An Open Letter to Joe Sullivan, the Assistant Managing Editor of the Boston Globe

boston.com

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I only criticize because I care?” If you have, you’re probably aware that in most cases it’s little more than an excuse to take some pot shots from the cover of feigned sincerity. In my case, however, it’s genuine. I really do care.

Fifteen years ago when I lived in Manhattan, I would get up every Sunday morning, rain or shine, and walk four blocks east and two blocks south to News of the World, just below Columbus Circle, to purchase a Boston Sunday Globe – the only day they carried the paper. This might not seem like a major sacrifice, but for a twenty-something fresh out of college enjoying the bright lights and late nights of New York City with some of his closest college friends, I can assure you it was a challenge. And the markup was 150% of the cost of the actual paper.

Later on, of course, there was the internet – and boston.com/sports has been my browser homepage ever since I first bought a boxed copy of Netscape Navigator. But back in those days, you had to actually walk somewhere to buy the newspaper. I wouldn’t have my first cellphone, a Motorola Star Tac that didn’t get the internet – or text messages – for another year.

I was willing to make that trek every Sunday, however, because it was worth it. Actually, that’s understating things. I had to visit News of the World every Sunday because not reading Peter Gammons’ Sunday Notes column was simply not an option. For any serious baseball fan, and particularly a Red Sox fan living behind enemy lines, Gammons’ column was the type of addiction that I assume smokers would understand perfectly.

Times have changed, however. Your site is still my browser homepage, but if I’m being honest, that’s more of an artifact of my loyalty than an expression of my interest. There is next to no chance I would walk anywhere to buy a copy, even if you weren’t on the web. The simple fact is that your content is less relevant, in part because you don’t have anyone covering baseball at the moment who’s a must read as Peter Gammons was (and is).

Which you’re probably thinking is understandable: there is only one Gammons, after all. There’s a reason he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a bit like criticizing Matt Clement for not being Pedro Martinez. And that’s fair. But the simple fact is that what Gammons represented has been, as far as I can tell, lost at your newspaper.

Think back to the days before the Sunday Notes columns ran. Coverage was generally regional, and carefully preserved the us and them dichotomy of fan and club. Every GM was Oz, only there was no Toto to pull back the curtains. Until Gammons did, of course. His Sunday Notes column not only expanded a fan’s field of view to something beyond the local nine, it erased the barrier between us and them. It wasn’t like ‘inside baseball,’ it was inside baseball.

It was also groundbreaking and innovative. These days, however, the innovation at your paper seems to be limited to inventing new ways to artificially inflate pageviews, an effort which has yielded those unfortunate “slideshows.”

Remember the heady days of Gammons, or Bud Collins, Will McDonough, Leigh Montville, and Larry Whiteside reinventing how sportswriting was done? What Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Armstrong has called the greatest sports staff ever? Those days are gone. The last man standing from that group, sadly, the otherwise estimable Bob Ryan, is now reduced to churning out columns that are the rough equivalent to “get off my lawn, you kids!”

All of which is bad enough. What’s worse is that your writers not only seem to understand that they aren’t innovators, they actually take pride in it. Your senior baseball writer, as an example, is not only prone to frequent, basic factual errors, he’s aggressively outdated in both his thinking and analysis.

He is, in short, the type of writer ESPN’s Keith Law was talking about in a post-MVP vote podcast here (MP3):

“The problems of old media, that there’s this refusal to change, this reluctance to embrace not statistics but new ways of looking at the game.”

And while some would argue that this is just another “new school / old school” divide, the fact is that there are quote unquote old school writers who have had no issue updating their views of the game. Writers like your own alumnus, Peter Gammons. Here’s Law again:

You know I always took a lot from Peter Gammons. If you look at his writing over the last ten years, I’m not sure if I could name another established, highly respected baseball writer who has revolutioned the way that he looks at the game, and he had a ton of experience. You watch his writing now and how he talks about players, and it’s totally different from 10 years ago, cause he was open minded, and you have to be willing to learn and willing to change your opinions, and let your opinions evolve over time as you talk to other people, particularly people in front offices who look at the game differently.

The divide here, then, is not simply age: it’s a willingness to innovate, to learn, to challenge assumptions in search of more fundamental truths. It’s Journalism 101, in other words. A class that some of your writers, unfortunately, seem to be failing.

None of this would be a problem, of course, if other outlets followed your lead, as they once did. If the market only offered traditionalist viewpoints like Cafardo’s or the bitter-faux-populist columnist schtick like your Dan Shaughnessy, your paper would be in fine shape. Certainly your distribution alone guarantees you relevance, at least in the short term.

But the problem for you is that the market hasn’t remained static. Other properties, competing for the same attention your writers appear to take for granted, have kept up with the front office revolution so well documented in Moneyball that it’s become a cliche. There’s a reason why General Managers, when asked what they read, do not answer “The Boston Globe” as they certainly would have when Gammons was on staff, but Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs. And there’s a reason that major media properties like ESPN have begun to either hire writers from these properties (like a Keith Law) or license their content (as is done presently with both Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs). That reason is that they, like the front offices they have learned from and might end up working for, are the future of the sport. The future that your writers are not only unfamiliar with, but disdainful of.

Lest I lose you with all of the doom and gloom, it’s not all bad. Chad Finn, for one, is a brilliant and regrettably rare combination of “accessible rationality.” Peter Abraham, when he’s not flashing back to his days on the Yankees beat, has grown into his role and brings a lot to the table. Never mind. But in outlets like WEEI with Alex Speier – easily the best and most informed writer in the market, at present – the Globe is facing increasingly stiff competition not just nationally but locally as well.

I know, as does pretty much everyone these days, that this is very probably the worst time in history to be in the newspaper business. Your job isn’t easy. I don’t know this for sure, because you and I have never spoken, but my guess is that you like those Zedo pop-under advertisements on your site even less than I, the reader, does. You’re probably not a big fan of those silly slideshows, either. The cost of talent is going up, while people’s willingness to pay for the content they produce is in free fall. The New York Times has put your organization up for sale. Life is tough.

But I’m sure, like so many of the athletes your staff covers, that you’re a competitor. I take as a given that you’re not happy with the graph above, and want Sports to do whatever it can to help right the ship. To do that, however, you’ll need to understand why so many of us baseball fans are reallocating our precious free time from Boston.com to Fangraphs.com or WEEI.com. We’re leaving, in part, because your reporters are telling us that they don’t care enough about the sport they cover to learn what they have to to cover it properly. Surely you can understand the frustration of readers who are better informed on changes in the game than the professionals who cover it?

In closing, I hope you’ll remember what I said above: I criticize because I care. It was the Boston Globe, in the person of Peter Gammons, that made me the baseball fan I am. For that, I feel that I owe the paper a debt I can never repay. But there’s only so much my one Boston Globe home page can do. To win back your audience, you’ll need to make some changes. Some of these changes will be painful, particularly for those who are dead set against changing.

Your paper built the best sports staff in the country once before: there’s no reason you can’t do it again – if you can keep an open mind to notes like this one.

Sincerely,

Stephen O’Grady

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