THERE’S A HOLE IN MLB’S MEDIA WALL

By Murray Chass

February 24, 2013

Major League Baseball has benefited so royally from what it calls MLB Advanced Media that it’s difficult to question anything that M.L.B. subsidiary does. What it does is make money, plenty of it, for all segments of baseball. Even the players benefit because its revenue has sent M.L.B. revenue soaring beyond $8 billion a year and has enabled clubs to pay players higher and higher salaries without going to war with the union over a salary cap.MLB dot com 225

As true as all of that may be, however, in my view it doesn’t justify the MLB.com practice that journalistic veterans find troubling. As a card-carrying member of that group, I find it troubling.

I’m talking about the Web site’s practice of commingling editorial and advertising. In fact, the site pollutes itself with so much advertising – advertisements for itself – that it’s difficult to find and identify the editorial elements.

Obviously newspapers run editorial and advertising on the same pages, even page one these days in a desperate attempt to increase revenue, but there is a clear delineation of which is which. The Website home pages of the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, for example, include discretely placed ads that don’t interfere with the news stories that are displayed on the pages.

However, advertisements (commercials, if you prefer) dominate the MLB.com home page, sometimes even the list that is headed “latest news.”

The focal point of the home page is a rotating series of a dozen or so images with headlines highlighting developments and events but also blatantly throwing in advertisements as if they were of equal significance. Several samples from recent days:

  • “Play Ball: Ballpark Empire puts you in the owner’s suite” (“a new online game”)
  • “30 clubs in 30 days on MLB Network”
  • “MLB.tv now available for 2013 premium”
  • “Flip your lid: Mark the ’13 season with new-look BP caps”
  • “MLB.tv monthly packages now available starting at $19.99/month”
  • a“World Baseball Classic archives auction (“bid on 2006 and 2009 game-used items”)
  • “Go deep with fantasy baseball on CBSSports.com”
  • “2013 World Baseball Classic tickets are on sale now”
  • “Young The Giant: Watch an exclusive performance at the MLB Fan Cave”

These headlines do not represent all of the home-page headlines; you can find actual news or features among them, though Bob Bowman, Advanced Media’s chief executive officer, said that wasn’t so. Refering to the segment that contains the rotating photos as “the media wall,” he said, “We don’t write headlines there; our headlines are hard news.”

It might be a matter of semantics, but news by any other name is still news. If MLB.com doesn’t consider the above examples as headlines, what to call these, which appeared among those:

  • “Ichiro settles in” (headline or title for an article about how Ichiro Suzuki has found comfort with the New York Yankees)
  • “Konerko faces future by living in the day” (an article about the White Sox first baseman)

Scanning that same segment of the home page Friday night, after I had spoken with Bowman, I found these “headlines” among those promoting various aspects of MLB.com or MLB:

  • “Rivera, Jeter report progress at camp”
  • “Carp eager to make mark with Red Sox”

How can a reader not consider those items as news?

Adjacent to the rotating media wall is a list offering the “latest news,” but even there MLB.com can’t resist inserting what I consider illegitimate news.

Here are some examples of what MLB.com considers news:

  • “CBSSports.com fantasy commissioner’s a hit”
  • “’Next Knuckler’ winner Booty off to D-Backs camp”
  • “Now reporting for spring training: At Bat 13”

Fantasy baseball, an online game and a new app are baseball news? I don’t think so, and I’ve been in the sports news business for more than half a century. Of course, I still resist the Internet version of news, and I suppose that’s where Bowman and I disagree. I will also reiterate what I wrote at the outset: Advanced Media’s method makes money for baseball. My idea of professionalism doesn’t.

One more set of crossover examples:

On Saturday night’s home page, the rotating screen had 12 photos. Nine were clearly advertisements, most the same as noted above. The other three featured Stephen Strasburg (“Expectation s high for Strasburg in 2013”), Chase Utley (“Spring in Utley’s step after first game”) and the Braves (“Very good not good enough for Braves”). Just to the right of the screen was a “latest news” list. The first three items were about Strasburg, Utley and the Braves.

