Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Now Available At Raton Libraries

My new book is now available at the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library in Raton. I donated a copy to the library and did the same for the Raton High School library. So people who wish to check out the book may do so.

I'm going to be preparing to do some more promotion of my book in the coming days, mostly in Raton. And I promise I'll be doing some blogging here to talk more about the book itself.

In the meantime, feel free to ask me questions, but remember to read the LAQ before you do.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Problem With Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias frequently comes up in the mainstream media. You’ve likely seen it or read it countless times. It works like this: Something didn’t work out as was expected, so therefore we go back to the time in which it was started and either say or imply, “They should have seen this coming.”

The problem with hindsight bias is it suggests that, if a different approach had been taken, then that approach would have been guaranteed to get results – when there is no guarantee it would have.

To illustrate this, let’s play a game of blackjack.

Let’s assume it’s you against the dealer, it’s the first hand being dealt and the dealer has just shuffled the deck of cards. On the first hand, you are dealt a king and a seven. The dealer’s face-up card is a six.

Do you hit or do you stand?

Let’s say you decide to stand, knowing that the dealer must hit on anything 16 or less and stand on anything 17 or higher. The dealer then turns over his face-down card, revealing a jack. Because he has 16, he must hit.

The dealer takes the next card – and it’s a four. So the dealer wins the hand

If media pundits were critiquing and analyzing blackjack hands, there would be those who would criticize you for standing, saying you should have hit on 17 because then you would have had 21, making it harder on the dealer to win.

So let’s say you decide to hit the next time you have 17 and the dealer has a face-up six. Your next card is a six, putting you at 23, so you went bust. Let’s say the dealer decides to turn the face-up card for you (even if he doesn’t have to) to reveal a card worth 10. Once again, certain media pundits would criticize you for hitting when, if you had stood, the dealer would have been went bust.

So you decide to stand the next time you have 17 and the dealer has a face-up six. He turns the face-down card over, reveals a card worth 10, then the next card he draws is a five. In this scenario, it would not have mattered if you hit or stood – you would lose the hand. Yet the media pundits would still find a way to criticize you, declaring you were a fool for wasting your money on blackjack and that money could have been better spent elsewhere.

In any case, it’s hindsight bias, where the pundit is making judgments based on the results, not on every factor that comes into play. Some of the factors stay the same no matter what (dealer must hit on 16 or less or stand on 17 or higher), some factors are under your control (you have the option to hit or stand, or in some cases, be able to split your hand or double down) and some aren’t under your control (you have no idea what will be the next card dealt).

The problem with hindsight bias is it assumes all factors are under your control. But in every issue people deal with, there are always going to be factors you don’t have under your control.

It is one thing to criticize people for handling factors in which they clearly had control. But it’s important to know what those factors actually are and not assume everything is a factor under a person’s control.

Politicians don’t have as much control over the economy as they and other people may think. An employee can do whatever he or she can to prepare for the future but doesn’t have control over what his or her employer is doing. We can all drive safely on the roads but we can’t directly control what other drivers do. Sports team can choose which free agents to pursue and, when their turn in a draft comes up, can pick from who is available, but they have no way of controlling how well that player will turn out on the field or off the field.

Some may try to control these factors but it doesn’t always work out the way they intend to.

It is fine to hold a difference of opinion, but if one simply bases their opinions on the results, they aren’t looking at the big picture. They are likely trying to prove they are smarter than others and, if it had been them, they would have made a choice that would have worked out.

But the truth is, nobody can say for certain what is guaranteed to work out or how to guarantee that things will work out. Issues are more complex than that and hindsight bias does nothing to point that out.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Interview With Amy Beth Inverness

I was interviewed by Amy Beth Inverness this week regarding the book Small Town Sports Beat. You can find the interview here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Accountability Isn't Determined By Media Narrative

A quick Google search shows more than 81 million results for Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who is facing first degree murder charges.

Another Google search shows about 1.1 million results for Ausur Walcott, a linebacker who signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted rookie, then was released after facing charges of attempted first degree murder.

So why is it that one player is under the microscope far more than the other?

Granted, charges of first degree murder carry a greater penalty if there is conviction, than there is for charges of attempted murder. But both are charges of a serious nature.

Yet then the factors come into play that lead to the mainstream media deciding what’s more important to focus on. Hernandez played for the Patriots, a team that is supposed to have a quality organization that looks for players of high character. The Patriots are a perennial playoff contender and Hernandez was part of a high-profile offense that got everybody think about having two tight ends in the offense. Hernandez even has a Super Bowl appearance.

