The Rally: Value vs. Volume

Friday, April 26, 2013 /by

On Saturday and Sunday, I’m Rallying with Kamakshi Tandon, former editor of Tennis.com, who has just taken the plunge and started a digital magazine with a few of her fellow writers, called Tennis Journal

*****

Kamakshi,

Having started Tennis Journal, you must have felt that there was something missing in today’s tennis coverage, no? Something that you could do that no one else was doing? Tennis Magazine does have its own digital bi-monthlies—15-30—but those are quicker and more rec-based than yours will be, from what I can see.

The landscape has obviously changed in the last 10 years and is still changing as we speak. I’ve just been reading another round of articles about the death of old media. That’s not exactly news, but when I start hearing that the New York Times could cease to exist as we know it, I start paying attention again. We seem to be in one endless transition phase from print to digital, but we never actually get to the other side, and no one can figure out a business model to take us there.

From the perspective of a writer who wants to get paid to write, that’s not good news. The information that used to be exclusive to a reporter is out there for everyone. When I was researching my book, High Strung, I looked back at daily reports from the 1981 U.S. Open in the New York Times, the Boston Globe,  the Washington Post, the L.A. Times. When the reporters quoted players, it seemed unfathomable to me that, at the time, this was the only place—anywhere, in the world—where a fan could find this quote. There was no Internet, and thus no transcripts, no video of the press conference, no wire story making the rounds, no tweets from the interview room, maybe even no presser itself, just Bud Collins chatting with Bjorn Borg by his locker after a match. 

So reporters have lost much of their power, but what about the reader’s and tennis fan’s side of things? Is this a worse era for them? I’d say there have been trade-offs. I don’t feel like I’ve read anything lately that came with the access of, say, a great Frank DeFord Sports Illustrated article from the 70s, or the chapter on the early ATP event in Bologna in Richard Evans’ Open Tennis (you and I may be the only ones who remember that one so fondly), or a piece by Peter Bodo describing his trip to an AC/DC concert with Guillermo Vilas. But now there’s more daily commentary—on sites, on blogs, on Twitter—and more fan enthusiasm and knowledge to tap into. It’s often smart commentary, too. There may be less access to the players for reporters than there once was, but I feel like I know more about the sport than I ever have.

I’ve been part of that transition as well. I used to write 3,000-word features for Tennis Magazine, and still occasionally do. But there isn’t space for those all the time now, and my main job has become writing daily columns for this website. It’s more work overall, but the product is more ephemeral—you move on to something else the very next day, which I actually like. As a reader, I’ve also come to like the website model as much, or more, than the old magazine model. I still read long articles in the New Yorker, but most of my reading, on all topics, comes in column form on the Internet. Those seem to fit into my daily life better. The old DeFord-style bonus feature can seem somewhat portentous by today’s speedier standards of writing and reading. The last time I tried a Gary Smith long-read in SI, I felt like it was over-written.

What do you think of today’s tennis writing compared to the old days? We seem to have moved from the Big Story from on high, to a livelier online conversation about the game.

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Hi Steve,

Following tennis now is certainly very different from just a few years ago. You can watch so many more matches—no more hoping a TV channel will show something that week or happen to pick a match you want to see. There's much more variety in coverage—newspapers, but also websites, blogs, photos, social media from players and so on. And perhaps the biggest difference is the extent to which anyone can participate themselves—on a message board, social media, and by blogging.

The experience is fuller now, and you can get closer and much more involved. There's a lot of fun, detail and shared community. If you want to follow tennis all day, every day, you now can. The only thing is that if you want to stay on top of things, you also kind of need to follow all day, every day. I began experiencing this recently while I was back in school, when there would be periods when I had to switch off and concentrate on other things for days or weeks at a time. Catching up wasn't easy, wading through the backlog of tweets and posts and piecing everything together. And tennis is just as much about the quiet watching of a match in the sun or looking back at a tournament and taking in everything that happened. (And occasionally, you might want to take a break and do something else.:)

You should be able to do those things too, without worrying that you won't see a can't-miss quote or laugh-out-loud quip.

As far as journalism goes, it's all about making the form fit the function. One of the best things about the Internet is that it allows for that. I started the Ticker back when I was editing Tennis.com because I felt there was, firstly, a lot of tennis information that came out daily but was hard to find unless you were looking in a lot of places. Secondly, a lot of it was in stories written for general readers, which meant most of it was background and just a couple of lines were new and useful information. So a section with frequent updates of just a line or few seemed like a good way to get out this kind of information.

But not everything can be short—some stories, players, and issues are more complicated or obscure and need more background and details. The Internet is good for this too. The problem is that they take more effort and resources. One big change in print media online is that you can see how many people are reading any given story—useful, but it also means that coverage has become more numbers-driven. Especially when you're talking about an advertising-supported outlet. Big features often do well, but not well enough to make up for the several short stories that could be done in the meantime.

You still get quality research or thematic pieces in newspapers and blogs—there was an observant piece in the Heavy Topspin blog earlier this year about the number of challengers going to 21 in the first quarter of this year, down from 30 last year; one in USA Today testing players' knowledge of the rules; yours about Miami's position in today's schedule, and plenty of others if I go back through the archives.

But there's the real question of how to make it work on a more regular and detailed basis. For example, I wrote a backgrounder on tennis and doping for ESPN.com a few months ago. It took a couple of weeks to get the interviews and writing done (and some re-writing, which more complicated topics often require). And it involved using some of the background knowledge I've acquired over the years as well. I'm happy to do pieces like this, and got quite a bit of good feedback on it (except for a few sighs about how long it was). But they can only be run for a day or two, and in that situation I can't take two weeks over stories very often.

So one way to do it is on a subscription basis, using reader value rather than volume.

There were some interesting topics by various writers in this first issue that reflect that, I think, though I'll only try to interpret my own pieces. One of the features in this first issue is about Roger Federer being one of the biggest—maybe the biggest—sporting figures competing today. It came from a long period of observing all kinds of signs about how huge he's become in and beyond tennis, but comes from a combination of things rather than one single indicator -- his achievements relative to other athletes, how tennis allows him to translate internationally, his earnings, his striking popularity with crowds everywhere (remember the O2 arena cheering for him over Murray last year?). You can't say he's got the biggest following, or earns the most, but he's close to the top in nearly every category in a way that no one else quite seems to be -- and overall, that adds up to a lot. But I think it's something worth looking at, even if it takes more than 800 words.

It's not about being long, though—more about communicating a lot in an effective way. When looking at Ernests Gulbis, for example, I used a more visual approach that I think tells you a lot about his results very quickly—what do you think?

As for missing those old moments curled up with a good feature transporting you to a faraway tennis world—maybe there's a little of that in this too. Any favourite memories of those? And any recent ones as well?

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