The next five headlines on the list also related legitimate news stores. Then there was the ninth and last:

  • “MLB.TV’S Spring Training slate under way”

Yes, it was more advertisement disguised as editorial. “Signings,” it began, “are under way as the 11th year of watching live games on MLB.TV continues Sunday with two more Spring Training games: Blue Jays (ss) at Yankees in Tampa, Fla. (1:05 p.m. ET) and A’s at Angels in Tempe, Ariz. (3:05).

“More than 200 live Grapefruit and Cactus League games come with a subscription to MLB.TV Premium ($129.99 yearly or $24.99 monthly) or basic MLB.TV ($109.99 yearly or $19.99 monthly).”

Speaking in a telephone interview, Bob Bowman 225candidly explaining his modus operandi, but before these latest headlines were posted, Bowman said, “I absolutely want to remind people if they want ‘At Bat’ or TV, it’s available to buy. I guess you consider that advertising as you would consider selling tickets for the World Baseball Classic. We’re reminding people how they can buy uniforms and bats. I guess that’s an advertisement, but that’s what people want to know.

“We remind people to sign up for fantasy baseball. Is that an advertisement? I guess it is. Do people want to be reminded? Yes. The WBC? You bet I’m going to sell tickets. We always promote Fan Cave and media sports. Is that advertising? I guess so.”

He paused for a moment, then took a different approach. Knowing that I used to work for The New York Times, he asked, “Does The New York Times tell you in The New York Times how to subscribe to The New York Times?”

The Times does that – not every day – and the newspaper also tells you the price of a mailed subscription for the daily newspaper and the cost of the Times Book Review and the large print weekly. However, all of that information appears at the bottom of page 2 of the paper in a 4-column by 3-inch space in agate, or 6-point type. It’s not placed on page 1 in the most noticeable spot on the page, with pictures, no less.

But I will give Bowman this much. The Internet has made the information world a different place. Old rules no longer apparently apply. Some of us in the business, however, don’t see why the new guys on the block can’t exercise the old professionalism and simply separate editorial from advertising. MLB.com’s media wall isn’t high enough.

“I think the test in the end is circulation and business,” Bowman said frankly, adding, “We don’t want to become a homer site. From day one we’ve played it down the middle. We cover stories as we’re supposed to cover.”

I don’t agree that the coverage is as it should be – more on that later – but I can’t argue with the numbers he mentioned: 11 million visitors a day and 35 million tickets sold worth more than $1 billion.

“Ultimately, that’s the test, how many people come,” said Bowman, who remained amiable despite my disagreeing with him. “We’re a commerce site. We sell 35 million tickets from our site. We are organized as a for-profit business. We want to give people what they want.

“We have columns and hard-hitting news, but fans also want to know how to buy a hat.

“You might be a Yankee fan living in Milwaukee and can’t find a Yankee hat there. With the Astros moving to the American League, Yankee fans might want to know how to buy tickets for the Astros. If we’re selling 35 million tickets, we feel that’s what fans want. We want to make it easier for them.

“It’s a different business to have content and commerce. We try to balance it. This is an odd time of year. The balance will be more in keeping with what you think because we’ll be writing about live games. They always take precedence over what we do otherwise. We are taking our best guess. But we feel people vote with their fingers.”

Would the people vote any differently, though, if MLB.com more rigidly separated editorial and advertising? Bowman doesn’t need me telling him how to run his business – he has run it probably better than anyone else could have.

But the Ichiro and Konerko stories, for example, could have been on the “latest-news” side of the media wall. The “latest news” stories about fantasy baseball, the online knuckler game and the new app could have been restricted to the rotating screen, where they were anyway.

Now about those three stories.

I have previously been critical of some of the pieces the Web site has assigned Mark Newman, its enterprise editor. For a while, it seemed that he was writing an article a month lauding the commissioner. They might think they’re helping (both Bud Selig and themselves), but Selig doesn’t need his minions telling him and fans how good he is. His accomplishments speak for themselves, and the owners speak for him by repeatedly raising his salary, now $25 million a year.

Newman wrote two of the stories I’m referring to, the one about the new app and the one about CBSSports.com fantasy baseball. And to add a nice touch, he also wrote the “news” article I quoted with the Saturday news headline about buying television packages.

“Now reporting for Spring Training: MLB.com At Bat 13,

“The top sports mobile app in each of the past four years was launched on Thursday by Major League Baseball Advanced Media with a suite of new features across iPhone, iPad, supported Android smartphones and tablets and Kindle Fire – right in time for those first Major League Baseball exhibition games this weekend.

