Site Re-Launch – Goodbye, MLB

For the handful of you that have stayed with me even through my irregular postings, I feel I owe you an explanation for my sudden disappearance right at the time the Major League Baseball season was finally set to begin.

The short answer is that I no longer watch or follow MLB, and therefore will no longer cover it. Instead, I will be concentrating on other subjects, particularly fiction, as that is what I primarily have shifted my free time towards. I plan to write at least one post a week, on other subjects.

The long answer:

This is a difficult post to write. But I need to do it, if only to unburden myself and perhaps help others who are feeling the same way. Here (and hopefully only here) I have to break a long-standing principle and discuss in frank terms my political beliefs, which I have studiously tried to keep out of my baseball articles for decades, but can’t discuss this topic without going there. I will keep that particular discussion in a sidebar, though.

I’ve been writing about baseball, on and off, for almost twenty years, a rabid Tribe fan for thirty, and never thought there would come a day when I wouldn’t be tuning in practically every day to watch or listen to every pitch. There have been times, whether they be poor stretches of play or after a particularly brutal offseason, when it was more difficult to get excited about the next game or the next season, but when the time approached, I would always be there rooting the team on.

Until this time. I didn’t watch or listen to a single minute of any of the games over the Opening Day weekend, only checking the scores once or twice. On the following Monday I didn’t even check the score during the game (I guess it got rained out). I haven’t read any articles about the team, or visited Let’s Go Tribe since at least the beginning of the season. If I’m not watching the games, or reading up on the team, there’s no way I can or should be covering the team as if I were. I waited until practically the end of the season to make sure that this wasn’t just a temporary burnout, but it’s clear to me, almost two months later, that it isn’t.

The decline and fall of MLB as entertainment and the sports media as independent journalism

There was no one event that led to this, but an accumulation of them over the years, with the delayed beginning of the 2020 season combined with the political messaging on Opening Day that pushed me away for good.

I watched baseball in part to escape from the mundane and annoying aspects of the real world, and that motivation was incorporated into every decision I made while running Let’s Go Tribe; I wanted others to have that same experience, to join in fellowship with other fans of diverse backgrounds and worldviews from around the world, united by the love of a baseball team. But the industry has changed to the point where that kind of enjoyment is all but impossible to get from following the sport, or that matter, any other major professional sport. Entertainment is no longer the top priority; now that is subservient to affecting the results of elections and passing legislation. In other words, modern politics.*

How did it come to this? I have some insights from my days at Let’s Go Tribe. Part of my duties as editor was to trawl the Internet in search of relevant articles relating to the Indians and baseball so that fans would have a one-stop shop every morning. As time passed I started to notice some disturbing trends among the articles I saw. The sports media was devolving into an imitation of their news brethren, tailoring their coverage seemingly to their peers on Twitter. At first it was fairly subtle, with a couple sites (Yahoo and NBC to name the most blatant) skewing their articles to advance a particular ideological narrative. They generally had a “players good, owners evil” theme, with loaded words, rhetorical tricks and emotional triggers. Oh sure, there were normal news articles about a particular injury or trade, but whenever the opportunity arose these writers would push their ideological agenda, becoming advocates for the whatever political cause was ascendant at the time. They ceased being merely content with allowing the reader to decide what side of a baseball controversy he or she would back, but pushed the reader in one direction or another through various rhetorical techniques.

These techniques are now legion in practically all major sports media outlets. That is only half the issue, though, as if there were some kind of balance between the opinions, one could read a couple different opinions to get the arguments that used to be presented within one article. But that hasn’t happened. On any controversial subject, all opinions are the same; conformity is not just expected, but required. There is no attempt at actual journalism, at least the definition that I grew up with. Instead of being an independent watchdog determining what is happening within the sports world and relaying that, even if it does not conform to their accepted narrative, to the public (in this case the fans), the mainstream sports media has become one of three things: an unpaid subsidiary of the league (and its owners) it covers, an uncritical mouthpiece for the players and their interests, or an evangelist for its own ideology.

