Reaction to Velocast opinion piece on cycling journalism.
Just read a thoughtful and provocative opinion piece on the Velocast website. The author (unsigned, why?) raises a number of good questions about the role of cycling journalists in the post USADA-Armstrong meltdown.
I think it’s fair to say his main point is that most journalists don’t have the time, training, budget or investigative skills to really offer any true analysis of the sport. He makes a good distinction between a reporter (simply relaying facts and race results) and a journalist who offers more in-depth analysis.
In his opinion, cycling is a niche sport where there’s very little in the way of true journalism. He cites the recent Daniel Benson aborted phone interview with Chris Horner and Andy Hood’s Velonews story on Horner’s Vuelta win as two examples of “failed” journalism.
Having gone from blogger to cycling “journalist” myself in the space of four years, I can offer a few of my own thoughts on the subject. Velocast first mentions the limitations of time and budget. Cycling journalism, if you want to call it that, is not a high paying job. In fact, as a regular freelancer for Cycle Sport magazine, I get paid a fraction of what I make on my day rate as an advertising writer.
It’s basically a hobby — a serious one — but a hobby nonetheless. When I say that, know that I’ve written a dozen stories for one of the better cycling magazines. I’ve done the Tour de France and Tour of California four times and the US Pro Cycling Challenge all three years. I cite those experiences only to let you know I might have a credible opinion.
If I write a 3000 word story with multiple quotes from riders at a race, then transcribe those interviews and take two days to put that together, we’re talking about 4-5 days total work covering the race and turning out a story. I could make the same amount of money in one day in advertising. It’s a good way to go broke.
There’s a high percentage of freelancers writing for websites and magazines and generally there’s little budget for travel expenses. When I found out what writers get paid in cycling, I was in shock. It’s also a reason the writers are on the young side — no wife, kids or mortgage. Only a young guy could “afford” to work as a cycling journalist.
It takes time and training to have the skills to become an investigative journalist. Most writers didn’t get into covering the sport because they wanted to break some Pulitzer winning story. If that was the career goal, they’d be raking up a political or corporate scandal. You’re asking people to do something they don’t have time, training or financial incentive to do.
These days there are also few accepted journalistic standards as far as what’s ethical, what’s not and even what constitutes “news.” We all know about the abasement and pandering of the media and I don’t need to throw more gasoline on that fire. Some days it seems that what passes for cycling news is just the repetition of rumors from an unnamed source. Rumors are fabulous for generating pageviews but when bloggers and self-appointed experts on twitter take control of the story, things get messy and stupid. How much analysis can you squeee into 140 characters?
I will hazard the guess that a fair number of cycling writers — this includes myself — never took a single class in journalism. (I was an English major who ended up with a degree in French.) I couldn’t tell you the best way to write open-ended interview questions to get more interesting answers from athletes. (I ask my wife since she’s a focus group moderator.) I don’t know the correct way to handle different kinds of news sources and my grammar is atrocious.
I essentially blunder my way through races and stories, ad-libbing like a Hunter Thompson Lite without the drugs. I work hard and mostly leverage my advertising background: find the most dramatic angle, punch it hard and keep it short. I try to cover up my lack of journalist chops with a decent sense of story. You also have to remember that some cycling writers are coming from a public relations background — hardly the place to build an investigative or analytical skill-set.
It’s a bit of a digression but it’s telling that several of the most influential and well-read voices in cycling journalism do not reveal their own names. For evidence, I’d list the brilliant innerring and Eurosport’s Blazing Saddles. They obviously feel that to say the things they need to say about cycling, it’s best to keep their identity a secret. (That maybe another reason for a shortage of analysis: the sport has a thin skin.)
That tells you a lot about the state of cycling journalism right there. I’ve often been tempted to take my name off Twisted Spoke so I’d have more freedom to comment but for several reasons I haven’t. I think in the end if I have an opinion, then I should have the honesty to put my name on it. But I certainly understand the decision not to put a name down and that’s still an open debate for me.
As a blogger on cycling, I also know that I have to feed that analytics beast every day or my numbers go down. Your first clue that journalism is in trouble is when people replace the word “story” with the word “content.” Content is just a bulk number of words shoveled into the internet furnace to keep the pageviews heated up. Again, when the goal is pageviews, quality suffers. I’m as guilty as the rest and with google analytics we all know what key words automatically pump the readership. As Velocast notes, that directly determines advertising revenue and income. Same old story, money trumps meaning.
Feeding that google beast takes a lot of work each day which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for analysis. It’s interesting to see the difference between writers who have to file a story every day and the magazine writers who don’t. I’d even make that one of the distinctions. The Tour de France is a grueling event for everyone — riders and writers — and the guys writing the daily stuff have to keep their head down and crank it out.
They don’t have time for much analysis or research; the always-on news cycle demands that they knock their stories out fast. It’s the magazine writers who aren’t on the immediate deadline that have the luxury of time to look around, get some perspective and dig into something. From personal experience, I feel that wander-around time is the best opportunity for insight but nobody wanders at the Tour — its full gas.
