It’s difficult to find a profession in the world of sports that has changed more in the last 15 years than that of the baseball beat reporter. What was once one-recap-a-day-plus-a-notebook-twice-a-week has turned into a 24-hour, non-stop news machine. You are essentially expected to be filing and reporting something every minute of every day, even in the offseason.
I wanted to get a sense of how the job has evolved and how it will continue, so I sat down for a chat with Derrick Goold, baseball writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (He shares duties covering the Cardinals with the also-excellent Joe Strauss.) Goold graduated from the University of Missouri in 1997 -- we were both stringers for the Post-Dispatch while in college, him covering Tiger sports, me covering Illini sports -- and after stints at the Rocky Mountain News and the Times-Picayune, he arrived in St. Louis in 2001. He covered the Blues until 2004 and has been on the Cardinals beat since then. He is a friend, but he’s also pretty much the platonic ideal of what a beat reporter should be, covering the Cardinals from every angle on every possible platform, from newspaper to blog to Twitter to online video. I couldn’t think of anyone better who could describe what the job’s like today, why it still matters and how you have to do it right.
This Q&A is edited because we talked for like an hour.
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Q: It would seem that you have one of the ideal gigs, covering a team with one of the most devoted fan bases in sports.
A: It is a pretty prominent job here, very competitive. When I was hired, Rick Hummel was on the beat, and he was already being described as Future Hall of Famer Rick Hummel. Sure enough, several years later I am there in Cooperstown covering his induction into the Hall of Fame. Covering baseball here in a baseball town is serious, and it is a prominent beat; because you have prominent place on the paper, you know what you write is going to be read. There are a whole lot of expectations and a lot of responsibilities covering baseball here that may not exist other places. I also get a lot of emails telling me how I am not properly motivating the team.
Q: You were one of the first beat writers to have a heavy online presence, back in 2002, 2003. What inspired that?
A: I noticed that the message board was very active on our website. You could see the number of topics, you could see the number of independent users and I could read all of those stats and everything like that. And it struck me that this was an audience that was there, but maybe an audience that would benefit from some direct answers to their questions or some information that could help with their opinions and decisions. I saw how [Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz] was doing his message board, and I saw how important it was. The message board just offered interaction instantly, but it had this other benefit, that it could be a conveyance of news, a vehicle for breaking news that was not out there. Later, that became the blog, with regular updates from spring training called “Post Cards,” because that is what those were -- they were blogs. We just did not have the word for it then.
I kept score on the traffic, because I was fascinated by it once I realized that we could track this. When I got into this business, you work with competitive people, and I think that is part of newspapering. You have to be competitive in this field. How you keep score tends to be individualized. Do you count the bylines you have in a national magazine? Do you count the number of awards you have? Do you track the scoops that you have? Is it your salary that tells you how good you are? Is it your beat? Suddenly, there was a way to keep actual score, because the Web told us how many people were reading. But this was before Twitter. Twitter blew everything up even more.
Q: When did you realize how much Twitter was going to change how sports was covered?
A: I started using Twitter as an experiment at the newspaper during the 2008 vice presidential debate, which was in St. Louis and was huge because of Sarah Palin. Back then, Twitter was smaller, almost a niche, for techies, really. It was intellectually acerbic, more of a community. I took to it instantly. All of a sudden not only do you know what your traffic is, you know how many followers you have, and now they are keeping score on scoops. Twitter is an exhilarating tool for my job, because it does allow for reporters who go and get news and break it to show their chops, to show their speed. In a lot of ways it has leveled the playing field when you think about it. Newspapers do not have to wait until the next day to print. Now we are on the same 24 -hour news cycle of cable news, radio, all those things. It has completely leveled the playing field for newspaper writers. It has given us an instant medium that we can compete with and I love it. I know some people don’t feel that way. Some beat reporters want their 24 hours back and do not want to always be on the clock. But if you do not want to do it, then you do not get the job. People still want this job.
But I think it’s not just better for readers, it’s better for my skills. The more you write, the better you get. I remember, in the past, I’d get a really good story to tell, but there was no room in the paper. What do I do with it? I never ask myself that question anymore. Twitter has made me sharper.
Q: What’s the press box like these days compared to 10 years ago? Fewer newspaper folk? More people paid by the team?
A: It’s definitely younger. I used to be the youngest guy around. Not anymore. MLB.com, those guys have now put in a lot of time covering those beats. The newspaper guys tend not to have changed, but you’ve got MLB.com, those guys have put in a lot of years now. You have the perforation of the cable channels that now have websites with beat writers, and that has brought in a different crop. So it is kind of layered now in the press box. There are certainly more people covering and interested in the team from a beat perspective than when I started.
Q: Some have made the argument that in an age where fans can watch press conferences and every game live, and players are tweeting, the beat reporter is less important.
A: Being a beat writer is very important to me. I will give oration all day on the value of a beat writer and the importance of the beat writer and, most emphatically, the talent of today’s beat writer. The strength that I think of being a beat writer is, on any given day that is really where the muscle is, because on any given day you can write a 140 character Tweet that breaks news. You can go do a blog entry that offers up the lineup, and, in between those things, you can finish writing an issue story or a project story or an enterprise story that you spent three weeks reporting that is going to win an award. And that is your day. Oh, no, that is not your day, sorry: Then you have to go write the game story on deadline, and you do three different versions of that. And then you get home and you rinse, repeat the next day. I love it. I like that, and I think, if you look at all the new media and the new hurdles and the multimedia demands … if that’s something that inspires dread in you, this is not the position for you. You have to make yourself irreplaceable. The best beat writers do that. I think the quality of beat reporting right now is as high as it has ever been. It’s a terrific time to be a reader.
Q: It sounds like the job you’re describing is thrilling, but has little to do with a printed newspaper. How much value does the actual printed page have at this point?
A: There are things that I enjoy about this job and things that I get to do that only a newspaper can offer. I think back to some of the stories I have done this year and the presentation that they have been given in the paper. Think about ESPN, and MLB, and Sports on Earth and Grantland -- if they do these long enterprise stories, they are the display for the web that morning when people log on, and it is a story that the writer really poured a lot of time and a lot of effort into, and, man, it sings. It is an amazing story, it sings. But it’s only there until the latest news hits. If you wrote a great story, once [Terrell Owens] pops off or Tim Tebow takes off his shirt, that’s going to push your story away. It’s all about placement on the Web, and that’s transitory. How long does your story have on the Web? Is it written on water? If you write it for the paper, there are going to be people who clip it out. Or it’s going to sit on their coffee table all day, or it sits in the bathroom stall all day for people to read. Or it is a memory book that they pass on.
The stadium edition of the World Series newspaper … I think there is a responsibility that comes with that. That’s something that is going to be a keepsake for somebody, and you want to make sure you did the job and wrote that to not only the best of your ability … to respond to that moment. I obviously don’t just write for the newspaper, but I love the newspaper most. I like that challenge that comes with the permanence there. I do not know if there is a place like that for the web. I am not sure that, some of the stories that I try to do for the paper … I don’t know if it would be worth a website’s time to let me do that.
In a lot of ways, newspapers are like baseball: It’s about being consistent and showing up to play every day. As Dan Jenkins said, you gotta play hurt. That has real value, and I’m not sure it’s going to go away.
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I could tell even in college how much better the Mizzou guy was as a beat reporter than I was. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.