Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The internet and the McCourts.

I recently spoke with the Riverside Press-Enterprise's Jim Alexander for a piece he did on the role of the internet community in shaping the public's perception of the McCourt divorce (and ownership in general). In addition to some very flattering coverage of our little corner of the internet, Alexander wrote:
Maybe Frank McCourt picked the wrong decade to buy a baseball team.
If the underfinanced but constantly spinning Dodgers owner were in charge in the '70s or '80s, or even the '90s, he might have pulled it off. People would have grumbled, but it would have been a thousand water cooler conversations in search of a groundswell.
But as we undertake our annual examination of the State of SoCal Sports, the land has shifted under our feet. And the running debate about McCourt's ownership offers a particularly instructive example of how the Internet age has made being a fan more egalitarian than ever.
Alexander went on to note numerous examples of how the enlightened, empowered fans of today can call ownership to task much more effectively than the proletariat of the past. And I think his central point is both accurate and relevant: new media has changed the relationship between teams and fans. The evolution of this relationship has been, to me, a two-step process. 

The first step--the threshold step--is unprecedented access to information. Statistics, rumors, gossip, financial details, injury information...there is no question that, by no more virtue than the ability to read and operate an internet browser, even the casual fan today has a wealth of information at his disposal. And I think it's crucial to note that this most important step is still largely accomplished by the traditional media. I don't want to think about trying to operate this site without Dylan Hernandez's and Bill Shaikin's work. At best, the site would be too speculative to have any real value. The next key stage of the team/fan evolution occurs when people make use of this newly-available store of knowledge. 

Some, like so many of my colleagues at The Hardball Times and the folks at Fangraphs, Baseball Think Factory, and countless others, bring water to a boil, throw the numbers in the cauldron, and perform works of magic. The Rosetta Stone of baseball analysis is the developing answer to a single question: what makes one person better at baseball than another? As a baseball community, we learn better answers to this question with each passing week. And as our understanding of this most basic concept grows more refined, so too can our application of this knowledge to roster construction, draft strategy, trade evaluation, and future projection. 

Other people use the growing depository of information to acquire a better understanding of what's happening off the field. If I might offer three pieces of advice to everyone who is (or ever expects to be) in the public spotlight, they are: (1) Be consistent in both words and actions; (2) Be honest, even if it means acknowledging that you cannot answer a question; and (3) Get ahead of the negative and behind the positive. With all the information available for public consumption, inconsistencies raise red flags, lies beg exposure, and how people manage facts is every bit as important as the facts themselves. Armed with easy access to records of the past and the excellent reporting of breaking news, motivated folks can become the focal point of a groundswell which might have formerly lacked shape and direction.

It is this two-step process in the evolution of the team/fan relationship which makes it difficult for me to understand the tension between traditional media and new media. Most blogs and internet magazines don't exist to compete with traditional outlets. I know this one doesn't. The existence of Dodger Divorce isn't a reflection of the failure of the Los Angeles Times or ESPN or any other source. Rather, we gather in this little corner of the internet because those outlets enable a specific, nuanced discussion of a niche topic.

It's entirely economic; traditional media cannot devote the many thousands of words I can to the subject, and I can't devote the many thousands of hours of background and reporting the newspapers can. In another era, Dodger Divorce might have taken the form of a meticulously-researched book, released years after the fact. While interesting and informative (I hope!), such a product would be largely backwards-facing. Today, we can digest the news in real time, using traditional reporting in conjunction with our growing community sophistication to shape our evaluation of events to come.

The internet did not doom the McCourts. The truth has a pesky way of surfacing; the story would have been told. What's different today is that scrutiny is immediate, and public opinion can shift instantly. The evolving system for the discovery, dissemination, and digestion of information places great responsibility on public figures to strive to do the right thing the first time, and acknowledge shortcomings as they occur. Shapers of public opinion--from reporters to bloggers and everyone in between--have a duty, too, to understand that their work affects both the subjects they cover and the people they reach. Lastly, the end-user of the process should be cognizant of the process itself, ready to scrutinize it as critically as the information it produces. In one key respect, at least, today's world isn't all that different from the heyday of the traditional media: the system works most efficiently when irresponsible decision-making at every level draws negative consequences. 

And make no mistake: it's irresponsibility that might have doomed the McCourts. The fallout just comes a little quicker these days.


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