Following in the steps of our earlier recap, here’s a look at the final day of Blogs With Balls 5, which wrapped up with several interesting panels and presentations Saturday in Toronto. Panel videos are available here, while full transcripts of my notes will be posted here by the end of the week. Let’s get to it.
Friday’s panels hit plenty of large targets that probably had at least some relevance for everyone in the room, from social and video content to what some of the industry’s biggest sites are doing, and even the single-sport panel on the NFL was focused on what’s unquestionably North America’s biggest sport. Saturday’s panels in general were more tightly-focused on specific sports and issues, and that carried both benefits and perils. On the positive side, it allowed for deep, in-depth discussions on everything from hockey to analytics to podcasting, but that raises the spectre of having content that isn’t relevant to the whole audience.
Of course, Blogs With Balls has always been an event where not everyone goes to every panel, and that’s perfectly fine; you just want to make sure you’re not alienating your audience with too many things that don’t appeal to them. The organizers seemed to pull off the balancing act here well, though; judging from both my own impressions and feedback from others I chatted with, the range of subjects tackled Saturday meant at least something appealed to most people.
This was perhaps the most specifically-focused day of Blogs with Balls panels I’d seen over BWB 2, 3, 4 and now 5, and that was a substantial risk, but it seemed to work out. Perhaps that says something about blogs at the moment; maybe there are less overarching issues that apply to all of us (for example, despite the flare-ups these last few weeks, it would still seem silly to spend an entire panel discussing the long-dormant bloggers/mainstream media war), but perhaps we’re established to a point where we can get down to in-depth discussions of what appeals to us, and perhaps we can even learn something from the areas that aren’t directly applicable to our own work. To find out, let’s get to the panels.
The Rise of the Connected Living Room:
Kyle Bunch, Blogs With Balls (moderator)
Chad Mumm, executive director, Vox Studios (SB Nation/The Verge/forthcoming video game site Polygon)
Bill McCandless, VP (video programming and production), Bleacher Report
Dave Brown, strategic partner manager for TV and film content, YouTube
Joe Ross, director of content, The Score
Pete Czerwinski, Furious Pete YouTube channel (and others)
Colin Orchid, SI.com senior producer (video)
Recap: The session started with a discussion of what the different panelists are trying to accomplish with their video efforts. Mumm said Vox Media’s focus is on developing stuff that utilizes the talented cast of writers at SB Nation and The Verge, many of whom he defined as “web-native talent” (or people that got their start writing online). “We want to kind of empower folks to tell good stories in video,” he said. For McCandless and Bleacher Report, the focus is more on the subject matter. “We tend to aim for things that aren’t on television,” he said. “We look for gaps.”
Brown said YouTube wants to help blog sites and leagues grow their audiences, but their key focus is just providing top-shelf material that will appeal to viewers. “Ultimately, we’re looking to serve the consumer with quality content,” he said. Ross noted The Score approaches video from a standpoint of boosting their own blogs, while Czerwinski talked about the four YouTube channels he runs and Orchid said he wants to try and deliver stuff that fits with SI’s overall focus and quality standards.
The panelists then got into a discussion of how video content and dedicated video channels have changed sports, and Brown made the crucial point of immediacy; instead of sitting through an hour-long newscast or sports highlight show for the segment you want, you can jump immediately to the content you’re looking for online. That allows viewers to focus more intensely on what they care about, whether that’s a league, team, or even an individual player. The amount of video out there makes it harder to stand out though, so each site has a different way of trying to draw an audience.
For SB Nation, that’s the specific voice of their YouTube channel, which Mumm described as a mix of commentary and finding new “edgier” stuff not covered by the mainstream media. He cited their videos discussing Brendon Ayanbadejo’s pro-gay marriage stance as an example.
Logically, a discussion about audiences segued into one regarding the measurement of those audiences. Mumm said comments are a key way of tracking the interest in a video for them, while McCandless is more interested in reshares. He said a problem with comments is that many of those commenting won’t watch the whole video and some may not even watch it at all. By contrast, although shares don’t specifically show that someone’s watched the whole thing either, they show that they’ve found it interesting enough to pass on to their friends. “A real success is how someone else distributes it for you,” he said. Brown concurred, saying “Embeds is a huge measure of interactivity.”
