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Web pick of the week: Nats Insider

by Matt Smith

Web-PickThis week’s web pick is a blog about the Washington Nationals.  Now, don’t head off somewhere else just yet.  A blog about the Nationals might not sound like a particularly inspiring choice, but this is a blog with a difference. 

Nats Insider is written by a guy called Mark Zuckerman.  Up until recently, he was the Nats’ beat writer for the Washington Times.  Then the Times decided to cut 40 per cent of its employees, including all of those working in the sports section. 

It’s a story that is sadly become all too familiar as newspapers the world over struggle to come to terms with the challenges they face in this digital age.  The internet should be the perfect platform for news corporations, allowing them to publish scoops at the click of a button and cutting out a lot of the downsides and costs of producing a printed product.  However, just like the music industry, they’ve treated the medium as an amusing sideshow for the last fifteen years or so.  Newspapers are now trying to work out how they can make money out of something that people have got used to receiving for free.  All the while, most newspapers are seeing their circulation fall and the reaction in many cases to a reduced income is to reduce expenditure on journalists and editors, the exact same people capable of producing content that people are prepared to pay for. 

Beyond the sympathy for people losing their jobs, we should care because local writers can take you inside a clubhouse and give fans unique insights into a team, while also retaining a certain amount of independence(*).  MLB.com is a good website and I like most of the beat writers they have, but ultimately they are working for MLB and any criticisms they have can only be taken so far.  In contrast a local journalist has more scope to make valid criticisms.  If the fans need answers, they are prepared to ask the questions to get them.  Without the independent beat writers, we would be left with only the official line that MLB wants us to hear.

* It’s never complete independence, mind you.  To a certain extent, you have to play by a club’s rules if you want to retain your access to the players. For example, Leeds United, under the ever-loveable Ken Bates, have banned newspapers and journalists that have been critical of them in the past. 

The value that many fans place on quality beat writers was recognised this week at Nats Insider.  Zuckerman recently started the blog as an outlet for his coverage of the Nationals and the positive early response, including visitors from here in the UK, encouraged him to set his sights on covering the team’s Spring Training camp in Florida.  The only snag was that he needed at least $5,000 to cover the trip.  So, Zuckerman put the idea out there, told visitors what coverage they could expect if he was able to get to Florida and the public responded.  At time of writing, his appeal had reached over $9,000.

Zuckerman’s plan captured the imagination of many, beyond simply the core of Nationals fans who will ultimately read his blog.  It would therefore be a jump to conclude that this shows there is a clear business model that would allow recognised writers to earn a living writing about local teams via the internet.  Still, it’s an interesting thought and there are people on both sides of the globe seeing if they can make it work.  Regardless of the format, there will always be an audience willing to pay for unique, quality writing.  Offering the sort of in-depth coverage of individual teams or regions that the mass media corporations do not provide might be the way to go for some, even if it might not pay all of the bills on its own.

Certainly the internet is a better place for having writers like Mark Zuckerman.

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