Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jim Souhan's Lazy Journalism

Jim Souhan devoted his Sunday column to cataloguing local reaction to epochal events in Minnesota sports. The public’s supposedly unanimous responses -- “Minnesotans hated these deals”-- to moves that worked out well served as a refrain that lent the piece a satisfying cohesion, stylistically speaking.

That the refrain also painted a misleading picture did not seem to concern Souhan. How else to explain his decision to include among the "hated" moves the decision to draft Joe Mauer over Mark Prior in the 2001 draft? No doubt some observers felt that the Twins were choosing the lesser but more affordable talent in Mauer. But to suggest that Minnesotans in general hated this deal? Didn’t the excitement surrounding that pick suggest that most took pride in the selection? I suspect that Souhan decided to include the Mauer pick near the end of his list because the pick turned out so spectacularly well, and the suggestion that Minnesotans hated the pick served as a fine exclamation point to his contention that Minnesotans react with knee-jerk and ultimately myopic unanimity to sports related events.

Of course the obvious problem with that contention is that it is wrong. Turn on sports talk radio or enter the Minnesota sports blogsphere and you’ll discover a diversity local opinion on most any local sporting subject you’ll care to name. To remain ignorant of, or possibly ignore, that diversity for the sake of thematic and stylistic integrity of a piece is to engage in lazy journalism.

Souhan is the Crown Prince (or rather the Court Jester) of lazy journalism in that his pieces are loosely constructed and typically favor glib humor over analysis. That approach makes for entertaining, but rarely informative, pieces. As someone who relies at least as much on humor as analysis in his own writing, I’d be a hypocrite to suggest that there is no place for his style of writing in the sports page. I will suggest, however, that Souhan ought to recognize where his contribution rates among those who elevate substance over style.

Certainly that substance is out there. There are local bloggers who write some very informative stuff. For instance, Nick Nelson, Aaron Gleeman, Ubelmann and company over at SBG, the crew at Twins Territory, Kyle Eliason, John Sharkey, the inimitable John Bonnes (aka Twins Geek), and a host of others frequently featured at and whom I do a disservice by failing to mention often write posts steeped in detailed, research-driven analysis.

Which brings me to a throwaway line in Sunday’s throwaway piece:

“Gentle readers – and bloggers who remain ever-hopeful of gainful employment – hate everything about the (Santana) deal…. And they remind me that I must be wrong, because Minnesotans’ gut reactions are always right."

The implication in this line – and indeed in the entire piece – is that bloggers base their opinion on their gut, whereas Souhan bases his opinion on informed argument. Certainly one might argue that this should be the case. With the exception of Gleeman, the bloggers I have mentioned are not full time scribes. They are college students and business men and women and blue and white collar professionals who shoehorn their blogging into crowded lives. Indeed, it is precisely because bloggers are gainfully employed by organizations that don’t pay them to write that one would expect to discover in their works a species of lazy journalism. Likewise, it is precisely because Jim Souhan is gainfully employed by a newspaper that pays him to research and to write that one would expect much research-backed analysis.

That this is not always the case -- that Souhan’s Sunday column stands as an exemplar of his loose, style-driven approach while is loaded with links to research-driven blogs -- suggests that, at the very least, when Souhan tars the purveyors of relatively uninformed sports commentary, he feathers himself in the process.


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget about his cheap metaphors. I'm sure Gleeman could refer you to multiple poultry metaphors. There was also a column a few years back about Sanatana as a gem found in the bargain bin. True, and kind of cute, but the column beat the idea to death.

Anonymous said...

No discussion of Souhan's laziness can be complete without mentioning that he criticized Joe Mauer's toughness by saying that his sources "had never heard of" a stress reaction injury, thereby implying that Mauer was making it up. When I read that line of bull, I googled "stress reaction" and found a plethora of information on the injury and a list of athletes who suffered it. Now, with a half season of Randy Foye on the shelf with the same injury, I wonder if Mr. Souhan has heard of it.


David Wintheiser said...

Interesting essay, but the very fact of the essay's existence is testament to Souhan getting exactly what he wants out of this exchange -- another set of eyeballs on his text. As long as he keeps eyeballs, he keeps his bosses convinced that his text sells papers and draws web click-throughs, and he remains 'gainfully employed'.

Besides, criticizing Souhan for 'lazy journalism' is like criticizing a hippopotamus for having a poor backstroke -- sports columnists like Souhan, Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, etc., aren't being paid to educate, they're being paid to entertain, and there's apparently a lot more guys entertained by cheesy puns and 80s culture references than there are guys entertained by a detailed breakdown of the Twins payroll structure.

And yes, there are excellent columnists like Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star who do combine some education and research with their entertainment, but I wonder if that's not a reflection of that baseball community (a community that also produced Bill James and Rob Neyer, among others) more than it is a reflection of the expectations of a sports columnist.

Tom Genrich said...

