Wild Times for Blogs May Be Ending Soon

By David Wharton
Updated: June 22, 2008

LOS ANGELES — A rumor found its way onto the Internet recently.

It involved a high-profile athlete. It was scandalous. And entirely unconfirmed.

As skeptics might say, it was perfect for the Wild West territory of sports blogs.

But an interesting thing happened to that bit of gossip about Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Blogs such as Deadspin and the Big Lead treated it with relative caution, while others ignored it altogether.

“Two years ago, I would have run with it,” said Jason McIntyre, owner and operator of the Big Lead. “But as the blogs get bigger, you have to be careful about what you say . . . you can’t go with the first rumor you hear.”

Has the Wild West become a little less wild?

Sites such as SportsbyBrooks, Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather and Mr. Irrelevant have touted themselves as edgy and independent, outsiders free to write what mainstream media will not. Critics have portrayed them differently: the rabid fan sitting at a computer in his parents’ basement, in his pajamas, spewing opinion.

The truth lies somewhere between with content that ranges from factual to gossipy, skeptical to malicious, humorous to sophomoric and vulgar. As time passes, media experts suggest, the sports blogosphere is bound to evolve.

“Bloggers are maturing and realizing that we’re moving out of the childhood age of this industry, into an awkward adolescence,” said Robert Niles, who chronicles new media on his SensibleTalk.com website. “For some bloggers, they can see adulthood on the horizon.”

In the early days, bloggers were driven by various motives. They scoured the Internet, gathering links to the best stories. They sought to offer sharper, funnier and more opinionated coverage than traditional news outlets.

They also wanted to get noticed.

It was easy to be outlandish and freewheeling when, as one blogger put it, “you were writing for 87 people.”

The job began to change as sites such as Deadspin and ProFootballTalkattracted large audiences and readers began taking them to task for erroneous reports. Suddenly, bloggers had something to lose.

“It’s a question of how successful do we want to be and how much are we willing to adjust our approach?” said Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, who began blogging in 2000. “We’re gaining revenue, gaining credibility.”

Sports bloggers saw their brethren in the political arena achieve great success. They watched The Times and other newspapers hire bloggers whose copy was overseen by editors.

Increased readership brought advertisers, and bloggers who made a name for themselves on the web attracted freelance writing assignments from newspapers and magazines. Will Leitch, the editor of Deadspin who is considered a pioneer in sports blogging, recently announced that he was moving to New York magazine.

“We’re trying to make money on this,” said A.J. Daulerio, a senior writer for Deadspin. “Without going completely porn, the best way to do that is to add a more journalistic element.”

Which can mean taking fewer chances.

“It’s the difference between living in a dorm room you can trash and buying your own home,” said Niles, a former editor of USC’s discontinued Online Journalism Review. “You say, ‘I want to live here a while, so I have to treat this with respect.’ “

There is an element of irony, blogs adopting journalistic conventions as newspapers try to entice young readers with Internet-like edginess, the sides inching toward what McIntyre called “a sketchy middle ground.”

The issue of bloggers and fairness came to a boil recently when Leitch appeared on a television show with author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger. The discussion quickly degenerated as Bissinger launched into a obscene attack on blogs, accusing them of “cruelty,” “journalistic dishonesty” and “the complete dumbing-down of our society.”

His outburst became the talk of the Internet, not to mention a popular YouTube clip, angering the web crowd. But as the dust settled, a funny thing happened.

“The initial reaction was ‘Buzz is a lunatic,’ ” McIntyre said. “After that, people calmed down, listened to what he said and thought, ‘You know, maybe we should clean up our act a little bit.’ “

When the rumor about Bryant broke, traditional media outlets steered clear. The Times website included several reader comments about the issue and, on May 29, a link to more information on another site.

Meanwhile, Deadspin posted a cautious Bryant item and the Big Lead referenced “these post-Buzz times, where more than a handful of rascals lay in the bushes and patiently wait for you to get something wrong.” FanHousecontemplated the nature of blogging.

“Bissinger allowed us to write a few navel-gazing posts that we wouldn’t have written before,” said John Ness, senior producer for the site.

Bissinger, who wrote “Friday Night Lights,” has since apologized for painting the sports blogosphere with too broad a brush, overlooking sites that he respects such as ProFootballTalk, the Big Lead and Beerleaguer, which focuses on the Philadelphia Phillies.

The journalist says he hopes the medium will improve but worries that blogs such as Deadspin traffic in “snarky, obnoxious comments” while others rely on disinformation and sexual innuendo.

“I think blogs pose a threat to journalism,” he said. “And blogs can pose a threat to society because of the information they put out there.”

His concern stems from the fact that not all blogs aspire to sophisticated content. Recently, Bissinger appeared on a radio show with Nik Richie, creator of thedirty.com.

Thedirty.com specializes in candid, salacious photos and has become known in the sports world for posting snapshots of famous athletes in private and sometimes embarrassing moments.

The site featured Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart drinking beer with a group of apparently underage women. Also, the site had shots of Lakers center Andrew Bynum and New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey at parties.

Richie, who goes by an alias and declined to give his real name, has been aggressive in writing about the Bryant rumors despite receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the player’s attorney. He said his blog is based on “pure entertainment” and, with traffic increasing, will not change.

“All these other sites are evolving because everyone’s putting pressure on them for their journalistic integrity,” he said. “That’s kind of a sell-out. . . . I think it’s 100% less fun.”

Rival bloggers say they are adapting because it makes business sense.

“What’s the shelf-life for a website that only has women in bikinis?” McIntyre asked. “Eventually, there needs to be substance to back up the fluff.”

So the Big Lead now seeks to confirm information before posting. Florio expects that more and more blogs will hire reporters, and Ness wonders if he and his competitors should start policing each other.

For some bloggers, the wild days are coming to an end.

“It’s almost like the difference between Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby,” Florio said. “Can you still be funny without cursing?”