Orchid said Sports Illustrated’s received lots of negative feedback over long ads at the start of videos, so their current approach is to create a whole branded page rather than relying exclusively on in-video ads. He said they still have to be careful with how their sponsorships are presented, though. “We need to live up to the standards of Sports Illustrated.”
Orchid said one interesting thing they’ve found is support for long-form content, traditionally a strength of the magazine but something many video gurus warn against creating. He cited SI’s High School Underdogs video series as proof people will watch long-form videos if they’re good.
An interesting shift within the video landscape is how many online videos are now watched on phones or tablets, not computers. Brown said 40 percent of YouTube’s hits are currently on their mobile platform. That dovetails with the first day’s discussion on the rise of mobile, and it’s something content creators are going to have to think about; will their videos work as well on phones as they do on computers?
The panel discussed the importance of authenticity and persevering through criticism, with Czerwinski saying “The trolls and the haters out there on YouTube are relentless,” and they finished with a discussion of what’s next for online video. Brown said YouTube is proof that unconventional content can succeed (such as Epic Meal Time) and that great content can come from anywhere; he highlighted the amount of popular videos from Canadian producers. “It’s amazing what Canada’s done in terms of exporting their content to the rest of the world,” he said.
The panelists also talked about the chance of a web-only outlet gaining broadcast rights for a sport, with Brown saying that seems unlikely in the near future, but YouTube’s done very well with broadcasts of more niche sports like sailing. “It never seems to amaze me what content does well on the platform.”
Thoughts: Much of what was discussed here was really only applicable to those sites actively creating video content, but the discussion was notable to us outsiders to gain a perspective of how companies like SI, SB Nation and Bleacher Report are approaching their video content. As we saw with the “Next Worldwide Leader” panel on Day One, there’s plenty of similarities between the approaches, but each group also has its own particular focuses: SI’s background makes professionalism key for them, SBN’s community-centric approach makes comments a crucial part of their strategy, Bleacher Report’s looking to spread their content as widely as possible and The Score’s trying to use video to beef up their own blogs. None of those approaches is necessarily more wrong or more right than the others, and each group’s probably using all of them to some extent; it’s just particularly notable how organizational focuses can affect a subgroup like video. It was also interesting to have Brown and Czerwinski here, as they brought very different perspectives to the table; Brown’s insight from YouTube’s perspective was notable, while Czerwinski’s advice from the content-creation side might have been the most usable material the panel offered for independent or small-site bloggers.
Puck That: The State Of The Hockey Media:
Greg Wyshynski, Yahoo! Sports/Puck Daddy (moderator)
Elliotte Friedman, CBC
Dave Lozo, NHL.com
Barry Petchesky, Deadspin
Justin Bourne, The Score/Backhand Shelf
Hockey’s obviously in an unusual spot right now given the NHL’s lockout, so Wyshynski started things off by asking the panelists how they cover the sport when there’s no NHL action. Brough said one of his site’s big focuses so far has been players signing in Europe, but said he’s going to be crunched for material later on in the year if the lockout keeps going. “It’s going to be tough.”
Friedman said he’s chasing lockout stories for now, but his experience during the last lockout in 2004-05 of covering other, smaller things for CBC (bobsleigh, squash, agricultural fairs and so on) seems likely to repeat itself, while Lozo said working for the league website puts him in a particularly difficult position, as they can’t do too much on the lockout negotiations themselves, so they have to rely on things like retrospectives. “If you go to our site right now, we’re doing a lot of 92-93 stuff,” he said. “It’s a weird situation. … Right now, there’s nothing for me to do.”
