The power of media narratives and the Bills Playoff Drought

The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Perhaps you heard.

Even with Sunday’s excruciating 10-3 wild-card loss to Jacksonville, this was incredibly important weekend for the Bills. By making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, by ending the longest playoff drought in the four major U.S. sports, the Bills have changed how they are perceived and how they perceive themselves. Now, every decision made won’t be framed by the shadow of the playoff drought. Now, the Bills can move on from Tyrod Taylor, or trade up in the draft, or make a free-agent move without having it judged by how it affects their chances at ending The Drought.

Above anything else, the Bills’ Playoff Drought demonstrates the power of media narratives.

So many stories written about the Bills over the past 17 years — from off-season moves, to training camp previews, to in-season moves, to post-season recaps - all focused on The Drought. What was needed to end The Drought? When would The Drought end? Why won’t The Drought end?

What was interesting, of course, was how the Buffalo media talked about the narrative of the drought.

It shows one of the core differences between journalists and media sociologists. Often, journalists treat a narrative as something that exists in the world and they are just reporting it. Media sociologists view narratives as a journalistic creation, something that comes out of the norms, values and routines of reporters and editors.

It’s a chicken-and-egg argument with no correct answer, but it is an interesting way to see the power of narratives in media.

On Wickersham, Wolff and media literacy

First thing this morning, as I tried to warm up in sub-zero weather, I went to Twitter and found the link I knew would be there — Seth Wickersham's look at the growing rifts within the New England Patriots

I marveled at the piece, drank in the details of the growing discord between Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. I clicked the share button and started to type out praise for Seth Wickersham's reporting.

Then I paused for a moment.

Was this really a great piece of journalism?

Or did I just think it was because I'm a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan and love any notion of things going wrong for a Patriot. Did I think it was good journalism because I liked and agreed with what was said?

You see where I'm headed with this. It's the same questions I've been asking myself all week about Michael Wolff's new book about the Trump White House.

There's an important difference to note - Wolff has been criticized in the past for playing loose with traditional jounalism ethics, while Wickersham's reporting has always been considered above reproach. Wickersham talked about his reporting on an episode of The Other 51 last summer. There is some reason to take Wolff's reporting with a grain of salt. There is no reason to doubt Wickersham's.

When we talk about media literacy, we often talk about it from the perspective of media organizations helping audience members understand how the news is made. But it's just as important for audience members to understand their own biases and their own beliefs. Would I have been as eager to share a Wickersham piece that delved into any dysfunction within the Bills' organization and call that great reporting? I like to think so, but is that true?

Media literacy, in many ways, begins with the audience.

Fast games and talkative players

Years ago, my then-5-year-old niece spent the weekend with my wife and I. I was still a reporter at the time and had to cover a pro tennis tournament one of the afternoons she was with us.

I taught her a trick. Whenever we asked her who I was rooting for, she would say in her tiny 5-year-old voice, “fast games and talkative players!”

That became my default answer for the rest of my career when I was asked who I cheered for as a sports reporter. “Fast games and talkative players.” It was my version of objectivity in sports journalism, of rooting for the story.

But in our examination of the base principles of sports journalism following Tim Layden’s piece in Sports Illustrated last week, it’s important to turn the magnifying glass inward. If I’m going to be critical of other journalists’ attitudes, I should be critical of mine.

So let’s unpack “fast games and talkative players.” On the root of it, there’s no bias there. I’m not cheering for a given team or a given outcome. I don’t care who wins or loses. Yay objectivity!

Not so much.

“Fast games.” That means I’m rooting for a certain type of game. A blowout, most likely. So that means I do not want a game with, say, a lot of pitching changes, or a match without a lot of deuce points, or extra innings or overtime. Even though that may be a better story, or a better experience for fans, I’m tacitly rooting against. it.

“Talkative players.” That means I’m rooting for a certain type of player to have a good enough game and be in a good enough mood to want to talk to a reporter after a game. I also want this player, or players, to say interesting things in interesting ways, instead of cliches. I want players to conform to my ideal rather than meeting them where they are.

Now, big picture — is this a big deal? Probably not. Is my old line a sign of bad sports journalism? I don’t think so. Am I an academic overthinking things? Probably. But while the sports journalist in me hears a funny, flip phrase I said to my young niece, the media critic in me hears someone who wants the events to conform to his narrow desires rather than accepting what happens. That doesn’t sound very objective to me.

Cuba-Rushford vs. Allegany-Limestone: Why the basics matter

From my posts this week inspired by Tim Layden’s piece in SI, it may appear that I’m 100 percent anti-objectivity, against the traditional notions of sports journalism. .

