a direct object lesson in balancing those priorities. A few years ago, he said, he came across exclusive information that a specific free agent was meeting with a specific team at the Winter Meetings, and he texted a team executive for confirmation.
That executive didn't just reply, he phoned Stark back virtually immediately.
"He said, 'Here's the deal. You're right. This is going to happen.' And he tells me what time it's going to happen," said Stark. "He said, 'But you have to do me a favor. Please do not report this for eight hours, because if you throw it out there now, I'll have to deal with it all day. And that's not conducive to me doing my job. But if you don't throw it out there, if you call me back in eight hours, I'll confirm it and tell you where it stands.' Now, I've got to make that deal, right? When I first started in the business and we lived in a tomorrow-morning world, it was all about what was going to be in the newspaper tomorrow morning. That was easy. But in this world, it means I've got to go through the next eight hours hoping and praying that nobody I'm competing with hears this, knows this, tweets this or reports this."
How did a story like that work a generation ago? Hagen joked that he hoped the statute of limitations was up on this anecdote, and then he told the crowd how it used to be.
"In 1991, the Phillies were 12 games into the season and there was already some speculation that the manager was in trouble," said Hagen. "In talking to a few people before a game in St. Louis, I became convinced that the manager was going to be fired after that game. I spent the game writing the story that the manager would be fired. The Phillies lost that day, and I went downstairs and the general manager Lee Thomas was standing in the middle of the clubhouse. I went up to him and I said, 'Lee, I just wrote a story that says Nick Leyva is going to be fired and that next Tuesday when you play the Mets, you're going to have a new manager. Is there anything you'd like to tell me before I send this story to my office?' Lee thought about it for a minute and he said, 'Yeah. You didn't get it from me.'"
Another hurdle for today's media is instant feedback. Landino joked that criticism has become a profession in today's society, and he referenced a story from this year's All-Star break to make his point. The winner of the Home Run Derby, Yoenis Cespedes, did not speak English, and ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez asked him questions in Spanish and translated them for the TV audience.
Gomez, who was just doing his job in as professional a manner as possible, was subjected to an Internet backlash for speaking in Spanish -- a reaction that Landino just couldn't understand.
"It was the first time a non-English speaker -- regardless of where he was from -- won the Home Run Derby and got to be the guy in this interview," said Landino. "Yoenis Cespedes is a guy who just came from Cuba last year. In one year, you can't speak English well enough to have a national interview. He can say like, 'Ham and eggs. Rice and beans.' He can say basic things. He can say, 'Hello. How are you?' But he can't answer a full question, where he can make a full statement in English.
"People criticized Pedro for asking the questions in Spanish. What was he supposed to do? The guy only speaks Spanish. What was he supposed to do? Put subtitles? I don't know."
Hunt, who works for the oldest continually running African-American newspaper in the country, was asked his perspective of the changing complexion of the game. Baseball is making attempts to get more African-Americans playing the game, and Hunt is hopeful the effort will take root.
"Major League Baseball now is trying. Here in Philadelphia, we're supposed to get a Major League Baseball [Urban Youth] Academy, which would be a real shot in the arm," said Hunt. "Although we don't have a lot of African-Americans playing, in terms of statistics and in terms of numbers, there are still a lot of African-American stars in this game. Andrew McCutchen is a phenomenal player. He just is.
"Curtis Granderson. Torii Hunter. All these guys are great players. There are still stars there, it's just that the numbers are down. I think there's obviously still interest [in the community]."
So what's the next frontier for sports journalism? With all the changes that have come in the last few years, what do these men see on the horizon? If you ask Stark, he can foresee an era of specialization. Stark can remember covering a potential strike, and he thinks we could cover it better now.
"I'm not in this to cover labor law," said Stark. "That was not what I dreamed of doing when I grew up. It's incredible now the people you find yourself talking to in our business, and the kind of stories we wind up covering. It seems like every few weeks, I have to say to somebody, 'I forgot to graduate from law school this week,' or 'I forgot to go to medical school.' Medical school is a big one.
"It was labor law, and I was calling the ACLU. I was talking to the dean of the law school at Harvard during that period. It was crazy. What was I doing? I was just trying to fire my reportorial instincts and cover it the best I could. But what you're seeing now is how the media world has changed. If you're following Biogenesis, and it's probably hard to skip, you'll notice that people like me have to cover it. But at ESPN, we have an entire investigative team ... that covers that full time."