As these thought leaders became more and more unanimous in opinion, driven in some part by how Twitter tends to encourage echo chambers, that has begun to influence how players and teams make important decisions. There seems to be little thought given to whether Twitter represents the fanbase at large (it doesn’t) or whether this advice is to the best interest of the long-term viability of the sport. It seems as though the model is now “entertainment with a social conscience,” the equivalent of adding a special segment at the end of old 80s cartoons. In order to get their entertainment, the unenlightened fans most also get moral instruction from their betters.

In a situation like this, a responsible mainstream media’s function is to ask the owners and players hard-hitting questions about why they are doing this. Why are you alienating fans who either disagree with the message or who want no message at all during games? Professional sports is not niche entertainment such as programs like the late-night TV talk shows; it is so lucrative precisely because it appeals to practically every demographic in this country, and is watched by people in many other countries. But not only are sports journalists avoiding asking these questions, they are egging on this insane behavior.

To give one example: The Athletic, whose subscription model I thought could have been a way to get back to the sports journalism I grew up reading (in Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News, for instance), used that financial independence to fully embrace the narrative the rest of the sports media is in lockstep with. Any editorial that was published between George Floyd’s death and Opening Day pushed for the teams and players to join the corporate chorus of feel-good slogans and appropriately-worded tweets in black boxes. I don’t mind editorials, mind you, especially if they are well-argued; but the complete unanimity of them over those several months told me that there was an editorial decision to push an agenda. If I wanted ideological purity like this, I would have gone to Salon or Breitbart.

Even before the Opening Day statements, I had already lost a lot of love for MLB. The delay of the season because of a labor dispute, the announcement that the Indians would be reviewing their name (which in today’s environment means it will be replaced), and the general unfairness of how revenue is divided up between small and large markets all made following the sport less compelling. The Indians, no matter how their season ends, were always going to cut payroll again, and although they have done remarkably well over the past 7 years considering the constraints that were placed on the front office, it’s frustrating to follow a team that can never compete on the same financial terms as a team from New York or Los Angeles.

When MLB teams placed political messaging on the field and on the uniforms on Opening Day that violated a principle I hold dear: that entertainment should remain free of overt political messaging, as that destroys the prime purpose of it, which is to provide an escape from the trappings of modern society for fans. It’s why my #1 rule at Let’s Go Tribe, one that I enforced with an iron fist, was no politics*, both in the articles and in the comments. After a difficult day at work or school, you could at least count on plopping down on the couch and forget the controversies of the day by watching a ballgame while chatting with other fans online. That is no longer possible, and so I made the decision to walk away from professional baseball.

*When I say politics, I mean anything regarding a current or recent candidate for office or a controversial issue that has or may be addressed by legislation or other government action. Essentially, any subject that is regularly discussed by a political news site or CNN/FOX News/MSNBC.


Political Sidebar

“But,” I’ve seen some commentators write, “Black Lives Matter is not a political slogan, but a human rights message.” When a movement, however noble you might think it is, is demanding new legislation or government action, it is by definition political, no matter what euphemism you might apply to it. The police, the courts system, and prisons are run by (mostly) state and local governments, and therefore reforming them will require new laws or the removal of old ones.

And that’s not taking into account what Black Lives Matter the organization is calling for, which is much more fundamental changes to American economic and political systems, which I do not think is necessary to address the problems that do exist. It also embraces a collectivist philosophy/religion (Critical Race Theory) that if explained clearly to people, would be emphatically rejected. I think that some police and prison reforms (better training, mechanisms to remove officers who abuse the power given to them, among other things) would be a good thing for all people, not just one race or ethnicity, but fundamentally disagree with CRT’s assumptions, never mind its proposed solutions. When people and companies refer to Black Lives Matter, are they referring to a general movement for police and prison reform, or are they referring to the organization that wishes to also dismantle the nuclear family, among other things? That distinction never gets made because of what I can only chalk up to fear of being labeled a racist, which is poisoning the original consensus that existed in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Maybe that was by design.