Walcott, on the other hand, was a player who didn’t get drafted, then signed with the Browns, an organization that has been a mess for some time and seems to be rebuilding every single year.

Yet in the eyes of the judicial system, how prominent one player was when compared to the other will have no bearing in terms of whatever sentence is handed out, should there be a conviction. A judge isn’t going to care that one player was in the Super Bowl and the other player’s NFL career likely ended before it had a chance to start.

But this is not how the mainstream media portrays it. Hernandez will be, front and center, about how the NFL is going to check for character issues. And the NFL is now looking at a policy to check player tattoos to determine what gang affiliations they may have — even though none of Hernandez’s tattoos have such an affilation.

Oh yeah: The media narrative is that tattoos mean “gang affiliation.” That’s why the NFL wants to go that route.

Back to Hernandez: The charges he faces also have led to the Patriots being put under more scrutiny, such as wondering how the Patriots could not have seen this coming and whether or not they actually pay attention to character issues. This leads to Bill Polian proclaiming he would never have drafted Hernandez, even though he was working in the Carolina Panthers’ front office the year they drafted Rae Carruth.

But the truth is, it was the media who started the narrative about how the Patriots have this “model organization” that always finds the “right players.” Now that Hernandez is out there, the narrative suddenly does not fit.

The truth is, there is no NFL team out there who is going to get it right every single time. And no NFL team is going to find a foolproof way to ensure they draft players who aren’t going to have a “character issue” of some type, whether it’s something as serious as what happened to Hernandez or Walcott, or something not as serious, but still a concern, such as a player who smokes marijuana in violation of NFL rules or a player who gets picked up for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The fact is, NFL players are human beings — and human beings make mistakes. Some are more significant than others, meaning a higher degree of accountability must be held.

But the accountability does not differ based on how much one is a celebrity or what career one choose to pursue. Accountability is based on the nature of the mistake made. When the judicial system must be involved, accountability is based on the nature of the crime and the factors that come into play.

That is all one must remember when it comes to holding Hernandez and Walcott accountable for any charges they are convicted of. The media’s narrative is not the way to determine accountability.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Open Thread For July

I promised an open thread in which people could ask questions, so here we go with the first of them.

Before asking your question, please be sure to check the LAQ.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Newspapers Can Adjust To The New Media Environment

The rise of the Internet has impacted how mass media operates; specifically, how newspapers and magazines deliver material. Some magazines have ceased publication or switched to an all-online model. As for newspapers, some have merged together, others have been sold to corporations, a few have ceased publication and some have even tried an all-online model.

Magazines typically serve a national audience and can thus adjust as needed to the demands of that audience. Newspapers, though, are different in that they are generally based in cities and towns and thus need to serve the local clientele.

As somebody who writes for a newspaper that serves a small city and several surrounding smaller communities, I know The Raton Range serves an important role. The Raton Range has had to adjust to changing technology but what has really kept it going is the fact it serves a local clientele. There is the challenge of how to find more advertisers, but readership would not be there if The Raton Range switched its focus too far away from the local communities.

This seems to be an area in which many larger newspapers are drifting away from. It is true they, like all newspapers, need advertisers to stay in business. But it’s important for newspapers to remember that the cities they are based in need to come first when it comes to coverage.

Given changes in how content can be delivered and in technology, along with the need to keep local clientele in mind, I think most newspapers could best be served by following a few guidelines.

First, keep the focus mostly on the city in which the newspaper is based. There is little reason for a newspaper to focus heavily on national news topics, unless one has a direct impact on the city in which the paper is based. Covering some news from the state level is fine, particularly whatever has the most impact on the city in question. But there are many more avenues in which people can access national news events, so most newspapers don’t need to focus efforts there.

What this leads to is that fewer newspapers need to be members of The Associated Press, particularly if they serve a smaller city or community. Being a member of the AP costs a lot of money. The AP itself needs to evolve the most in the face of changing technology and delivering of content. It can still serve a role in providing content to those who provide news coverage via the web, and in providing content to the largest newspapers, but there is far less of a need for smaller papers to continue their ties to the AP.

Newspapers should also examine as many avenues as possible to deliver content. This does not simply mean putting together a website and requiring people pay a subscription to access it. When music downloads over the Internet became a major event, it eventually led to the rise of iTunes and similar services, in which people could pay for the material they wanted to acquire and not be forced to buy a CD that may have material people might not have as much interest in. A model in which people pay specifically for the content they want could work just as well for most newspapers, perhaps with certain sections always made free (obituaries and classified ads are two perfect examples) and possibly allowing readers to view a certain number of articles for free before they must pay for an article.