The other panelists saw it somewhat differently. Petchesky said that oddly enough, a lockout means there may actually be more NHL stories worthy of coverage on Deadspin. “Any work stoppage is a hell of a lot of a bigger news story than anything that happens on the ice,” he said. Meanwhile, Bourne said Backhand Shelf is eclectic enough that they can cover junior hockey, European games, the AHL or even just do statistical or historical analysis of past NHL games. “I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “We’re going to be okay content-wise.”
A thorny aspect with labour issues like this is the ties between media and leagues, and several of the panelists have to deal with those on some level. CBC and NBC are NHL broadcast rightsholders, while Lozo’s job working for the league obviously affects what he can do. Lozo said the NHL.com staff are trying to be as fair as possible in their lockout coverage, however. “We try and do just a straight news story where you have each side in the story,” he said. However, high-level executives are involved in approving those stories. “It needs to get vetted by people 20 pay grades above me,” Lozo said.
Brough said his bosses at NBC have never attempted to interfere with their lockout coverage. “We’ve never been told to spin for the league,” he said. “We’re just going to report what’s being said.” Brough said Pro Hockey Talk isn’t going to editorialize against the owners and commissioner Gary Bettman the way other sites have done, though. “Deadspin can probably take a bigger run at Gary Bettman than we can.”
Friedman said CBC doesn’t interfere with his coverage. He said he has a bit of a personal bias in lockout coverage, but he tries to suppress it. “I have a bias, I admit it, I lean slightly towards the players, but I work hard to make sure it doesn’t come out in my writing,” he said. He added that he’s inevitably going to make some enemies on both sides, though. “The amount of good relationships I have after this is going to be fewer.”
Kevin-Paul Dupont’s anti-blogger rant came up, and led the panel into a discussion on accountability and credibility. Wyshynski said “I think the accountability thing’s a bit of a canard that’s been thrown out there but isn’t true any more,” and Bourne said credibility comes from more than just traffic. “Traffic is a poor indicator of a good website,” he said. “You come to know who you’re reading and trust them. Traffic has nothing to do with it.” Petchesky said much of the mainstream/blogger debate that persists is thanks to the older ages of those keeping the gates of access, and Friedman said it shouldn’t be a debate at this point. “I think the whole mainstream media versus blogger thing is stupid,” he said. “I think the mainstream media and the bloggers complement each other.”
The panelists then discussed hockey blogs’ comment sections, and Wyshynski said despite the Yahoo! comments’ much-maligned status, he still occasionally finds some value there. “A lot of the comments we get on Puck Daddy are trainwrecky, I guess, but there’s good stuff too.”
After a brief segue on the popularity of anonymous, trade-rumour spreading Twitter accounts (Wyshynski said they’re prominent because hockey has so many big transactions, Lozo said it’s possible to run one of those accounts for any sport, Friedman said he doesn’t mind them as entertainment but hates chasing stories that come from them), the discussion turned to how Friedman builds his access and relationships. He said that’s from talking to players, coaches and executives personally and being able to take criticism, but also being able to shrug it off. “I think face time is the most important thing,” he said. “You have to have a thick skin and you can’t take everything personally.”
Wyshynski spun that back into a discussion of the lockout, citing Bettman’s distaste for personal criticism as a key issue. “The people you’re talking to can be some of the most thin-skinned people in the world, and the guy who runs the league fits into that category.” Brough said Bettman’s acerbic personality and the players’ feeling they can’t trust him has become the biggest issue in the lockout. “It’s become personal.” Friedman said Bettman’s done more good for the league than many will admit, but would be praised far more if he’d drop his air of infallibility. “If he’d occasionally admit a mistake, the public perception of him would be 180 per cent different.”
The panel then went on to discuss advanced stats in hockey, with Bourne saying they’re promising, but still have some key shortcomings that have to be addressed before they can be consistently trusted. “I think it’s going to take a lot of refining,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be there for a while.” Brough said what bothers him is the way some statistically-minded hockey analysts criticize both team executives and media types. “The arrogance is a little off-putting,” he said. “A GM’s job is a hell of a lot more than just picking stats and picking players. … They make it sound like everyone else is an absolute moron.”
