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Self-Indulgence Sunday: On Reporting vs. Thumbsucking

This is yet another of those "meh, may become a regular feature if I feel like it" things. You see, readership numbers for this site on Sunday have always been abysmal, which is part of the reason I hardly ever write on Sunday. This Sunday in particular, I understand there's some other football that people are liable to pay attention to. So here's my crack at "Self-Indulgence Sunday", where I speak less on the Whitecaps and Canadian soccer and more on the business of writing about the Whitecaps and Canadian soccer.

I regret that I can't find the place where it was written or even recall the person who named it, but it's stuck with me all the same. It was some mainstream media type or another going off, as many of those in that profession often do, about how bloggers aren't real reporters. Rather than leaving their mothers' basements and finding the story, they wait until the story has already been found and, sitting atop their high horses, pronounce judgment on the news that somebody else had obtained. He called it "thumbsucking". Wow, I wish I could find the place I first came across that term, but you don't want to know the sorts of results you get when you Google "thumbsucking blogs".

I like the word because it's both derogatory and essentially correct, as a good slur must be. Go through Eighty Six Forever's archives, take a shot every time you see a reference to something Marc Weber dug up, and you won't live past the fifth page. I get paid to do this but to no extent am I doing this for the money: on a dollars-per-hour basis I'd be orders of magnitude better off flipping burgers. My soccer blogging is very much self-indulgent (hey, a theme for Sunday!), and the discovery that people enjoy watching me suck my thumb came as a considerable shock. I think it's fair to say that most bloggers who wind up coming to the world's attention start out this way. Some of them go straight, get press credentials from helpful or impressed organizations, begin to rustle up their stories and move past the world of thumbsucking.

Some of us do not. Self-serving as it is to say so, I wouldn't have it any other way.

I've tried to be a serious reporter. Well, sort of. I spent my first year of university studying journalism, convinced I would be the next Bob Woodward. I got a C. Was it incompetence? Partially, but it was also because I discovered I could not possibly care less about chasing leads, sitting by the conference table trying to comb through centuries of fluff for a few seconds of interesting material. Ultimately, what I most wanted was to synthesize, rather than gather, the news: to pull it all together and tell people what it means. In those heady days of the mid-2000s, I actually fired up a blog of my own which, in several months of sporadic updates, attracted precisely one outside comment encouraging me not to swear so much.

Well, what the fuck did I expect to happen? Simply regurgitating the news and punctuating it with inanity is no path to readership. I think that's what some brick-and-mortar reporters think of when they think of blogs: "hey, did you hear the Whitecaps might sign Robbie Keane? I don't really like Spurs so that would suck." Forum posts blown up to a thousand words. There is an awful lot of that nonsense out there. I won't embarrass the authors by naming names and, frankly, it wouldn't matter, because these blogs get the obscurity they deserve. It's a fascinating thing about the Internet: for the most part, people only read you if you have something to say, and the number of people who read increase in time with your rhetorical value. There are exceptions; the occasional once-decent website turned pathetic gossip rag which survives in the big time on nothing but reputation and community spirit, and a few well-written sites whose owners are either unable to promote themselves properly or whose subject matter is too niche-based to gather a following. All the same, the standard holds.

It holds despite the fact that very few of us have the connections with the club that are our newspaper brethren's stock in trade. Funny, I'm not feeling the loss too much. Not so long ago, I submitted an article to another outlet and the editor sent me back a letter suggesting that I get in touch with the general managers of the teams I was talking about. My article was criticizing their strategy, comparing it to contemporaries and finding it wanting. What would have been the point of getting meaningless sound bites from some management type? Those sorts of articles truly annoy me: "oh, look, the figure in high authority says his team will be fine," well what else was he going to say? Show me the interview where a general manager candidly admits that he's screwed up the team he's creating and he just hopes he can hang on long enough to try again. There are probably psychologists out there who can ask the right questions and weasel revealing answers out of their interview subjects but I'm not one of them and, frankly, neither is almost any reporter who presumes to try.

I much prefer trying to gather facts to gathering quotes. Taking a recent example, my article introducing Lennart Hartmann contained not a trace of original research. I did not present a single fact that was not already known to some member of the soccer world. What I did was bring it all together, draw a couple useful conclusions, and in my opinion produce the most complete story on this young, relatively obscure player that currently exists in the English media. It's thumbsucking at its finest, but is that such a bad thing? My referral logs even contain a few hits from German soccer forums, noticing a conclusions I had drawn which they had missed. I didn't do any interviews, pound any sand, or cash in any favours. That's just one recent example from my own site. If I delved into the world of North American soccer blogs looking for even better specimens, I might never come out again.

I don't mean to denigrate the world's mainstream soccer journalists. Many of them hugely contribute to our understanding of their teams and their games (I can refer again to the Province's Marc Weber, who for an old hockey junkie is doing a great job on the Whitecaps beat). Thumbsucking and story-chasing are two sides of the same coin: one brings us the trees, and the other makes the forest.

Of course, sitting in press boxes requires a certain amount of good-will from the club, and traveling to away games or Arizona training camps is beyond the means of most independent or quasi-independent writers. A more self-conscious blogger will often use this as an excuse: I can't chase the stories myself but would if I could. That's too bad. There's pride in being a thumbsucker, if you're willing to take it. There's good work to be done, including some of the best sports journalism out there today. When people ask, as they sometimes do, if I'd like to be a sports writer for a living I answer: well, it depends. I'd certainly be happy writing about soccer full-time, but if I have to ask players how they feel about blowing a 4-0 lead at Newcastle I'm going to hang myself. You'll only pry my thumb out of my mouth with a crowbar.