Another response to objections about politics being inserted into entertainment is “silence is consent,” meaning that if you don’t agree with their politics, you are agreeing with the status quo. To which I would answer: forcing anyone to state their opinion on a subject, especially if they don’t care about it or don’t want to give it, is more likely to result in the answer being “fuck you” than “I agree with you.” Implicit and explicit threats (cancel culture) may work for a time, but then don’t be surprised when the pendulum eventually swings back and hits you right in the face. I would not be shocked if in the near future those who participated in “cancelling” people end getting the same treatment themselves; that’s the only way I see to exit this spiral. Perhaps then we can get back to embracing the spirit of free speech, which is critical to the function of a democratic society, and that includes the freedom to not have an opinion at all.

A final objection made is that the National Anthem, which is played before games, is itself a political statement, therefore the statements made on Opening Day are merely reactions to that. To which I respond: up until just a couple of years ago, the playing of the National Anthem was not seen as a divisive ceremony, as it was (and I still think it is) a unifying event, a reminder that what we as Americans have in common is not genetics or skin color but a creed, with that creed (as embodied in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence) symbolized by the flag and anthem. But if it is now seen as divisive by a significant amount of the fanbase (a similar argument could be made for scrapping the Indians team name), then by all means stop playing the anthem before the game. It would be a sad event in the history of this country, but then MLB at least would have then extricated itself from this mess by standing on principle. Instead, MLB ended up doing the worst thing they could have done; introducing a blatantly political message to one portion of their audience while continuing one that another portion of their audience now thinks as political (or at least controversial).


The future of the site

Thanks to first COVID-19 and then the labor dispute pushing back the start of the season, I had four months to habituate myself to finding something else to do in the spring and summer evenings. So when the Opening Day political messages appeared, I didn’t feel any great loss by staying away. I hate to say it this way, but I don’t know of any better way to express it: I have been cured of my baseball addiction. In its absence I’ve re-discovered long-abandoned other pursuits that have provided a healthier (and more fun) time than what baseball has become.

With that in mind, I intend to use this space to push back on the polarization and politicization of most aspects of our culture. It does no good to just complain about something; you must also provide an alternative, or in this case, recognize and showcase the good that is already here in our culture and civilization. I’m still not exactly sure format these will take, but here’s a few of the ideas/themes I’d like to explore:

  • The human condition is universal, not dependent on which political party you belong to or what superficial characteristic you happen to have been born with.
  • There is more to life than the acquisition of power, more to living than the struggle against your perceived enemy.
  • History should be learned from, not torn down, obscured, or forgotten.
  • Well-written stories entertain while subtly commenting on timeless themes.
  • Music is a language everyone can understand, and affects us in a way that spoken words cannot.

MLB now offering partial refunds for MLB.TV subscriptions

MLB.TV is the out-of-market online streaming service for MLB baseball. I unfortunately live in the Cleveland market, so I don’t get to watch Indians games live, but it’s a better deal for me than having to fork over $50 a month to buy a TV package that includes STO, as I don’t really watch anything other than Tribe baseball anymore.

Early in March, I was charged $129.99 for the service (I purchase the league pass, because I’m a baseball junky), and as the COVID-related delay continued, a big open question for me was whether subscribers who had already been charged would get any kind of refund if/when the season began again, and if so, how much it would be.

Thankfully, I have good news. I received this e-mail today:

The price per game did go from $.80/game originally versus $1.33/game now, assuming you watched the equivalent of one team’s full season. However, that new price ($45.18) is about $15 cheaper than if you had waited to purchase a subscription until today ($59.99).

Granted, they’ve hung onto my money for over four months, so I was owed some interest, but even so, it’s nice to see. The refund was done via a website, and took about 10 seconds to submit, so there’s no runaround trying to get a customer service rep on the phone. Now, if they really want to get on my good side, MLB could figure out a way to offer live in-market games to fans….

On the benefits of reading fiction

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe or take for granted; nor find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Francis Bacon, The Essays

One of the upsides to having to spend several months largely confined to my home and without the normal distractions (read: baseball) is that I’ve been able to devote some attention to pastimes that for many years (decades?) have been largely pushed aside, only dabbled in when I’ve had nothing else to do.

When I was a kid, reading books was one of my main ways of entertainment. I didn’t have the Internet or cable TV to fill up my free time, so most summer vacations were primarily spent playing baseball or reading. We would head to the library at least every couple of weeks, participating in the summer reading program, and once school was back in session I would use the school library and the Bookmobile (essentially a bus with books from the local library in it) to get my fill of books.

