Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Beat Guys (And Gals)

From the well-informed folks at Boston Sports Media Watch, I learn my former colleague Jeff Horrigan is leaving the Herald. This is a loss for Boston readers. Jeff, who covered the Red Sox, was a damn fine beat man, and there is no higher tribute in sportswriting than that.

Beat guys (excuse the gender-specific term, but it's one used) and columnists do not always co-exist real well. I was both, if a columnist for longer than a beat guy, and it's easy to see why this is. For one thing, working a beat is about 1,000,000 times more work, and distasteful work at that, than being a columnist.

Writing and reporting are linked jobs, but they're not the same thing. A columnist job puts writing first, reporting second, a beat guy has it the other way around. Don't get me wrong, you have be able to do both in either job, but those are the priorities. The columnist, at bottom, must engage the reader by any means necessary. The beat guy has to show them something they don't know.

And that's way harder than writing. My beat was the Pats during the meltdown of the late '80s. One day I spent attending two separate bankruptcy hearings involving the Sullivan family in two different rooms of the O'Neill building. Try fitting bankruptcy law into a tabloid news hole sometime.

And football is the easiest beat by far. You're home nights. There are 10 road trips, each last ing about 48 hours. Baseball? My God, if I'd ever had to troll a clubhouse for early notes every day for a season, I'd have shot myself before the start of interleague play.

Stress? Let me relate an occurance in the 2004 season. One night in Seattle, the Sox bullpen blew a 2-run lead in the 11th inning. It was 2 a.m. Boston time, and an entire newspaper is waiting on Jeff's flash lede story. He said some very bad words about Keith Foulke, then sat down and rewrote an entire story in about 10 minutes. Afterwards, it was like nothing had happened. Color me impressed, and you should be too.

It's not that being a columnist is easy, not if you care. Writing well is work-to me it was joyous work, but it's work. Thinking is work. Thinking of ways to engage with a large audience is scary work. As every reader knows, the worst thing a columnist can do is start repeating and plagarizing themselves. Believe me, that's easy to do around the 500th deadline. Every person has only so much originality inside them.

But, you get your picture in the paper. If you're inclined, you can play the local big shot, get on radio and TV. Or if you're a misanthrope like me, you at least get free golf balls at the local driving range. Most importantly, you make more money.

That's just wrong. That's backwards. It's another example of the newspaper's broken business model. Maybe once upon a time, there were writers whose thinking and way with words sold more papers. Not anymore. Not to knock my former colleague, but why on earth would a consumer pay 75 cents to read Steve Buckley or any other person they can hear for free on their car radio? The thinkers, writers, and agitators at the newspaper must compete with zillions of other folks doing it for free on the Internet. The law of probabilities means some of those competitors will be offering as good or better work for free than the paper is charging for.

I always thought of the Herald sports section as a restaurant. No fancy French place, an honest he-man's steakhouse. In that restaurant, this columnist saw himself as the onion rings. Onion rings are great. I never go to a steakhouse without ordering them. They are part of the reason people spend big money to eat something that they can make at home.

But the restaurant isn't called an onion ring house. The hefty, fat-marbled, heart-clogging hunks of USDA prime are the real reason you made a reservation. The beat guys are the steaks and chops of any sports section. They find and deliver the news. News is to newspaper as steak is to steakhouse. Simple equation.

The Herald is down a T-Bone today. This former columnist is left to ponder an odd paradox. If I ran a newspaper, I wouldn't hire me, or anyone like me. In a business under economic pressure of the worst kind, the writers, thinkers, and agitators are the frills one can do without. The product papers put out with which the Internet hordes cannot compete is facts. Facts are a time-consuming, labor-intensive, horrifically expensive product, and no, you can't find them all on Google.

God help me, if I owned a newspaper, it wouldn't have columnists. It wouldn't have editorials, and it wouldn't have that supremely useless institution, the op-ed page.

It would however, have every Jeff Horrigan-style beat guy I could get my hands on.


At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Horrigan was a good writer, but can't think of one story that he "broke" in his time covering the Sox.


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