Thoughts: This panel obviously had the chance to be rather limited in its appeal, given that a lot of the bloggers at this conference weren’t necessarily hockey fans on any level. However, there was plenty here to like for us more casual puckheads, and I heard from several non-hockey fans afterwards that they also enjoyed it. The discussions of access, rumour-mongering, labour coverage and broadcast rights affecting coverage had scope beyond just hockey, and the panelists’ familiarity with each other certainly helped make it an entertaining discussion. This also showed just how different blogs and other media outlets covering the same sport can be; these panelists are writing about a lot of the same things, but they’re coming from very different perspectives and using very different styles. That’s notable information for anyone looking to get into covering a sport where the marketplace is already crowded.
Moneyballs: Measurement and Analytics in Sports Media
Amanda Rykoff, espnW (moderator)
Michael Smith, ESPN/Numbers Never Lie
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN/Heat Index
Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders
Rob Shaw, Bloomberg Sports
Joe Fortenbaugh, National Football Post
Andrew Garda, Bleacher Report
The panel appropriately started with a discussion of “Moneyball” (book and film), and Schatz said the book made it possible for stats-focused writers to build an audience. “I don’t know if I’d have a career if not for Moneyball,” he said. He launched Football Outsiders in 2003 around the time the book was released, and got a ton of hits from people searching for “The Moneyball of football”. As he pointed out though, Moneyball’s been misinterpreted by many; the book isn’t really about specific statistics like on-base percentage or the divide between statheads and scouts, but rather about finding economic inefficiencies and exploiting them.
Shaw said that’s a key point: these inefficiencies aren’t static. “The inefficiency’s going to change,” he said. “It’s not always going to be walks.” Shaw said Moneyball encouraged many from numbers backgrounds to get into using those backgrounds on the sports front. “It opened up the door professionally to a lot of people in the number-crunching industries.”
Haberstroh said from a team’s or athlete’s perspective, stats aren’t just there to explain what happened, but to give insights they can use going forward. “Moneyball to me means using data as a weapon,” he said. “It’s finding a competitive edge that other people aren’t exploiting.” He said in the NBA, players like LeBron James have started doing this, citing an example where Shane Battier told James the data supports letting Carmelo Anthony shoot long two-pointers and James started doing so as a result. “There’s a lot of use for analytics in storytelling and to win on the field,” Haberstroh said. “The NBA is just getting started. If LeBron’s using advanced stats, that tells us how far we’ve come.”
Fortenbaugh said a crucial part of using statistics is ensuring that you’re telling the whole story, not cherry-picking to support a preconceived argument. “Anyone can build an argument and find a stat to support it,” he said. “The key is to find the right stat.” Garda said he thinks Football Outsiders does an excellent job of presenting statistics in context. “They’ve got the numbers, but then they explain why the numbers exist.”
Schatz said it’s important to recognize that just pointing out a problem from a statistical side (for example, the Bears’ poor blocking) doesn’t necessarily fix it. “The stats help you identify what’s going on,” he said. “You still need scouting and coaching to figure out how to change it.”
Haberstroh said Jason Brough’s comment on the hockey panel about the arrogance of statistics people was interesting, though, as he sees something similar from old-school writers who like bashing stats. “There’s also an arrogance on the other side.”
Smith had an interesting perspective, as he’s a co-host on ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie, which started as a numbers show and has largely changed into something else. (Smith didn’t reference this specifically, but it’s interesting that Numbers Never Lie personality Rob Parker was recently trolling statistics people on Twitter. That would seem to say a lot about where the show’s gone to.)
“Numbers Never Lie was initially conceived and dubbed as the fantasy show,” Smith said. “It now is a debate show, like most other shows on ESPN. … I hate to say it’s not about analytics, but it’s not about analytics.” Smith admitted the title’s a little deceiving given the show’s current format. “The show Numbers Never Lie does give kind of a false impression,” he said. “Numbers are the flavour of the show, but not the focus of the show.” He said he’s personally very much into the statistics movement, but it’s hard to sell it to the masses. “We’re in the information age with so many people who don’t want to embrace information,” Smith said. “I’m about analytics. … If you’re not embracing analytics, you’re a fool.”
