Monday, March 30, 2009

Harrington: Part One

All right, here is the promised first part of my chat with Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. It's kind of long, even by my standards, but hopefully you find it at least mostly worth your time. I think most of the abbreviations used here are pretty easily decoded but for the record, TBN = The Buffalo News, SE = Sabres Edge, Sully = Jerry Sullivan. Also, I have to give credit to Kate for a few of the questions about how TBN's blogs have affected the paper. While reading this, please keep in mind that I'm not a real journalist. The italics are me, the non-italics Mike.

Here we go...

Since this is a blog and you're kind of the blog guy at TBN, I think we should probably start there. Can you give us just a little bit of background on your history with blogs? How long have you been reading sports blogs?

My forays into the blog world actually started with message boards. Way back in about 1996 (seems like the dark ages now), I noticed fan boards cropping up for college basketball. The Bandwagon was probably my first daily read. You got to feel the pulse of fans but you also started to pick up some insider info on recruiting and the like. You'd check it out yourself but a lot of it was good info.

Then Canisius, Niagara and UB started boards too. And then basically so did every school. Blogs came a little later and I started with the big ones like Buster Olney on, the Red Sox blog at, some Indians blogs that discussed Cleveland prospects with the Bisons. One that started in 2005 that I love for content AND title is The DiaTribe. Then I joined everyone else in reading things like Deadspin and the Big Lead and they became more mainstream. I actually enjoyed making the Big Lead -- and being called an "assclown" and "moron" -- in 2007. It was almost a badge of honor.

So you were familiar with blogs when TBN started them up. When was that again?

TBN started blogs in March of 2007. I had a good handle on what I liked and didn't like already. But it took a while for us to get really comfortable with what we were doing. Initially, we had to run posts through editors which was a joke because they had to do the paper too and it would take 2-3 hours to post items. They finally gave us access and that's what got the live blogs started. It had to be instantaneous and I hammered them with that point until they saw the light.

And now? Pretty hard to argue a Sabres blog that's had 2.2 million page views in 23 months. Or high school or Bills blogs that have had over 1 million (and the high school blog is 6 months younger). There are a ton of blogs out there and that's fine. Our goal is for folks to read ours and comment on ours - and then comment about ours on theirs too.

Those view numbers are pretty amazing and any time they come up I'm surprised at how much further ahead Sabres Edge is of any of the other TBN sports blogs. What do you think the reason for that is? Despite the Sabres recent success, I'd still consider Buffalo a football town first and foremost.

I'd like to think SE has prospered because of content and I suppose part of that is true because I think we've done a good job provoking some good discussion and providing a place to go where news breaks too.

But realistically, SE is thriving because of the nature of a hockey fan vs. the nature of a football or baseball fan. Hockey fans tend to be young, upscale and very technologically literate. They sit by their computers day and night to all hours looking for whatever shreds of info they can find and they fret over the latest doings, comings and goings of the Sabres. When you're doing a blog, readers fretting is a great thing of course!

Football fans don't tend to sit by their computers nearly as much. One issue is that game day is an all-day affair, starting with their 9 a.m. chili in the parking lot. So that means they're prolly off the net from 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. on game day. Just not as tech savvy. Bottom line.

Did you just call Bills fans old and stupid?

No. Older and more drunk as they eat their parking lot chili!

I've never tried to drink and blog at the same time so maybe that does complicate things.

How happy are you with where TBN's blogs and other online content are right now?

Our online content is growing in leaps and bounds. It's light years ahead of where it was two years ago, light years ahead of where it was one year ago and should be light years better than it is at this moment a year from now. We've made huge strides in video, especially with several pieces on Flight 3407.

When you guys first started the blogs there were a lot of rumors that there was some discontent within TBN for various reasons. Has that settled down some?

There was discontent when a lot of the online element started, party because there's always discontent with change and partly because columnists felt a little threatened that so many other people on the staff were now going to have opinions on the blogs. This isn't 1979 or 1999 anymore, people. Beat writers CAN have an opinion too. And of course there were issues about more work when I already have "my regular job." Well, I don't do my job the same way I did in 1988, 1998 or, for that matter, 2006. You had to change the way you operate to incorporate blogs, video, etc. If that means one less phone call, one less e-mail, one less stroll around the newsroom while "deep in thought," so be it.