“In addition, At Bat will debut on the new BlackBerry Z10 by Opening Day, as announced in January.”

I guess I missed that announcement. I guess this is what Bowman meant by providing information to fans who want it. Same for Newman’s fantasy baseball story.

Having quoted a participant in the Wisconsin Baseball League, Newman writes:

“Such drafts are looming across the Major League Baseball landscape as Spring Training exhibitions approach and league owners get more and more serious. The Wisconsin Baseball League’s platform is the official Fantasy Commissioner Game of MLB.com, and if you purchase your league by 11:59 p.m. PT on March 7, you will save $20.”

Well, I now have aided and abetted MLB.com in its revenue-raising ventures, which I’d rather not do. When I retired from the Times in 2008, a high-ranking official offered me the opportunity to write for MLB.com. I said no, thank you. Having covered M.L.B. for many years, I felt it would have been some sort of conflict. But here I am helping their advertising.

“Mark Newman generally gets these assignments,” Bowman said. “It’s rare that we lead with a Mark Newman story. Sometimes he writes stories that are inward looking, but people want to read it.”

“We don’t bat a thousand,” he acknowledged. It’s a constant battle between commerce and content.”

MLB Advanced Media came into existence in 2000. “We became cash neutral in 2003, our third year,” Bowman said, and cash positive in 2004.” He declined to provide current financial details, such as the revenue it produces for M.L.B. But have no doubt about the job he and it have done.

“This is a game that is made for digital media,” he said. “The way people are now and live their lives, they might have 10 minutes to watch. It’s nice if you can sit down in front of a TV and watch, but people can’t always do that. They have to be elsewhere – in church, synagogue, school – so they do what they can because they’re fans.”

STILL NOTHING ON SAN JOSE HORIZON DESPITE REPORT

as-cisco-fieldFor a minute last week, it appeared that the fight over San Jose between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants might finally be on the road to resolution. It turned out to be a false alarm, and now it’s evident that the committee Commissioner Bud Selig named to study the problem will reach its fourth anniversary March 30 without a report or a recommendation. That may be the case because Selig doesn’t want a report or a recommendation.

A published report last week said Selig had forwarded to Lew Wolff, the Athletics’ managing partner, a set of guidelines for him to follow for a possible move to San Jose. However, it turned out that while the Los Angeles Times’ story was the first time it had been reported anywhere, it was not a new story.

“They’ve had guidelines for a long time,” a baseball official said. “There’s nothing new. It’s misleading to think it was just issued.” How long ago were the guidelines issued? “Quite a long time ago.”

Another official confirmed that there was nothing new under the California sun.

But a new theory emerged that could explain Selig’s deliberately slow pace in acting on the matter. What if Selig didn’t want to allow the move or, more likely, had determined that a move wouldn’t get 75 percent of the votes (23) it would need from the 30 owners? If the commissioner, who is big on consensus, denied Wolff’s request, in what position would that leave the A’s in Oakland? They can’t move anywhere else in their territory, and they would have no leverage in Oakland, where they have alienated officeholders and civic leaders.

By stalling with his decision, Selig, in reality, could be giving Wolff time to make a good deal to build a new park in Oakland. On the other hand, if that were Selig’s intention, wouldn’t he tip off Wolff, whom he enticed into baseball, so he could begin pursuing a site for a new park? Wolff has only said there is nowhere in Oakland he will move.

It’s not very likely that Wolff will light a candle on the study committee’s fourth-anniversary cake March 30.

NO MORE BOBBY V?

Have we seen the last of Bobby Valentine in a major league uniform?Bobby Valentine OK 150

The former manager, whom the Red Sox fired after one season, accepted a new job last week as athletic director at Sacred Heart University in his home state of Connecticut. His new college colleagues have no idea what they’re in for.

Valentine presumably has a clause in his contract that would allow him to take a managing job if one were offered, but it’s difficult to see any major league team offering him a job. The Red Sox ignored all of the warning signs they saw or were given and hired him anyway. Seeing the results of that foolish decision, why would any other team want to make the same mistake?

So bye, bye Bobby; it’s not that we hardly knew ye, we knew ye all too well. But then, you have probably heard of the proverbial bad penny.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.