Smith said there’s definitely an audience for a hardcore stats show based around intellectual debate instead of loud arguments. “There’s a segment of the population that wants to turn on the TV and not just see people yelling,” he said. However, he said ESPN’s research determined most of their viewers didn’t want to watch a show that frequently used statistics that had to be explained to them. “For that reason, Numbers Never Lie got away from the hard analytics.”
Smith said one problem is that sports analysis still carries some of the high school cliques, including jocks (former players), cool kids (outspoken analysts/personalities) and nerds (statistics types). Schatz said that’s starting to change on the team side, as many ex-players currently serving as general managers have embraced analytics, and he’s optimistic it will happen on the TV side as well. “It would be awesome to have some ex-player analysts embrace stats the way some ex-player general managers have.”
Fortenbaugh said one big way to sell statistics is using them to predict what will happen rather than just explain the past, but Schatz said a problem there is that even the best numbers still carry substantial uncertainty. He said even Football Outsiders’ top projections can still fail about 33 percent of the time, which is why he doesn’t usually make bold predictions. Haberstroh agreed with that approach, but said it represents one of the reasons advanced stats haven’t sold well on TV. “There’s the rub, because what sells on TV is bold proclamations,” he said.
Haberstroh said he dislikes the traditionalism many anti-analytics types espouse, and he said many of the statistics favoured by old-school writers (batting average, points per game, etc) are only used because they’ve always been used. “What if everyone was put to the Men In Black mind eraser?” he asked, arguing that people might choose more advanced, widely-reflective stats if given the chance to look at all numbers without the historical context of how they’ve been used. Haberstroh said the best stats in the world don’t mean you can just ignore watching the games, though. “The big misnomer about stats guys or people who use analytics is they don’t watch the game,” he said. “You have to.”
Thoughts: Those on the panel here had pretty solid Value Over Replacement Panelist numbers, as everyone added something to the discussion. Rykoff in particular did a nice job of stimulating discussion, spanning the participants' broadly-ranging backgrounds and interests and getting everyone involved at appropriate times, while Schatz and Haberstroh delivered key insights on how statistics affect their sports. This had the potential to be a pretty monotone panel, but it wasn't; it wasn't a group of statheads just ragging on scouts and traditionalists, but rather people actively and realistically discussing where stats are at, how they can improve and how they can best be utilized. That's a much more productive discussion than the endless stats-versus-traditionalists fights.
Jones Live! The Basketball Jones live podcast
This was essentially the guys from The Basketball Jones discussing podcasting and how they’ve built their brand from a couple of guys talking about basketball for free to doing this show as a featured podcast and blog for The Score. Melas said a crucial part of getting to where they are now was just how consistently they did the show, persevering through trips, parties, everything else in their lives and much more. “Half of podcasting is showing up,” he said, saying listeners expect regular content. “If you’re not there, they’ll find something else.” Kerby said the same applies to blogging. “If you’re there doing it every day, you’re going to get better.”
Another key element for The Jones was getting a substantial, active group of listeners, and featuring them in certain elements of the show such as live tweets and NBA doodles. “It makes them feel like they’re in the show, because they are at times,” Skeets said. Melas said that kind of audience can’t be built overnight, though. “It took a hell of a long time.” Kerby added that it’s not just about drawing a huge audience, as a smaller consistent one can be just as valuable. “If you’re bonding with people that they trust you, that’s going to be huge.”
Their third tip was boosting the technical side of your podcast. For The Jones, that meant teaming up with production guru Jason Doyle. Skeets said he sees a lot of podcasts with subpar audio and video quality, and that’s a turn-off regardless of how good the content is. “Why wouldn’t you make it sound better, look better, be slicker?” Kerby said professional presentation matters in writing, too; if your site looks good, people will take it more seriously. “If it looks professional, people treat it like it’s professional.”