Sadly, the trend is web immediacy. (I’ve written about the Tour of California and US Pro Cycling Challenge for a magazine three weeks after the races finished — if I don’t have an interesting or entertaining take on old news, I’m screwed.) In short, I’d agree with Velocast that the instantaneous quality of the news cycle — get it out before it’s on twitter! – makes real analysis difficult.
And as a second digression, who do the writers work for? These days the big budget teams create their stories and frame the narrative however they want. Sit in a press room after a race and the writer and photographer sitting next to you might be working for Sky or Garmin. They also have the best access to the athletes because hey, they’re on the same payroll and riders trust that their own people won’t grill them with hard questions.
That content gets mashed up with all the other media but Sky and Garmin have a purely promotional agenda that has little to do with analysis. I got into a heated discussion in France with several writers about whether the role of the cycling media changes at all when teams start writing their own stories.
Velocast also mentions the inherent problem that cycling writers have to keep a good relationship with riders otherwise they won’t be able to get any quotes. It’s a delicate line for walking and you don’t want to make enemies. That’s an age-old gymnastics problem for any writer on just about any subject requiring sources.
Cycling is a very closed and cozy little world. You see everybody at the same races for years and if you write something unflattering about a rider, pretty soon you’re going to be persona non grata and have to steer clear of a few team buses. As many have noted, Lance Armstrong had the power to shut down any journalist he didn’t like and did just that.
I have to say it’s a challenge and as you get to be friends with a rider, it’s pretty natural to start dialing down the critical thinking. Perfect example: Timmy Duggan. Super nice guy I did a long interview and story on. Now it would be hard for me to write anything critical about Duggan and I’d be tempted to go easy on his Saxo team, too because he’s such a nice guy. I don’t want him scowling at me every time I show up at a race.
I also need Timmy for future stories and insights. For example, I needed some rider quotes on Colorado a week after the race. Hard to track down guys when they’re off to other races around the world and on wildly different time zones. But I got in touch with Timmy and skyped a day later and got my quotes. He was generous enough to make time for me and I’m not forgetting that favor.
Unless Duggan murders somebody, I’m probably not writing anything negative about him. If he makes a mistake in a race, I might not mention it in a story. I really wanted to get a few minutes with his teammate Michael Rogers in Colorado. Rogers isn’t much for chatting but a good word from Duggan would open that door. According to a number of journalists I talked with at the Tour de France, Team Sky and BMC can be difficult to arrange interviews with. Get on a team’s bad side and you better find another team for some race quotes.
And by the way, cycling writers are big fans of riders and the sport. In the press conferences at the US Pro Cycling Challenge, the comedy routine between Ton Danielson and Tejay van Garderen was so good that the entire assembled media gave them applause. We all love the sport so there’s a natural desire to promote the races and riders. The sport needs all the postitive support it can get. Velocast dislikes what he considers the over-glorification but that’s just sports writing.
My feeling is that some of the best writing on cycling is done by journalists outside the world of cycling. First, they don’t give a crap about managing a long-term relationship with riders. They also have a distance from the sport that allows them to see it more clearly and from a fresh perspective.
I’d also say that cycling jounalists do offer thoughful analysis of the sport. You just have to buy the book, not the magazine. I’ve been reading the Argyle Armada by Mark Johnson, a supberly written behind-the-scenes look at Garmin. Plus there are things like the wonderful Cycling Anthology curated by Lionel Birnie that brings together the best writing on the subject. Analysis exists — you just have to look for it.
Now I happen to think the guys at Velonews and cyclingnews do a terrific job covering the sport given a number of limitations. (I wonder if the Velocast writer knows how challenging it is to cover a chaotic, insane and fast-moving bike race like the Tour.) In particular, Joe Lindsey at Bicycling magazine is fantastic and backs up his opinions with plenty of research. Guys like Lionel Birnie and Edward Pickering at Cycle Sport magazine have been around pro cycling for a long time and they don’t take shit from anybody. I have nothing but respect for those guys.
But I doubt they have the budgets to commission hardcore investigative stories. If a major magazine like Sports Illustrated wants to put a senior team on a story about corruption in a major sport like college football for several months, they can fund that. Cycling isn’t college football and Velonews doesn’t have the bankroll of Sports Illustrated. Instead we have crackpots on twitter and forum chat rooms shouting ill-informed nonsense.
The Velocast writer said “the majority of writers in cycling are to investigative or analytical journalism what George Bush is to public speaking.” That was pretty harsh (and funny) but I take his point. A lot of people missed the boat on Armstrong and there’s plenty of collective guilt that’s led to a predictable backlash. Ask Chris Froome how much he enjoyed the relentless chorus of “are you doping?” during the Tour.
I think the sport is going through a lot of growing pains in the wake of the Armstrong revelations. Pro cycling needs a new financial model and a new UCI president, just to name two massive ones. What’s also in transition is how the sport is covered. As cycling gets more exposure as a global sport, that exposure will also come from new writers providing a fresh perspective. (That’s something that riders also have to get adjusted to.)
It will be interesting to see how cycling journalism evolves over the next few years. Hopefully, we won’t continue to “fail.”