But as time went on and technology entered our house less and less time was spent reading. First came cable TV when I was about 10 years old, then a couple years later dial-up Internet, and then when I went away to college, high-speed Internet. I still would haunt the shelves of whatever library I was near, but more and more time was spent in the digital world. And after a while I practically stopped reading fiction, or anything that wasn’t posted on a website.

That was fine at first, given that in the early days of the Internet most content was written in the style of print articles at the time, but as people adapted to the medium so did the style of article as well as the mechanism for reading them. Because users could and often did quickly click away or scroll past an article once they read the headline, it became more and more important to grab your attention. It was no longer profitable to cover an issue in a nuanced way, leaving it up to the reader to make his or her mind up. Instead, the average article not only told me who was right or wrong in stark moral terms, but told you how to feel about it. I was outsourcing not only my thinking, but also my emotions.

So when I first committed to reading fiction again, it was difficult to not fall back into “Internet reading mode” in which I was just skimming the words and not trying to understanding the content. I didn’t even know I was doing this until I sat down with a book; I had to force myself into reading each word aloud to follow the story, and then it slowly sunk in how screwed up my reading habits had become. I kept looking for the phrase or sentence that would tell me how to feel about a topic or a character, looking for that hit of emotion. But no, the novels I read didn’t reward in you that way. There would be heroes and villains, but the heroes would have their flaws and the villains their rationales. I had to supply the conclusions, the reasons why the decisions made were good or bad. I had to determine which characters I liked or loathed, and the reasons why. And it wasn’t as if I was reading some stuffy literary fiction that concentrated purely on character, but bog standard science fiction and fantasy. One of the novels was about a group of settlers on an alien planet taking on what essentially were intelligent giant gila monsters. Another one was about the travels of a young sorcerer who carries a chaos demon (and the memories of its 12 previous hosts) inside him. These were plot-centered novels in strange and interesting settings, but all of them, even those I ultimately didn’t enjoy, had far more subtle characterization than the typical online article.

As the weeks passed, I began to get used to this different mindset, and suddenly the online articles that used to appeal to me seemed simplistic, and in some cases, fraudulent and pandering. It was like drinking a pop after months of abstention. Before, I limited my social media exposure because I knew it was bad for me; now I limit it because I just don’t like it.

Reading fiction is an active form of entertainment, meaning that your mind needs to construct a picture of the action, the characters, and setting, things that spark creativity in ways that more passive forms of entertainment (TV, movies, etc) won’t do because entire picture is already there for you to see.

Reading fiction has also been a way to get my mind into a different place, at least for a couple of hours a day. Escapism seems to have become a dirty word in some circles, but I maintain it is a helpful way to reset your mental state; it isn’t healthy to constantly immerse yourself in whatever conflict is raging online or in the real world. Besides, by inserting yourself into another world, seeing it through a fictional character’s eyes, you can gain a new perspective on fundamental questions. Perhaps seeing how a fictional character deals with a similar situation in a different time and place may at least help you to understand another point of view better.

From a practical standpoint, reading for pleasure is one of the cheaper (and accessible) sources of entertainment out there if you know where to look. Sure, if you only buy new hardcovers at the bookstore you’ll exhaust your budget quickly, but there are many ways to get many hours’ worth of great reading material for much less than the equivalent of other forms of media. The obvious example would be your local library (meatspace or cyberspace versions), but there are many other ways to get your fix, such as used book sales, buying e-books instead of paper books, utilizing public domain sites like Project Gutenberg, or buying bundles of books. I’ll go into more detail on this in a separate post.

I’d like to end with a callback to the epigraph at the top. Many problems, whether they be of the moment or inherent in the human condition, have no easy answers. Fiction, while ostensibly taking place in far-off places and populated by beings that may have little relation to us, can still address these fundamental questions in subtle yet profound ways. By taking the time and space to carefully and honestly examine a character or situation, a book can not only entertain you, but (done right) can gently reveal new avenues of thought. To weigh and consider, not to contradict or confute.

