Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Cutting Edge in Pursuit of the Obsolete

I was lucky. When I was sentenced to do a Sunday NFL Notes column for the Herald back in the late '80s, only scientists working on their Nobel Prizes had ever heard of the Internet.

For a journalist, cyberspace is the ultimate power tool, an incredibly useful gadget that if you're not careful can cut your fingers off in a nanosecond. Ron Borges wasn't careful, and he lost 1/6th of his annual income's worth of flesh.

Borges usually is a fine reporter and better writer. Patriots fans hate his bizarre animus towards Bill Belichick, but that's not the issue in the two-month suspension Borges got from the Globe. Plagarism is a very bad crime in my former business. The web makes it dangerously easy to commit. One talks with a reporter in another town, double checks one's notes by checking out the friend's byline, cut and pastes the relevant facts into a story, and presto, one is busted, not for malicious theft, but for theft born from slovenly habits the web makes it easy to acquire.

In the 21st century, the words "according to" are a reporter's best friend. Anyone with time on their hands can do the same research you did, and if there's one thing society's learned from the 'Net, it's that hundreds of millions of the world's inhabits have way too much time on their hands.

This piece is not meant to defend Borges. He sinned, and his punishment seems just. It's sad, however, Borges fell into error while producing the most useless waste of space in sports journalism, the Sunday notes. The same Internet which made it easy to swipe facts has rendered Sunday notes utterly obsolete as reading matter for devout sports fans.

Anything a reporter learns on Wednesday he didn't dig up all by his lonesome is going to be common knowledge to anyone who cares long before Sunday. And if the scribe's scoop is good enough to lead the Sunday notes, he or she should've written it for the Thursday paper and/or put it on the paper's website Wednesday. If it isn't, who cares, and why bother to write it except to keep the tire ads from banging together?

Even back in my day TV and radio were taking newsy little tidbits from around the league and turning them into mid-week hoo-has. My solution was hardly original. I wrote mini-columns, made calls looking for funny stories, and fooled around with statistics. I attempted to divert more than enlighten. It was my only alternative, since my Globe competitor Will McDonough would lead his notes by calling the Commissioner and asking, "So, Pete, what's new?"

A reporter without such sources isn't going to produce Sunday notes worth the amazing space (the Globe gives each pro sport an entire clean page) they get from habit. Back in the '70s, when Peter Gammons invented the format, Sunday notes were revolutionary. But so was polyester, and people aren't wearing much of that anymore.

I'm sorry for Borges' trouble, even if he deserves it. In the final analysis, however, how much difference is there between cutting and pasting a few paragraphs from a colleague's story and sitting in on a conference call exchanging notes with him and 15 other colleagues? Either way, you wind up serving the reader pre-chewed food.

The most famous Sunday section of them all is the New York Times' News of the Week in Review. It's all analysis and perspective. The Sunday notes would be well advised to become NFL (or NBA, MLB, and NHL) of the Week in Review.

It's all they have left to offer, really. And that approach would keep reporters from maiming their professional selves with their laptops.


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