Marc Carig is the beat writer covering the Yankees for the Newark Star-Ledger, as well as a columnist for Baseball Prospectus. He also interacts with fans and other writers through his twitter account @Ledger_Yankees, and is one of the most accessible and engaging beat guys you will come across. He is well known amongst Yankees fans for being level-headed and reasonable, and he was gracious enough to answer a slew of questions regarding his job and some of the difficult issues that surround it.
TYA: How do you criticize players and then face them daily? Have you ever had a player ask about something you wrote, or seen it happen to a colleague?
Keep it professional. Criticizing a player shouldn’t be personal. Our jobs intersect. Criticism is part of the equation on both sides. I’ve had players ask about things I’ve written — sometimes cordially and sometimes not — but whatever the situation I’ve always addressed those concerns. To me, if you’re going to rip a player, it’s important to show you’d better show your face in the clubhouse the next day.
TYA: Do you think players know which reporters are being even handed and which might be taking shots at them? Do they care? Does it alter how they treat those reporters?
I think that differs by the individual. I’m sure some of these guys know who’s writing what. If they’re not reading it themselves, they’ve got friends or family telling them what’s being put out there. But again, the answer is based on the individual and these guys are all over the place.
TYA: With twitter shortening the news cycle and more and more folks getting news from places other than the morning paper, how do you see your job changing?
That’s like asking a typewriter salesman how his job is changing now that more and more folks are writing on their computers, which is to say, drastically. More than anything, newspaper reporters must increasingly cater to a lot of different audiences, all of which have their own unique needs. This is a fundamental shift from the old standard of catering to one broad audience.
TYA: Do you think reporters are well positioned to make character judgments on players, or evaluations of their mental state? Do you think it is necessary for a reporter to make those calls to effectively do their jobs?
Great question. I can only share how I handle this, which is to say that I realize that whatever character judgment I have about a player is purely on a surface level. Same goes for a mental state. It only takes a functioning set of eyes to see that a player is angry, especially if he chooses to display that mental state by doing something like smashing a ball bat into a cooler filled with Gatorade. I keep it to the surface level stuff because it’s the only level for which I can confidently gauge with accuracy. Anything deeper that, I leave to shrinks. Or columnists. Since they are paid to express an opinion, they might be more inclined to offer their character judgment of a player, or a sense of their mental state. Can reporters develop enough of a rapport with people to get beyond surface emotions? I think it’s possible. That holds true for every individual relationship. But it’s territory I won’t delve into unless I am 100 percent certain that I’m accurate.
TYA: These days, you can create content and interact with readers in a variety of forums that seem to have different rules. How do you define the different roles of print, blogs and Twitter? What is acceptable for each, and what isn’t?
For me, the rules are defined strictly by audience, and by the medium. A newspaper is different from a news Website, which is different from a blog, which is different from Twitter. While there might be overlap, each audience has different needs, different levels of engagement. I see each medium as falling on a different part of a spectrum. On one side is the newspaper, which has the broadest audience. On the other side is Twitter, which has the most narrow audience. In the newspaper, I am nothing but a byline, a name printed on newsprint. There is still distance between a reporter and a reader. On Twitter, I am a person, much more than the sum of an Avatar and words on a screen. Unlike the newspaper, there is very little distance separating us. These are clearly the extremes. The job is learning how to serve all of these audiences.
TYA: Once upon a time, player’s personal lives were considered off limits. As we’ve seen with Alex Rodriguez and sites like TMZ, that clearly isn’t the case anymore. Where do you think a beat writer should draw the line and are you OK with other outlets covering different stories? How does the individual player factor into this equation?
I think the line in many ways has been drawn for us. It depends on where you work, who your editors are, and what it is that they value. Some outlets might view the personal lives of players as completely off limits, and some might not, and still others might have a fuzzier view. I can’t speak for others, but if my motivation as a reporter were to dig into personal lives, I’d work at TMZ. But because my motivation is clearly different, I don’t work at TMZ.
TYA: Bloggers and twitter users, myself included, often criticize the mainstream media. How do writers tend to take that sort of criticism? Do you think any of it is useful in terms of honing your craft? Do you think it might be more effective and useful if the tone was less acerbic? What would you say to the argument that just as players are public figures who are open to criticism from the MSM, writers put their work product into the public forum and are therefore also open to criticism?
Our names appear on top of our stories for a reason. Criticism — and accountability — is part of the job.
How each writer takes criticism varies with the individual. As for myself, I think I’ve developed a pretty thick skin, so most of the time I let things slide. Not all the time. Sometimes, I get heated, and I have to fight the temptation to fire back. But I rarely fire back because doing so is hardly ever productive. Of course, criticism can be used to hone your craft, though some of that is determined by the spirit in which the criticism is given. Some people take shots simply because they can. Anonymity emboldens people. Reporters are easy targets. They can’t fight back. If you call me a moron, and I tell you to go fuck yourself, I lose. Every time. But when the criticism is fair, if it is sent from the perspective of trying to trigger critical thought, then in that case it is invaluable.
