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Changing how fans follow Michigan football

BY ANDY REID
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 18, 2008

Unlike professional journalists, Brian Cook doesn’t have to worry about the decline of print media and the buyouts and layoffs that have accompanied it.

A graduate from the University’s School of Engineering and the proprietor of a blog about Michigan football called mgoblog.com, Cook quit his job as an engineer as soon as he figured out that revenue from the website could cover rent and groceries.

Since then, mgoblog.com has become substantially more popular, and Cook has begun writing a fan-based column for AOL.com and has started a season preview book for every football season.

Not too shabby for a Michigan fan who started a blogspot.com account as a hobby. But then again, the story of an obscure blogger breaking into the mainstream isn’t one we haven’t heard before.

To put it simply, Cook’s website has become the place for Michigan football coverage. In just a few years, he has overthrown the ranks of professional journalists who cover the team, representing a drastic change in the culture of news coverage (in this case, the coverage of Michigan football), a change that most major newspapers have yet to adapt to. Traditional sports coverage is vulnerable to new competition in its own way. As Cook has shown, a guy in the stands can have an edge over the big-name columnists in the press box.

With the Internet, people have come to expect more information, something the highly analytical mgoblog.com provides en masse. The Michigan football blogosphere has demanded attention, encouraging the establishment of several other popular sites like Varsity Blue, Maize n’ Brew and UMTailgate. Cook said that the Michigan fanbase — with the sheer number of alumni who are wealthy, tech-savvy, avid football fans — is the perfect following for blogs.

Even Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez has taken notice.
“It’s a lot more bolder what people would say and write,” Rodriguez said in Monday’s press conference. “Not you (journalists), but bloggers or whatever, than it used to be. We’ve seen it coming for a few years.”

Infinite room VS. page constraints

Newspapers just can’t keep up with the depth and breadth of coverage that Cook and other Michigan bloggers provide.

“Whenever I read a newspaper, they never really went past a shallow understanding of the game,” Cook said. “I never actually learned anything from a newspaper about why these things happened the way they did and what you can expect from the future.”

Despite — or as Cook said, because of — mgoblog.com’s niche market and very technical football talk, the site gets about 50,000 page views a day. With circulation and page space in the print newspaper industry dwindling across the country, and newspapers still struggling to find a strong foothold online, more and more people are flocking to sites like mgoblog.com to get thorough coverage of Michigan sports.

What the blogs’ readers are finding is a type of coverage that is yet to grace the websites of the Detroit Free Press or The Detroit News.

“Our blogging and the way we do it, is we just want to get news up there first,” said Mark Snyder, the Michigan football and men’s basketball beat reporter for the Detroit Free Press. “But some of these blogs are so thorough that they’re breaking down plays and posting feeds from the game. And that’s more intricate than anything we post online.”

Cook has a weekly feature on his blog called “Upon Further Review,” which is one of the blog’s most in-depth and popular segments. In the post, he breaks down every single play — offense and defense — from all of Michigan’s games. Cook said that, in order for the Free Press to do something similar, the paper would have to hire someone in addition to the beat reporter who has extensive knowledge of the X’s and O’s of the game.

With the day-to-day grind of beat reporting, that type of depth is almost impossible for newspapers to imitate. Here’s a typical workday for Snyder — on the Monday before the Northwestern football game, he attended a nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long press conference, filing a story right there. Snyder then stayed at the building, transcribing football quotes and working until the basketball presser took place at 3 p.m. After the press conference, Snyder attended basketball practice, finally leaving after nine hours and still needing to file a story about the basketball team. That’s time Cook can spend analyzing plays and breaking down each game, while relying on reporters like Snyder to uncover the day-to-day business of the team.

Nowadays, a newspaper might publish one or two articles on a non-gameday, which isn’t enough to meet the demands of the avid fans who haved tuned to the blogosphere.

Cook said that if his coverage of Michigan football is one extreme, traditional newspaper beat reporting is the other. In order to find an effective strategy to meet readers’ needs, newspapers need to find a happy medium between the two.

But it’s not just the depth of coverage that has to change — according to Cook, it’s the whole style of writing that needs a facelift, starting with the column. He called the 600-word, quick-hitting, short-paragraph style that newspaper columnists use “archaic.”

“It’s off-putting, it’s arrogant and it often results in poorly researched, poorly asserted and poorly reasoned columns,” Cook said. “You have 600 words, and you have to try to get your little ‘Jim Rome on paper’ thing, and most of what comes out is just bad.”