Do you think the day is coming when print newspapers are no longer in existence?

I'd like to say no. That would be a sad, sad day for society. I think a lot of newspapers will go out of print and be online only. But imagine what could happen with no newspaper - governments could run amok unchecked, agencies like the NFTA and Erie Canal Harbor would have no watchdogs, Darcy Regier and Russ Brandon wouldn't have Sully and Bucky watching over them! That's not a good thing.

Institutions need that watchdog element. Bloggers aren't ever going to be able to provide that. Despite their best-intended views of themselves, blogs will never expose wrong-doing, misuse of funds and the like. Only trained, professional journalists can. There are a multitude of examples at TBN in recent years for instance of stories that do just that. Take the newspaper out of Buffalo or any city and see how little information people have.

Well, I'd totally agree with you there. I think there's a misconception that bloggers feel like they're replacing reporters and I think most of us don't feel that way at all. I know there are stories and angles that people with access are always going to be able to get that a guy in his living room, no matter how talented that guy is, isn't going to be able to get. And that's in sports. Like you said, it's even more glaring in government and things like that that actually make a difference beyond entertainment. I think most fan bloggers really see themselves as more of a complementary piece to sports journalism as opposed to replacement.

You've been pretty open about the fact that you regularly read a number of fan written blogs. Why do you take the time to do that? Is that standard in the sports department or are you the oddball there?

I'm def the oddball reading fan blogs as voraciously as I do. I sense most of the guys in here don't want to know what the fans think on the theory they're not as informed and we're the experts. Perhaps. But I think it's exactly the main point that we should be in touch more. If I see EVERYBODY on multiple blogs talking about a topic and I'm not thinking about that topic, then I'm probably going down the wrong road and I should re-adjust.

Have you ever read something on a fan written blog that made you change your opinion on an issue? Or at least think about it in a different way? You said that you read fan blogs to stay in touch with what fans are talking about but I guess I'm wondering how many of them you think also have some real quality behind them? Are them some you read just because they're good reads?

I can't think of a specific example where I've changed my opinion but it happens all the time that I can stumble on a fan blog that presents a different point of view that can stimulate thought. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't. Right now I'm in total hockey mode so that means I have to read Top Shelf, The Willful Caboose and Bfloblog every day. Same with the message board. Those are always the best reads with the most insight. Then I would go to Cleveland Indians blogs but now I'm going to New York Mets blogs to catch up on the Bisons.

One of my favorite things about the TBN blogs has been getting some insight into the personalities of the beat writers. You were all kind of unknown before the online stuff at least to me. I know that's mostly the nature of the beast since you're the reporters and the ones who are supposed to be objective but you're also the ones whose writing the average fan reads the most.

No question people know more about our feelings now. And I don't think that people knowing some of my opinions (like that I think the Laffs are a joke or I hate the Flyers because my childhood was marred in 1975) have colored my writing. If anything, it's humanized me more.

Do you read all the comments on your blogs? Do you follow the conversation in the comment threads at other blogs too or do you just read the main posts?

I read all the comments in our blogs but sometimes not right at the moment if I'm doing other things. I make sure, however, to get back to checking out all the comments even if it's a few hours later or the next day. I'm curious for one thing and you never know if somebody is directing a question to you that you can answer. I try to absolutely make sure to read the comments on the live game blogs during the intermissions rather than waiting until after the game. I try to read the comments at other blogs as best I can but in those cases I'm most interested in what the blogger has to say rather than their comments.

Has the online stuff changed your interaction with readers at all? Has it increased? Are you more recognized?

It has totally changed interaction with readers. You would get tons of email before but there was a certain drudgery element to it and a lot of people responded only willy-nilly. And they never pushed you to interact either. I know some reporters who ignored email entirely. The online push is based on interactivity. You're supposed to interact, respond on the blogs, hold chats, try to answer email more. That's still hard because there can be so much.

As far as being recognized more, that could come with time and more video exposure. Haven't noticed it much yet but we're isolated at hockey games. Now if I was doing that kind of video and still working basketball games where I was exposed at press row, people would certainly come up to me more.

Are there any stories that wound up attracting a lot of attention from Sabres Edge that wouldn't have made it into the regular paper? Are you ever surprised by the reaction certain posts on SE get?