The day after Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit, I wrote a story in which I brought up the possibility that he could be one of the last to reach the milestone, and part of the reason is because the game has changed. Statistically, we’ve seen hitters take more pitches, which means strikeouts have increased. We’ve gained a better understanding of the value of the walk. One of the major criticisms I got for that piece was that I had jumped to conclusions in making some of the assertions in the story. And I thought they were fair. I won’t apologize for the effort behind the piece. I didn’t willfully jump to conclusions. In fact, I ran the premise of the story by several people I trust in the game, all of whom have an extensive background in analysis. Still, I should have pushed harder, put my assertions through greater scrutiny. It was a lesson learned. I felt like I gained something from those who offered criticism in the spirt of starting a dialogue.
But I was surprised by the amount of criticism that amounted to little more than snark for snark’s sake. Sadly a lot of it came from sabermetric types — many of whom clearly didn’t know my work or my outlook on the game. They revealed this lack of familiarity by making all the blanket statements one would expect, assuming that for some reason that I bemoaned the change in the game, and that I was somehow beholden to the Church of Batting Average, RBI and Grit. To me, it’s the most unfair criticism, to assume that just because I’m in the mainstream media that I’m closed-minded about these things. Are we still fighting this stupid philosophical battle? It’s not 2002, anymore, and it’s been years since I’ve made a mom’s basement joke. So, save the snark.
TYA: On that note, sometimes fans see beat writers complaining about their jobs and have a hard time reconciling that with their fandom. I guess the question is, do you enjoy your job? Do you think fans overestimated how much fun being on the beat and getting to watch baseball for a living is?
It’s simple: most fans don’t understand the job. We don’t get paid to watch baseball for a living. We get paid to cover it. We’re not fans. That’s an important distinction. Do I enjoy my job? Absolutely. I am fascinated by the game and by the people and by the work that comes with covering a team. Is it fun? If you follow my Twitter feed for a game, you’ll know what I think. But it is still work, and it’s no different from any other job in that there are parts that aren’t much fun.
The tradeoffs are extreme. For instance, I’ve watched baseball history with my own eyes, and I’ve had the good fortune of being able to write about it. I know what a ballpark sounds like when a World Series has just been won. But I also know what it’s like to answer a 4 am wake-up call, what it’s like to spend months on the road, and what it’s like to wonder if my girlfriend’s going to stop calling one day because I’m away so much. Getting beat on a story still feels terrible. And there are few things that make me more sick to my stomach than picking up the paper and discovering that I made a stupid mistake. Now, I realize nobody gives a shit, which is why I avoid the topic on Twitter. Nobody likes a whiner.
I don’t think fans overestimate how much fun it is being on the beat — there are a lot of days when this is the coolest job ever. But I do think that hey might underestimate the parts of this job that can be demanding.
TYA: Is it possible for a beat guy to be entirely objective? I’d think personal feelings about players and teams have to enter at least a bit, you folks are human. In that case, what is the reporter’s obligation to his reader, in terms of informing the reader as to were he is coming from? Should complete objectivity be the ideal, or do we want the writer’s personality and feelings in the work?
Philosophically, I don’t believe it’s possible to be entirely objective. We’re all going to be colored by our own experiences. The key is being mindful of what that means, which is why I shoot for a different standard. My obligation is to go about my job with a basic sense of fairness. For me, that means remaining vigilant about what you’re writing and why, and challenging yourself when there are instances that this sense of fairness might be in doubt. My obligation is to have that conversation with myself whenever it’s necessary — without exception.
TYA: In an industry where it seems that speed now trumps quality, do you think quality will soon disappear or become a rarity? Or do you find that the cream eventually rise to the top and those in the industry know who is a hack and who will survive long term?
Quality takes on different forms, which in the case of journalism, is still being discovered.
TYA: Do you think there is any long term or short term penalty within the industry or among fans for reporters who consistently just throw a ton of crap against the wall and hopes something sticks? Or do the 2 right times and 8 wrong times out of 10 trump the guy who holds his tongue and only reports one rumor but gets it right?
Nope. If you were wrong 20 years ago, you were wrong all day. If you’re wrong today, you’re wrong for as long as it takes you to type the next Tweet. That’s less of an indictment on the reporters, and more on the instant nature of the news cycle.
TYA: Do you think how a player or manager deals with the media impacts the team, in the sense that poor media relations can lead to poor public perception and stress from ownership and within the clubhouse? Or is a lot of that sort of stuff contrived?
Yes, it can impact the team. Dealing with the media is just another variable. It can be a non-issue, or it can become a major distraction, just like injuries. But unlike injuries, teams have a measure of control about how they handle the media. Is that stuff contrived? Some of it is. A lot of it isn’t.
TYA: How do you expect to be treated by players? Do you think it is hard for them to be pleasant on a regular basis with people asking them why they made mistake A or couldn’t execute strategy B? Is that a bad excuse for rich players who are getting paid to do the entire job, part of which is relating to the media?