If newspapers are worried that people won’t pay for written material, the truth is that, while there will always be those who want something for nothing, the majority of people will pay for something they enjoy and find to be of high quality. Again, music downloading provides that example. It may have started as music being passed around the Internet for free, and there is still such activity taking place. But iTunes showed that people were still willing to pay for music — all they wanted was a different approach to how they paid for it.

Andrew Sullivan, who runs The Dish, has introduced a pay model for his website that has already attracted many subscribers. His model is not a pay-per-article one but it still shows that people who like the material he provides are willing to pay for it. I would not be surprised to see more of the popular websites try paid models as well, although it may be better for more websites to try a pay-per-article model.

Newspapers can deliver content by other means as well. The Raton Range offers an online version of the paper, in PDF format, which subscribers may download to a computer or reading tablet. This format allows for a less expensive version of the paper to be delivered. It means newspapers do not have to spend as much on printing expenses, thus allowing the newspaper to offer subscriptions at a lower cost and thus save readers money.

I do believe there is still going to be a place for material printed on paper — it just won’t be as large as it has been. There is still something to be said about clipping a favorite article from a newspaper and putting it into a scrapbook.

But newspapers can’t simply stick to the model that has been done in the past and must find ways to adapt. Those that do will remain in business, even if it’s under different circumstances.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Details Matter More Than The Side You Pick

I often hear how many people complain about the media being “too liberal” and certain media outlets playing up to conservatives. Indeed, certain media outlets pander to one side of the political spectrum or the other.

But when it comes to the role of media, the question should not be asked as to what side the media should be playing up to, but whether or not the media is doing as thorough a job as possible in getting details to people, rather than just picking a spot on the political spectrum.

Let’s try an example: Imagine a world in which artists were only told to use black and white for their creations, but they were free to mix the two to get different shades of gray. Certainly there are artists who could put together some nice works, but if this all artists had to work with, the works would all start to look the same. What makes art so appealing to people is that there are a variety of colors to work with and a variety of mediums an artist can use, allowing for the maximum amount of works to share with people and appeal to the widest audience possible.

When it comes to covering a particular issue, it’s important for members of the media to remember that there are a lot of details that go into it. Picking one detail and taking a side might result in a good editorial but, over time, it all starts to look the same. More importantly, by not getting further into the details, a media outlet is not going to be able to attract the widest audience possible. Instead, the audience becomes too narrow, driving too many potential audience members away.

So what makes the 24/7 news networks just simply pick an audience to attract or so many newspapers start to look the same? The answer comes in the fact that so much of the media has become corporatized.

Corporations are big on efficiency — which is a blessing and a curse. Efficiency can be a good thing because it makes it easier for the corporation to manage its costs and production. But if a corporation focuses too much on efficiency, its product just looks the same and can drive some people away, especially if people find the product to be of poor quality.

When it comes to the media, it’s more efficient for a corporation to give directives to the outlet to keep the issues summed up to a “one side or the other” concept or just crank out a product that tries to do a lot with little. The problem with either approach is you don’t get the best possible product to the audience and you are glossing over far too many details that could really put things into perspective, just as an artist can paint the best possible picture by having access to as many colors and mediums as possible.

I’ll stick with a sports example: When it comes to football, the general approach taken is to pit one team against the other, bring up some big plays either team has made, say a few words about the superstars, then pick a winner. This often results in a lot of details getting glossed over, such as which team has executed its game plan well, small details that had a bigger impact than a single big play and various role players who may not be superstars but are doing more to help a team win than people may realize. The end result is football becomes all about “big plays” and “superstars” making the difference rather than looking at the team concept and how everything comes together, thus telling the complete story about why a particular team won or lost.

And the sports example I cited has made its way over into regular news coverage, in which everything becomes about “pick a side” rather than digging deeper into the details to determine what the issue is really all about.

There are quite a few problems that many in the corporatized media have, problems which I will go over in detail in future posts.

Mind you, that’s not to say everyone who is part of the “mainstream media” is bad at their jobs. There are individuals who work for the major networks and for the major newspapers who do a good job and who work hard to get important details and thus the most information possible to viewers.

But the quest corporations have to make every product “efficient” has a negative effect on the final product delivered — and the desire to make it fit in a certain spot on the political spectrum means the audience misses out on important details.

And when it comes to the audience, getting the details does more to help than picking a side.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bob's 10 Tips For Column Writing

Following up on what I wrote the past couple of days, I have my own tips for writing sports columns -- advice that can be applied to columns in general and journalism in general.