Next, they talked about the challenges of working on camera. Skeets said the first comment on their test video podcast was that he looks like Beaker, prompting them to say “Maybe we should go back to audio.” He said it still isn’t easy to be completely at ease in front of the lens, but that’s not necessarily all bad. “If you get comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.”
The fifth tip covered personality and unique touches, and Melas said those are key. “People remember the smallest of things if they’re personal,” he said. “People like humans. They don't like robots. Well, they like robots a little bit, but they like humans more.”
After that, they discussed planning and preparation. Skeets said podcasts should feel somewhat spontaneous, but that doesn’t mean you just go into them without an intense plan. “It takes time to sound natural.”
The seventh and final tip was essentially that there are times to go against the other tips. “You just have to be able to go with the flow sometimes,” Kerby said. Skeets said that happened to them with their deal with The Score, as they didn’t set out with the goal of getting picked up by a media company. Their initial goal was just to land a sponsor. Melas said they were never the strongest on the business side, though. “We were terrible business people,” he said. “We were content people, we were just making it happen day in and day out.” That was a key reason why they added Matt Osten to the team. He helped them substantially from the business end and was a key part of negotiating the deal with The Score.
However, Skeets said the darkest moment for them came not long before that deal, as they were seriously considering quitting. What kept them going was just that the podcast was something they had fun producing, even while it was eating their time and not making them money. “We always enjoyed doing it,” he said.
The Jones has always had a strong international following, and that’s only expanded thanks to their syndication of some shows through Bill Simmons/ESPN’s Grantland Network. It’s a little unusual to see one network’s branded show appear on another one that’s arguably a competitor, but that’s becoming somewhat more common in the Internet world, and Skeets said The Score was fully onside, seeing it as a way to boost their audience. He said they didn’t make massive changes for Grantland, either. “We were doing that show, we didn’t really change anything,” he said. “We’d be stupid not to have that massive audience.”
Interestingly enough, that deal itself started thanks to their meeting Dave Jacoby at Blogs With Balls 3 in Chicago. Skeets said Grantland was looking for NBA podcast content, and The Jones came to mind. “We filled a need for them.”
Thoughts: This one was more of a presentation than a real panel discussion, and it was also an actual podcast of TBJ’s show, so it had a bit of a different feel than anything else on the weekend, but it was an excellent decision to go with it. The irreverent, funny style of the guys from The Jones certainly helped bring some lighter moments to the afternoon, and their tips on successful podcasting might have been some of the most widely-applicable information of the conference (especially as most of them can be directly used for blogging, too). Another attractive element of a presentation from these guys is their story of perseverance for years and their podcast’s rise from a time-consuming hobby to something that’s landed them prominent jobs and profiles. They’re one of the better blogging success stories out there, and that made them perfect for this conference.
Changing The Game: Diversity In Sports Media
Jemele Hill, ESPN (moderator)
Cyd Zeigler, president and co-founder, Outsports
Graham Watson, Yahoo! Sports/Dr. Saturday
Keith Clinkscales, president, Shadow Mediaworks
Tyler Tumminia, senior vice president, Goldklang Group
Patrick Allen, Fansided/Arrowhead Addict
This was a very different panel from the rest of those presented this weekend in terms of subject matter, and that was reflected in the intro from Don Povia, one of the Blogs With Balls organizers. He said they’d toyed with the idea of addressing diversity issues before, but found it tricky given the conference’s efforts to be a neutral space for bloggers, different companies and more. “We always pride ourselves on being Switzerland,” he said. However, there had been steps in that direction at Blogs With Balls 4 in New York last year, including a panel on women in sports and Jemele Hill quizzing Deadspin’s A.J. Daulerio on why they didn’t have a black writer. Povia said diversity in sports media’s long been something he’s felt strongly about trying to encourage, and he and the other organizers felt the time was right to put this together, especially given recent issues that have arisen around race, gender and orientation.
Hill started off the panel by praising old media organizations, saying they clearly had faults but always had diversity procedures and hiring protocols in place, something she feels is missing in some parts of the blogosphere. “Something they always had in place was a structure to find and diversify.” She then quizzed each panelist about their background and what they were doing there.