Even if the quotes stink, all I ask for is professional respect. Do you think it’s pleasant for a reporter to ask a person in a moment of disappointment why they made a mistake or failed to execute a strategy? I can’t say I’ve ever found that part of it to be pleasant. But both parties have to do it, and in situations that might be uncomfortable, a little bit of professionalism can go a really long way. For me, I don’t ask that a player is eloquent or even friendly, just that they are available.
TYA: Do you think a current reporter or columnist needs to learn advanced statistics, at least enough to make an informed decision to reject them? What about GM’s? Managers?
I don’t think it is essential. Advanced statistics, as widespread as they’ve become, are still in my view far from the mainstream. So, at a newspaper, it don’t find it essential at all. Again, consider the broader audience. But if you’re a general manager or a manager, rejecting advanced metrics out of hand is about the same as saying you’re firing the scouting staff because you don’t agree with some of their reports. Some people will gravitate more toward them than others, but it has become a competitive disadvantage to simply wave your fist, drop some cliched line about your mom and her basement, and dismiss the numbers without giving them some thought.
TYA: Do you think the media underestimates their readership in terms of what they will understand? Do you think the readership isn’t demanding enough of the writers? Both?
Clearly both. Yes, I believe that it’s easy to underestimate readers, though for me that mentality isn’t borne out of arrogance. Part of working at a general interest publication such as a newspaper is making sure that you’re reaching as wide an audience as possible, which runs contrary to the Internet culture, where audiences are much narrower. I doubt that there are people reading TYA that need a primer on xFIP. But at a newspaper, it’s important to remember the casual fans, to make an effort not to leave them behind. On the other side of it, when readers demand more of you, when they hold you to a high standard, when they challenge your assertion, everybody wins in that transaction.
TYA: Reporters use anonymous sources, for obvious reasons. How do you think reporters can lend credibility to the quotes in their stories that don’t have a name behind them?
By earning credibility elsewhere. Prove to readers you’re that honest, that you can be counted on to get things straight, whether that’s as small as a guy’s batting average or as big as getting the right players involved when breaking news of a trade. When I use an anonymous source, I am asking the reader to trust me, knowing full well that some will not. That’s fine, though over time, I hope that I can change a few minds.
TYA: More and more frequently, bloggers and people who never did the whole J-school thing are getting good sportswriting jobs, getting credentialed. What is the feeling among those who put in the time to earn their way up the ladder the conventional way towards this trend? Do you think that because most of these newer writers got where they did on the merit of their quality and building a following, this is a good thing? Or is there something invaluable about the old way that is being lost in the process?
I came up the old way. I covered high school football games in sideways rain. I learned to wrap a plastic grocery bag over my clipboard because it was the surest way to keep my notes straight in a nasty storm; to keep my own stats because nobody else was going to do it for me; to hustle to the car at halftime and turn the heater all the way up because it was quickest way to save the information on rain-soaked stat sheets. Before laptops, I learned how to write the first eight paragraphs of a story in my head during the car ride back to the office, so when I sat down at the computer I needed only two minutes to put it on paper. That allowed me to use the left over five minutes before deadline to write the rest.
I remember what it’s like to cover a Little League game, or a badminton tournament, or Class-A high school softball, which is why I’m never too quick to complain about my day as I sit in a major league press box, with the best view of the field, with my stats printed out and handed to me whenever I want. So, yes, as the old way disappears, we are losing something invaluable.
That said, I appreciate the so-called new way because it is a meritocracy. Besides, for decades, the “whole J-school thing” was not a prerequisite to work in a newsroom. At some point, it became part of the deal, though some of the best journalists I’ve ever worked with never stepped foot in Newswriting 101.
Now, more than ever, it seems to me that fans want to become journalists. And when I’m asked about it, I tend to wish them luck, though I always offer this warning. Treasure your fandom, because the more serious you become as a journalist, I find the more you lose the passion that only a fan can truly possess. I’m reminded of this whenever my brother calls me on his latest rant about why the A’s have once again fielded a team that can’t hit. Even if I got out of the business, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get back to that fandom again, and a part of me is sad about it.
TYA: Do you sometimes feel the need to follow and write on a story that you don’t find compelling or interesting because many of the other outlets are writing about it?
It happens a lot. That’s just part of the deal.
TYA: Is there something to the idea that some players cannot handle NY? Does that come from the fans, media, or both? Is it odd for writers to question if someone can handle media scrutiny when they are the ones providing that scrutiny?
Yes, there is. And assuming that it comes only fans or the media is to miss an even more important force, the Yankees themselves. Part of the vetting process here involves trying to gauge whether an individual can handle the pressures of playing in New York. It’s a question the Yankees weighed last winter when Zack Greinke became a possible for the target for front office. Which is why I don’t find it odd to ask questions about handling scrutiny, because we’re not the only ones responsible for that pressure.
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