Since these are my own tips, I'm not going to comment specifically on each one. I've tried to offer advice that isn't exactly the same as what Red Smith or Mark Purdy gave, but there are some similarities.

1. Avoid stating the obvious or there's no point to your writing.

2. Don’t write something simply to see how many people will read or react to it.

3. Challenge your readers but don’t insult them.

4. Get to the point. Be careful not to go into long rants.

5. You want your sources to think of you as a friend, not just a name and number. But remember that friends don’t expect you to just do whatever they want you to do.

6. If you don’t know how to explain something, then talk to somebody who does — and not simply somebody who will tell you what you want to hear.

7. Issues may be complex but that doesn’t mean you have to make them complicated. It is possible to discuss an issue in which many details are involved, but to explain those details so the average person can understand them.

8. Remember that doing research means looking at material that may go against what you believe as much as looking at what supports your beliefs.

9. Avoid superlatives, exaggerations and over-the-top statements. You don’t want your writing to sound like the ramblings of a bad sports commentator.

10. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box — but make sure you present information that backs up your ideas.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mark Purdy's Sports Column Writing Tips

Continuing where I left off the other day, Mark Purdy has some of his own advice for writing sports columns. Once again, plenty of the advice is good not just for sports columns, but for writers and journalists in general.

Let me take you through the advice Purdy gave with some of my own thoughts included.

Follow your own brain waves, not the broadcast airwaves or the loud voice of anyone else.

Journalists owe it to themselves to follow their own minds, not whoever talks the most, the loudest or the most stuff you agree with. An independent mind is a good thing — the question to ask yourself is whether or not you really have an independent mind. If you find yourself gravitating to people who just tell you what you want to hear, then you don’t really have an independent mind.

Avoid the obvious the way a coach avoids the truth.

I see way too many writers and pundits play “Captain Obvious To The Rescue” and that’s not good. For example: Of course every NFL team’s goal is to reach the Super Bowl. So don’t write about that, Captain.

Look at the whole playing field and think about who saw what or who might know what.

When in the locker room, look at the person no one’s talking to; he or she might have the most interesting things to say.

The two tips go hand in hand. The small details that make a difference in the outcome of a game can be more important than you think. Additionally, you may find more interesting tales from the people nobody talks to — particularly because the players who reporters are more likely to talk to, are going to know how to deal with reporters and not share much.

Pay attention all the time; you never know what may come in handy.

I’ve found this happen several times when covering athletic contests — some of them examples I shared in my book. (Blatant plug.)

Don’t be afraid to propose an idea, but make sure it’s backed up with good information that makes sense.

This is the type of writing you will often find at It’s All Over Fat Man, an independent Denver Broncos website. Ted Bartlett does a good job at this and Doc Bear will do this from time to time. And none of what they write about it is telling coaches what to do, but viewing trends they see taking shape and how they believe coaches might react to them in the future.

Cultivate relationships with sources where you can ask on background, “What do I need to know before I write this?”

The best relationships you can develop with a source are the ones in which you can ask them to explain something to you and they’ll give you what you need to know because they trust that you will be able to explain it to others.

Listen to radio talk shows in small doses for a general sense of discussion topics, but if you listen in large doses, they’ll only make you more stupid.

Purdy passed on this advice from Ray Ratto, a San Francisco Bay area sports writer. The one thing to remember is that a radio talk show is closer to two guys in a bar having a conversation. They may know what they like and don’t like, but you aren’t likely to get the best insight.

If everyone is agreeing on a certain thing, a red flag should go up. There’s always another side to the story, no matter how absurd that other side may be. And you owe it to yourself — and your readers — to at least consider it.

This doesn’t mean you give into conspiracy theories, but it does mean you need to ask yourself if there might be some valid points from the side that isn’t getting attention. This is especially good advice in this day of the narrative that’s pushed by my many who work in media today.

When you’re stuck for a column, go back to your reporting skills. Then dig deeper into them. Then dig even deeper.

There’s a reason why columnists need to get their feet wet in the world of journalism, even if their intent is to become a columnist.

Take chances. The best part about writing a daily column in a newspaper is, if you write the worst column in the history of journalism, it will be in the garbage the next day.

And I will add: If you say it on television, it’s likely to be forgotten about in a week, or if you write it on the Internet, it’s going to get shuffled into the archives.

Don’t bask. Move onto the next idea fast. The worst part about writing a daily column in a newspaper is, if you write the best column in the history of journalism, it will still be in the garbage the next day.

I’ll add the same advice above.

Have fun.

Don’t have too much fun.

That’s actually good advice for life in general.