I’m not.

I don’t teach my sports writing and reporting students that it’s OK to cheer for their teams. Quite the opposite. We spend the first part of the course doing the basic, traditional game story. We start the course learning how to cover sports in a dispassionate, fair and (yes) objective manner.

Why?

Because Cuba-Rushford/Allegany-Limestone soccer.

See, my first job out of college was as a sports writer for The Times Herald in Olean, N.Y. My primary job was the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball beat writer. I went to Bonas, so this was the classic case of a young reporter having to put his fandom on hold for his job. I like to think I did a fair job covering the team through ups and downs. But it was easier to cover a beat where there were stakes, where there was an emotional investment on both the fans and myself. I knew my coverage of the team would benefit my career, so I cared. I had been a fan of that team, so I knew what it meant to cover them.

But at least half of my job was spent covering high school sports in the Twin Tiers of Southwestern New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania.

That meant covering Cuba-Rushford playing Allegany-Limestone in soccer, along with dozens of other school districts you’ve never heard of playing all manner of sports.

These are sports and games in which I had no emotional investment. My audience did, but I did not.

It’s easy to write about the things we care about.

The mark of a professional is being able to bring that same level of craft to that which we are not emotionally invested in. Because our audience does care.

Which is why we learn the basics. Which is why we learn to put our fandom aside in some cases and report on what we see and what we are told. Maybe that means rooting for a story.

The central question shouldn’t “are you a fan or are you an objective journalist?” Those are loaded terms.

The central question should be “Is your work fair and accurate?”

Normalizing mobile media?

A leftover thought from Research Wednesday.

This is a new working hypothesis of mine, but I wonder if the upheaval that mobile technology is creating to journalism practices (and journalism as a whole) is because it is more resistant to normalization than other forms of new media.

In media terms, normalization occurs when journalists adapt a new media format to the existing norms, values, and practices of news work. This was first shown by Jane Singer in her study of journalism blogs during the 2004 presidential election, and was later adapted to explain how journalists use Twitter by Dominic Lasorsa, Seth Lewis and Avery Holton. Basically, the idea beyond normalization is that journalism isn’t changed by the new platforms but rather journalism changes the new platforms to fit existing norms, practices and routines.

But I wonder if mobile technology is immune to that in a way that social media was not. The traditional ways of doing sports journalism — writing stories of a certain length and structure, having the story as the central part of journalism rather than the piece of information — do not seem to inherently fit into the mobile world. Success in this area is not going to come from taking our traditional work and cramming it into a mobile screen.

If journalists aren’t able to normalize mobile media the way they did social media, will that mean they are hesitant to adopt the new platforms? And will it hurt traditional journalism?

It’s an unformed thought, but one I’ll be spending some time with.

Five thoughts on The Athletic

I deliberately have not written much about the growth of The Athletic and other subscription-based sports journalism sites over the past few months. My podcast partner Galen Clavio and I are conducting a research study into these sites, and I want to approach this issue with as open a mind as possible. I have opinions, but I’d rather immerse myself in the research rather than react to everything that happens.

But with this week’s kerfuffle that raised the ire of the Internet Outrage Machine, here are five thoughts:

  • The comments that Alex Mather, The Athletic’s co-founder, made to Kevin Draper at The Times are at best impolite and, at worst, confirm every stereotype of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
    • That said, I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with the sentiment behind them. It reminds me of the old two-newspaper-town rivalries. It reminds of of the way Yahoo competed against ESPN for years. Competition can be a very good thing. In 21st Century media, there’s a lot of “we’re all in this together,” that it’s almost a bit refreshing to see a company go old-school and want to win. Of course, there are better ways of saying that than wishing for hundreds of people to lose their jobs.
  • Angel Rodriguez, the sports editor of the L.A. Times, had a wonderful Twitter thread about this issue this morning. Rodriguez’s main point was that too many newspaper sports sections have driven away readers with poor web design, early deadlines, laying off copy editors, etc. In an attention-driven economy like 21st Century journalism, you cannot rely on the goodwill of your readers as a business model.
  • There is a lot about The Athletic that feels like a classic Silicon Valley start-up story — the boost of venture capital, the incredibly fast growth, the brash talk. One thing that often happens in start-ups is the demand of growth from investors can change the company’s mission.
  • Netflix changed so many things in the online space. Before Netflix, the conventional wisdom was that people would not pay for online content. There’s so much free stuff, why would you pay for it? What Netflix proved is that people will pay for content if it is what they want and it is done well. That’s the lesson for The Athletic, and every other sports media outlet- if they give people good content that is well done, they will pay for it. But the content must be worth the money.