To understand the Rockies’ decision to take manager Jim Tracy’s contract status underground, you have to understand the relationship between ball clubs and old media — newspapers, radio and television.
This is difficult for most people to do because you don’t hear much about this relationship. That’s because, until very recently, you got most if not all of your information about ball clubs from old media, which are neither inclined nor equipped to examine their own role in this dance dispassionately.
As you may have noticed, things are changing rather rapidly in this respect. Many athletes now bypass the old media filter and communicate directly with their fans through new media, Twitter and Facebook being the most obvious examples. Clubs are beginning to do the same. The Broncos have taken to breaking their own news through the organization’s Twitter account or that of John Elway, the face of the front office. They have their own videographer, Chris Hall, who posts news conferences and edited video features on the team’s web site.
The Broncos also issue a media credential to a former employee and current independent blogger, Andrew Mason. Using his own resources, Mason covers the team both at home and on the road pretty much as a traditional old media beat reporter would, except that he is more comfortable with a variety of platforms — photography, videography, the written word — than most old media reporters. He posts his work on the web site MaxDenver.com.
Both the Broncos’ and Mason’s sites are aimed at the Broncos’ very substantial fan base, both locally and nationally. They emphasize the good news and minimize the bad.
The Nuggets, too, have brought news dissemination in-house in the person of former Associated Press and Rocky Mountain News writer Aaron Lopez, who tweets and writes for the organization’s web site.
To date, this self-dissemination of the news remains limited. Although the Broncos were well aware of the investigation into Spygate II in Josh McDaniels’ final season as head coach, they were not about disclose it publicly. Still, once the Denver Post broke the story, the Broncos took immediate control of it, calling a news conference the same day — a Saturday — to announce the investigation was complete and the NFL had fined both the organization and McDaniels for breaking league rules by videotaping a San Francisco 49ers walk-through at London’s Wembley Stadium four weeks before. In effect, they were announcing that the story was over before old media had a chance to sink their teeth into it.
The Broncos have become even more pro-active about public relations under Elway, who was hired a little more than a year ago. One could imagine them beating old media to the punch the next time, announcing both the infraction and resolution simultaneously, thereby providing the story as little shelf life as possible for old media to chew on afterward.
At first glance, this looks like the traditional inclination of any organization, public or private, to manage the news and minimize negative publicity, and it certainly is that. But it is also something more. It is one result of old media transforming themselves as their monopoly on information slips away.
While those of us who grew up in old media are loath to admit it, pandering to web hits — internet page views — has become a fact of the modern age. Page views drive digital advertising, and digital advertising is the key to the internet land grab.
Years ago, people in the media business had the luxury of debating whether to provide the information people needed or the information people wanted. Even then, reader surveys indicated we could not provide too much celebrity news. And they suggested we could very easily provide — and often did — more information than most people wanted about the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
But we had a monopoly on the existing platforms for news dissemination, so we got to decide. Generally speaking, we tried to strike the balance they teach in journalism schools. Many people resented this gatekeeper function, but what were they going to do? Where were they going to go?
Fast forward to today. Old media institutions are fighting for their lives amid the creative destruction of capitalism that has brought down so many old industries and delivered so many new ones. I worked for one of them. TheRocky Mountain News went under three years ago after 150 years of existence. Given such cautionary tales, the surviving institutions of old media are now focused primarily on survival.
In this brave new world, all media, old and new, are in a battle to the death for your eyeballs. As recently as ten years ago, writers had no idea how many people read this column or that one, just as advertisers had little or no idea how many of their sales grew out of any particular print or broadcast ad.
Today, thanks to the internet, we know exactly how many page views each column gets, and we have learned a few things that do not, in the end, come as any great surprise:
Provocation sells. Extreme, even absurd claims, often get more web hits than moderate, reasonable ones. Thanks to something called search engine optimization, celebrity news gets the most attention of all. If you think the amount of media attention devoted to Tim Tebow is very nearly insane, you haven’t seen the web analytics. If you saw local page view counts for anything including Tebow’s name, you would understand why so many apparently unrelated pieces find a way to throw it in there.
The web rewards extremism not necessarily because readers are becoming more extreme in their views, although they might be. Mainly, the web rewards extremism because extreme claims drive curiosity. If I write a column saying Tracy has some good traits and some bad ones as a big league manager, it will get far fewer clicks than if I declare he is either the Rockies’ savior for the next ten years or he is a joke and has no business in a major league dugout. Either of the latter claims is likely to provoke a heated dispute, preferably in the comments section of my employer’s web site. The former claim is not provocative enough to fully stimulate that partisan debate and will therefore almost certainly be less successful in attracting eyeballs to my employer’s web site.
Which brings us back to the Rockies. The Rocks have not yet been as pro-active as either the Broncos or Nuggets in managing and disseminating their own news, but they are getting there. They have begun tweeting from an organizational account and they publish the writing of correspondents who work for mlb.com on their rapidly improving web site.
More than most organizations in town, they have been battered by old media’s recognition that extreme stands attract more attention than moderate ones. When the Rocks are good, as they were in 2007 and 2009, old media lavish attention on them. When they are bad, as they were in 2008 and 2011, old media rip them as if they had never accomplished a thing.
So the decision to quit making public announcements about the contract status of their top executives and manager is just a way of giving old media fewer fat pitches to hit. After all, who else does such a thing? Does the Post announce that it is re-upping a sports editor or columnist, opening the door for the public to chime in on whether that’s a good idea? Does KOA declare how long it intends to keep me around? Does CBS4 announce the term of any anchor’s contract?
The Rocks remember well the beating they took in old media when they announced on the first day of the 2007 season that they were re-upping general manager Dan O’Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle for two years apiece. They were slapped around for weeks. What had O’Dowd and Hurdle ever done to deserve these extensions? Didn’t it prove that the organization didn’t really care about winning?
Six months later, the Rocks went to the World Series. They got no apologies. Old media were too busy capitalizing on the club’s success with special sections and special programming glorifying an organization they had excoriated earlier that same year.
This drives the owners and executives of sports organizations nuts. They see it as a total absence of accountability and intellectual honesty. Old media executives don’t much care. They believe their accountability is to the marketplace, where there’s a referendum every day.
Old media are doing what they must to survive in a world in which anyone with an internet connection and an inspiration can self-publish in an instant, a world in which advertisers have a broader array than ever before of media platforms from which to choose. In a (relatively) free market economy, old media institutions have every right to do what they feel they must to survive.
And organizations such as the Rockies have every right to chart their own course, to do what they can to avoid being punching bags. All they announced last week is that they will provide fewer artificial occasions for us to slap them around. Tracy will be employed in his current position until he’s not. Just like you or me.