I take your point, David. Pointing out, and then criticizing, Souhan's lightweight style is a bit like setting up and then knocking over a straw man given that the criticism misses the point of Souhan's columns, which is to sell newspapers. You suggest that his lightweight style serves that purpose just fine; I agree that his style probably appeals to a wider audience than a more "inside baseball" approach to sports subjects would. That was one reason I suggested in the piece that I do believe there is a place for Souhan's style on the sports page.

Notwithstanding the post's heading, I intended for it to be less a criticism of Souhan's style and more a criticism of Souhan's assertion that his commentary on sports is backed by the weight of knowledgeable analysis. I believe he implied as much when he contrasted his take on things with opinions offered by Minnesotans and bloggers in particular, opinions he characterized as formed quickly and without foresight.

Perhaps Souhan does spend a lot of time researching and formulating his opinions. That certainly doesn't come through in his writing, however, and for him to not only favorably compare his published expertise with the superior stuff you can find in certain blogs out there, but also to take a cheap shot at those bloggers in the process ... well, at that point, I think someone needs to remind Souhan that whatever the appeal to the general public of a style I'd characterize as "lazy", that style generates copy that is far less substantial than the work of many of the bloggers he disparages.

montanatwinsfan said...

"As someone who relies at least as much on humor as analysis in his own writing, I’d be a hypocrite..."

Really? Musta missed it somewhere in your article, along with any smidgen of humility.

Unlike you, I don't believe I have ever seen Jim Souhan make himself out to be something he isn't. He is an entertainer, and a humorous writer - and he knows that. He places last in the sports page lineup for the same reason Andy Rooney takes last place on 60 minutes.

Yes, he indulged in a couple of quick simplistic exaggerations in this piece in order to make his point. But your failure to recognize the humor, and the underlying point (which is, as much as anything else to spare all of us another pompous opinion on someone's worth by measuring their vorp), than you are the one that deserves a little criticism.

montanatwinsfan said...

oops, jumped from Wintheiser's reply directly to my own without taking the time to review your response posted at 12:46pm.

In the words of the immortal Rosanah Rosanah Danna... ..."Never mind"!

Tom Genrich said...

"As someone who relies at least as much on humor as analysis in his own writing, I’d be a hypocrite..."

Really? Musta missed it somewhere in your article, along with any smidgen of humility.

Actually, I was referring to attempts at humor within other posts in this blog, and then my work as a founding member of GameDay (a Minnesota Twins independent program and scorecard) over the years. No humor in this post. At least not intentionally. ;-)

I appreciate the retraction, but just to be clear: I'm not suggesting that Souhan's work lacks merit. I appreciate his sense of humor, his appeal to a wide audience, and that the column I reference was written with some hyperbole. Nevertheless I stand by what I wrote. I believe he referenced what amounted to a counterexample (the Mauer pick) to his theme for stylistic effect alone. Stick and Ball Guy cited another instance where Souhan seemed to ignore a prominant counterfactual for the sake of his larger theme. Those count as instances of lazy journalism in my book. I don't take those instances as exceptional ones: I recognize a looseness to his style that, for whatever his appeal to his reading audience, does not always stand up to scrutiny. One might argue that some bloggers write posts that withstand scutiny even less well than Souhan's columns do. I'd not deny that. However, I believe that there are a number of bloggers out there who write stuff that is far more informative, and substantial in the sense that it is backed by qualitative and quantitative analysis, than what Souhan is known for.

I read Souhan's column to suggest that he would deny that, or at least that he would compare favorably the weight and the expertise of his opinion against those who blog. Possibly he didn't mean to tar all bloggers as uninformed and quick to judge, but then that oversight would be consistent with what I've characterized as his loose and lazy style. At the very least, given the quality of analysis generated by some bloggers when compared with the analysis to be found in his columns, I'd argue that his is the piece that resonates with a lack of humility.

Rick Prescott said...

This Souhan line stood out:

"...bloggers who remain ever-hopeful of gainful employment..."

In other words, "I'm the REAL writer here and you lazy, get-a-life bloggers just WISH you were writers. Why don't you just shut up and leave it to the pros?"

Well, I'm gainfully employed and a parent and a blogger. I write not with the hope of employment as a writer, but because I love my subject. (Of course, if somebody WANTED to give me money for it, I'd take it, but that's certainly not the goal.)

Writers who love their subject and write passionately about it with depth and detail and humor will always get more eyeballs than writers who try only to entertain. How newspapers don't get this is beyond me. It might just be a contributing factor to the medium's death spiral in progress.

Columns like that have a certain "sportsiness" about them (to extend Stephen Colbert) without actually constituting real in-depth sports analysis. As such, serious and talented bloggers, like those featured at MNGameday, put pressure on the paid writers. One would think that is a good thing. Souhan and his editors apparently do not agree.

In the best of all possible worlds, the best writers on a particular subject would get paid the most to write about it.

In THIS world, the folks with passion (and some talent) get dissed by others whose talents are apparent but whose passion may have waned.


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