Clinkscales, a former ESPN vice-president who’s now running The Shadow League, said his goal with the new site is to create a sports and culture destination for an urban audience, but one that’s also accessible to those from other backgrounds. “I didn’t want to do a black sports site,” he said. “I wanted to do something that would let a lot of people in.”
Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports, said his site grew to fill a niche few thought previously existed. “When we started talking about this in ‘99, nobody thought this was an issue,” he said. “Gay people didn’t think gays like sports.” He said he’s received more positive reaction from the rest of the blogosphere than he initially anticipated. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised, especially in the last year and a half,” he said.
Zeigler said the rise of sports discussions of gay marriage has boosted his site’s profile, and it’s an issue he expects to continue to take over the sports world. “Everybody in this room is going to be writing about this issue at some point.”
Watson said as a black female sports blogger, she feels like a bit of an anomaly. “Females in sports writing in general are pretty rare,” she said. "Finding a female sports blogger is like finding a unicorn. …Finding a black female sports blogger is like finding something even more rare.” Hill chimed in that there were plenty of women at the conference, though. “So I'm surrounded by like 20 unicorns?” she asked. Watson said what she’d like to see is people judged by their work, not by what group they represent. “If you do good work, it shouldn't matter what you look like. It shouldn't matter who you are.”
Allen said Fansided operates from a perspective of colour-blind and gender-blind hiring, but they want to go even further beyond that to attract diverse perspectives. “How can I open the door and say ‘I want to know that you’re a woman. I want your perspective’?” he asked.
Tumminia, whose group owns several minor-league baseball teams, said the challenge for her was breaking into the baseball world initially. “My ceiling wasn’t so much in the game, it was in trying to get into the game,” she said. “I’m just trying to kill it and succeed. That’s all I want to do.” She said she thinks skills are more important than what background you’re from. “I really do believe it’s knowledge that gets you to where you’re going to be at.”
Hill said lots of blogs started off as small-scale organizations, but many are getting to the point where they’re reasonably-sized companies now and should perhaps be making larger efforts at diversity hiring. “Bloggers kind of started out as rebels, but you’re mainstream now,” she said.
Zeigler said small blogs don’t necessarily have the luxury of employing vast amounts of people, though. At Outsports, which is run by two white gay men (Zeigler and CEO Jim Buzinski), their goal is to represent other viewpoints by consulting with advisors who come from different perspectives, and having people they respect who will call them out if they’re missing something crucial.
Clinkscales said diversity in the employee ranks isn’t just a nice idea; it can also help open new markets from a business standpoint. In particular, he said sports are fueled with an “urban marketing tinge”, so representing an urban perspective can be valuable. “That culture is something you want to bring in.” Clinkscales said there’s a fine line to walk, though. While The Shadow League wants to cover sports from an urban perspective, they don’t want to turn potential readers away by saying “this isn’t for you.” “If a white person clicked on a site, you would never want to put up a sign, put up a 404 saying 'You can't come,’” he said.
Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t want to try to fit in with regular culture, though. If anything, they’re motivated to try and push the boundaries a little more to start further discussions and at least partially move the goalposts of what’s considered acceptable. “Part of what we do is be really gay,” he said.
Watson said a challenge of sports coverage is that some people will see anything as racist or offensive. One of her writers, Frank Schwab, is a white male, and he wrote a story on (black) West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith that called him “remarkably intelligent.” Watson said she got a raft of e-mails complaining about that and calling Schwab a racist, but she saw it as a perfectly-legitimate thing to write about a quarterback regardless of race. “You’re always going to get that faction of people who just want to be contrary,” she said.
Watson said personally, she tries to treat all the athletes she covers in the same manner. “I don’t seek out the story about the white athlete, the black athlete or the gay athlete,” she said. “We try and treat everyone all the same.” She said covering college football as a black woman’s interesting given the demographics of the fanbase. “The fanbase is almost all white male, which is weird, because in the NFL, it’s almost all black male,” she said.