Space isn’t an issue on the Internet. If necessary, Cook can write 1,000 words or 10,000 words to get his point across. He can also use links, pictures, diagrams, play-calling breakdowns and bold and italics font

But most important, Cook utilizes his own avid fandom to present a column that newspaper writers can’t.

The Everyman’s sports beat

Cook and other bloggers use the pronoun “we” to talk about the team out of recognition that they are not syndicated sports columnist Mitch Albom, but rather they are regular fans writing to — and to represent — other fans.

“My game columns are written from the perspective of someone experiencing the same emotions you are,” Cook said. “Newspapers don’t do that. They experience games as sportswriters, as objectivity mavens, that sort of thing. They don’t say ‘Fuck.’ No one at a newspaper has ever screamed ‘Fuck’ at a Michigan game, and getting an opinion from someone who has done that is sort of empowering in a way.”

He’s not overly biased — his posts are critical of the Wolverines when necessary — but there’s no doubt that Cook is a fan, and he believes that is one of the blog’s biggest strengths over objective journalism.

Readers can automatically relate to bloggers like Cook, because he’s writing as one of them. With journalism’s rigid, albeit necessary, commitment to objectivity, fans can have a hard time relating to columnists who need to put aside personal preference to scrutinize a game.

Cook himself may have put print journalism’s problems best on his site. In a June 28 post entitled “Why Does Drew Sharp Have A Job?” Cook had this to say about the Detroit Free Press columnist whom he regularly lambasts on his blog: “Sharp’s a dinosaur from the days when readers had a choice of Paper A or Paper B, the prime numero-uno example of why lazy-ass columnists rage against the internet: it exposes how very much they suck and provides alternative sources of attention.”

Losing the tech edge

Newspapers weren’t always struggling to catch up with media technology. Although The Detroit News — along with almost every national paper — can’t quite figure out how to adapt its print coverage to the Internet, it was one of the first papers to embrace other mediums that drastically changed journalism.

On August 20, 1920, when the idea that radio could be used as a household amenity was still in its infancy, the United States Department of Commerce accepted a request by The Detroit News for an amateur radio license. Thus, the paper became the first in the nation to purchase and operate a radio station, buying the 200-meter broadcast channel 8MK, which is now known as WWJ, the only 24-hour commercial news radio station in Michigan.

Experimenting with how broadcast radio could be used in journalism’s future, 8MK became one of the first stations in the country to broadcast news reports, sports broadcasts and religious programming. The paper was less than 50 years old at the time, and the purchase of the station was an attempt to stay ahead of the curve in information accessibility. Obviously, looking toward the future paid off — in the ’20s and ’30s, radio consumption exploded.

The Detroit News made a similar move in 1947, creating the first television station in the state of Michigan, WWJ-TV.

But the Internet is a different story. Sure, the major metro newspapers have their own websites, but the content is no different from what makes the print edition on that particular day. Free Press football writer Snyder hasn’t ever explored the possibility of video stories on the Detroit Free Press’s website, which doesn’t offer much web-only content other than photo galleries and links to non-competitive, related news sources.

Whereas the Detroit-area newspapers have historically been on the cusp of media technology, the Internet simply hasn’t been an asset, yet.

Clinging to the local touch

Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej said that newspapers need to look back at their own history in order to move forward. Adapting to new technologies by exploring video and other options the Internet presents is a given, but Madej said the key to attracting readers online is putting an emphasis on the coverage that has been lost because of the dwindling size of print editions.

The Detroit papers and the Ann Arbor News cover Michigan football and men’s basketball, but every other sport has been cut because of lack of space. The Ann Arbor News covered the Wolverines’ hockey team up until last year, but cut the hockey beat reporter position after a season in which Michigan went to the Frozen Four.

“You know, we have Big Ten champions that, other than (The Michigan Daily), don’t get covered at all,” Madej said. “There’s some great stories and human interest pieces on some of those teams.”

On the surface, it would seem that most people don’t care to read about a champion cross country runner or the volleyball team, but Madej sees it differently. These athletes are in the community, and readers will respond positively to a local touch, regardless of the sport. Of course, they’ll still want football coverage, but with unlimited space on the Internet, major papers could hang on to local readers by covering smaller, Olympic sports like wrestling, swimming and track.

Whatever the future holds for the local papers — less space in the print edition, tighter budget to cover sporting events, lower circulation or another bleak possibility yet to emerge — one thing is for sure: The Internet is going to be vital to the success, or failure, of each one.

It’s up to them whether or not they can figure out how to use it.