At this point, I would say no although that could certainly happen on another beat like, say, colleges or high schools. The print coverage still largely drives the blog. On a beat as big as the Bills or Sabres, your No. 1 priority is the paper and the blog often reacts to that. In a situation like deadline day when you're breaking news on the blog and the web first, you'll then be writing that news for the next day's paper anyway. There will be topics talked about on SE not in the paper but certainly no real stories in the blog that would be blog-only.

We're constantly surprised at the reaction to various posts. The number of comments on a post you think is interesting can be disappointing. Then you post an innocuous paragraph or two and get 60 comments. It's hard to gauge. Always keeps you on your toes.

Has blogging affected what appears in the regular sports section in any way?

One immediate impact is from time to time on a big story, we'll post excerpts from the blog in the print edition. We did it on Drury/Briere day and I saw we just did it on T.O. day. The other impact is we get far fewer letters to the editor than we used to. Most people who want to pop off about something or praise something simply do it in a blog.

While Buffalo bloggers spend most of their time writing about the Sabres or the Bills, they do also blog about the local media coverage. How aware are you and your co-workers of what bloggers are saying about you and your work?

Some of us don't read the blogs comments about our work at all. Some of us look at some of it and some of us like myself are constant self-googlers. Frankly, I don't mind at all if somebody intelligently rips me and I stumble upon it. I can be wrong too. But if I think they're wrong, I will often try to email them and explain my point of view. Too often, bloggers seem to think they know everything about the media industry and how it works and they simply don't have a clue. I don't think a slipshod lambasting should go unchallenged if a blog is way off base.

How do you feel about independent bloggers - bloggers who aren't tied to any kind of print publication and are just blogging for themselves - being in the press box? For or against?

I don't think there should be a blanket policy for them or against them. It should be easy to determine their legitimacy if they're tied to a major print publication ( bloggers, for example, are affiliated with the Boston Globe company), or a major broadcast outlet like ESPN or TSN.

But the independents are a much stickier situation. First point is easy. I would follow the NCAA's lead - if you blog on a site that includes message boards that allow any unsubstantiated rumor to be posted, you're out. Period. No message board bloggers get in to any NCAA Tournament events. That's a good start.

From that point, each blog should be evaluated on its own. My feeling is it should be no one under the age of 21 to ensure a professional working atmosphere. Then the blogs should submit copies of their work for a period of time and document their page views. If a Sabres blog, for instance, is getting 3,000 views a day and posting legitimate, intelligent points of view, I have no problem. If it has 50 views of fellow people in basements and all it says is "Lindy stinks, Darcy stinks, the Senators stink" etc, then I say no. If I see wild use of profanity in any of the posts, I would tend to drift to the no.

The press box is for trained, working professionals. Not for people to cheer on their team. If bloggers can fit into the atmosphere, I don't have a big problem with their presence. The guys from the USRT and Artvoice, for instance, have no professional journalism backgrounds but have assimilated themselves into the local media over a period of the last 7 years by showing respect for the professionals and by learning the rules of the road. Now they're part of the furniture at Sabres and Bisons games. No reason other bloggers can't follow their lead.

So if you'd been sitting in the press box in DC and Kate and I had come strolling in, you wouldn't have rolled into the fetal position on the floor while pointing wildly and screaming, "Blogger! BLOGGER!" over and over?

Nope. No blogger yells. If you've passed the mustard to get the credential and you're in there, that's all I need to know!


Heather B. said...

If you guys think of any questions you'd like answered that I didn't ask, throw 'em up here and I'll see if I can get Mike to answer them. For the record, he balked at "On a scale of 1-10, how much does Bucky Gleason hate Heather B.?" and "Bucky reads Top Shelf first thing every morning, doesn't he?" so I guess he does have limits. :P

Porky said...

Excellent stuff, Heather. Can't wait to read more.

Katebits said...

So if you'd been sitting in the press box in DC and Kate and I had come strolling in....

There's no way I would have come "strolling" in. My big plan was to enter the press box by doing cartwheels while wearing a Sabres jersey (no pants) with a small marching band in tow. :P

Interesting read! Thanks for the shoutout, Mike!

amy said...

Awesome interview, Heather! I really can't wait to read the rest. And thanks Mike, for taking the time to do this interview.