Tumminia said she does think we’ve seen substantial progress for women and minorities, in the hiring ranks and beyond. “I do think we have made strides over the years,” she said.
Clinkscales said female and minority journalists sometimes have to make choices between advocating for their group and being a fair journalist, and he said he recommends the latter. “There are times when you can be a very good journalist but not a great black man, and there are times when you can be a very good black man but not a great journalist,” he said. “You have to stay true to the craft. …Make sure you’re a journalist first.”
Aaron Schatz asked the panelists for their thoughts on increasing diversity in the statistics realm, saying “We really need more women and people of color in the stats community. It's all white guys."
Hill said part of that might be thanks to opportunity barriers, as a lot of minorities in particular who might have the math skills to do statistics work may have more student debt and feel they have to take jobs that are immediately more lucrative. She said she personally had a hard time deciding to pursue journalism, as she came out of school with a lot of debt and was contemplating doing something more financially rewarding.
Zeigler said what’s great about the blogosphere is that it lowers the entry barriers and can give more people a voice, though. He said even if you start writing just as a hobby pursued in conjunction with a regular career, opportunities may come along that overcome the barriers you face. “Most of the people in this room have started making nothing,” he said. “That’s the beauty of blogs is we all have that opportunity to find that voice, find that niche.”
Thoughts: This was a difficult panel to analyze. The existence of the panel alone is a very solid move, as these are conversations well worth having, and there were excellent points made on a wide variety of fronts. Watson’s comments about judging people by their work and treating everyone fairly, Clinkscales’ thoughts on the business benefits of bringing diverse perspectives to the table, and Zeigler’s commentary on how even small blogs can make efforts towards representing different perspectives all stood out as particularly notable, while Tumminia’s experience breaking into the baseball world and Allen’s thoughts on hiring policies were worthwhile too.
However, while Hill made plenty of excellent points of her own, choosing her as the moderator gave the panel a bit of an odd, sometimes out-of-sync feel. Most of the conference’s moderators seemed to go with the flow and follow up on interesting points raised, and while they injected their own opinions at times, it usually felt more like points complementary to what others were saying rather than points made for their own sake. From this corner at least, Hill’s tactics seemed quite different; she dominated much of the conversation, started most topics with clear pronouncements of her opinion on the subject, and even declared other panelists’ views as correct or not. In particular, Allen’s comments about Fansided wanting to do more than just treat everyone equally: Hill’s response, which I unfortunately didn’t get in full, seemed to imply going further and actively hiring minorities for certain roles is the only acceptable policy. It's certainly a policy, but it isn't necessarily beyond debate.
That kind of advocacy for a particular position under discussion is something you don’t see from most moderators, and from here at least, it suggested Hill might have made a better panelist than a conversation-steerer. Her views are well worth hearing, but the way she ran the discussion made it feel much more preordained than spontaneous, which isn’t always desirable at these sessions. Still, this was a panel well worth having, and the overall takeaways from it were certainly positive.
Overall thoughts on the conference:
This version of Blogs With Balls definitely reached the heights of the previous three I’ve attended, and in some ways, it went beyond. The pre-conference focus of how far blogs have come was definitely borne out by the panels; this was a conference discussing where blogs go from here and how they can further build their influence, not one on blogs versus old media or the troubles bloggers face getting access. (Those were extremely worthwhile subjects in Vegas back in 2009, but those battles have now largely been won.) Instead, this was about the brave new world for blogs, from social to video to podcasting, sport-specific issues and diverse perspectives.
Day One’s Next Worldwide Leader panel was a particular highlight; while the organizations represented may not be ready to take on ESPN in the TV ranks, they’re all doing exciting things, many of which are on the blogging side. That panel (and others throughout the weekend) also showed that while there’s plenty of similarities across sites, each of those organizations approaches the web very differently, promising for those of us who like to believe there’s never one right answer to anything. Overall, it was a remarkable conference, and one that not only reflected the exciting place blogs are at, but one that also provided some answers on the perhaps-even-greater things to come.