Please read the comments, part 2

First part is here.

Argument 4: The few ruin it for the many (aka collective punishment)

When cleveland.com shut down their comments section, one of editor Chris Quinn’s justifications was its general “incivility” despite the section not reflecting the general readership.

Let’s face it: The comments on our site do not reflect you. The people of Northeast Ohio are warm-hearted, generous and caring. When we are going about our days, we greet each other with smiles and hugs and good cheer. But anyone getting their impression of our region from comments on our site would think we are the grumpiest, meanest people in America. 

I maintain that this was purely a cost-savings measure given the state of the newspaper industry, but let’s take this argument at face value: that because a relatively few commenters were “uncivil”, the entire community should lose their ability to publicly comment on cleveland.com.

Let me illustrate why this is a terrible justification with a story of my own failing, a tale of my worst decision as site runner at Let’s Go Tribe.


[Note: I’m leaving out individual names, as my purpose is not to point fingers almost a decade after this happened, but rather to present an example that others may learn from. However, I will say I was not the main defender of LGT’s readers and interests, which is why it still haunts my conscience all these years later. Most of that heavy lifting was done by someone else, who I think was unfairly targeted for trying to maintain public comity between SBN sites.]

In July 2011, SBN’s baseball sites ran an advertising campaign from Head and Shoulders titled “Hats Off Moments”, with each team site contributing a countdown of the top 10 All-Star performances in franchise history while having a “sponsored by Head and Shoulders” at the top of the post. In addition, the game threads would also have the same message as well. The content was relevant to the site, it wasn’t hard to put together that content, the advertiser got its logo in the main body of the site, and the site got what was at the time a nice payday. It was a good thing for everyone.

However, one aspect of the campaign was that there would be also be a Head and Shoulders Twitter widget which would display prominently at the top of the site, displaying all tweets with a certain hashtag (ours was #HatsOffCLE).

Source: Internet Archive (July 13, 2011)

Those of you well-versed in Internet behavior can start to see the problem, which was obvious even back then…

A few Tigers fans (this was right in the middle of their AL Central dominance) saw the obvious opportunity and took it, using the hashtag to troll Tribe fans via the widget, circumventing the site rules. I couldn’t remove the tweets (obviously), and I couldn’t take down the advertisement. It was the perfect opportunity to troll another fanbase without any consequences.

But what made it worse was that this behavior was being encouraged by Bless You Boys (SBN’s Tigers blog) staff. By August, with the Tigers pulling away in the AL Central race, the tweets were constant. When asked (politely) to tell its readers to cut it out, BYB’s response was essentially “not our problem,” or referenced a May Fanshot that justified this so-called payback. This went against an unstated but universally understood principle among SBN blogs that you weren’t supposed to badmouth other sites, or encourage your readers to do the same. We were following that principle publicly, but behind the scenes there were heated e-mails flying back and forth. We just wanted an apology for the actions taken and for them to repudiate their previous encouragements, but the other site continued to double down. It seemed like a matter of protecting “their guy” being more important than following the network norms, especially because that other site was an Indians blog.

Leaving a lot of details out…the feud was escalated to the network, and instead of them telling the site that started the whole thing to cut it out and publicly disavow its previous behavior, the onus was placed in no uncertain terms on both our sites to bury the hatchet, lest it become a public feud and tarnish the network brand. I caved, and updated the Ground Rules with a 10th rule on September 7th while BYB posted something similar:

Our readers should treat users from other SBN sites with respect, even if they happen to root for the Yankees. In other words, everything that applies to your behavior towards fellow Tribe fans should apply to fans of rival teams; ground rule violations towards fans of other teams will be actively discouraged and moderated just as vehemently as violations against regular readers. 

The Yankees reference was a red herring. This was all about admonishing LGT readers to be nice to Tigers fans, an admonishment that didn’t need to happen because our readers weren’t doing anything wrong, and everyone on the LGT masthead was actively and publicly discouraging retaliation.

In cases like this, where the people that you represent are being unfairly lumped in with those who were causing problems, I needed to be an advocate for them, but failed to do so. I just wanted the mess over with, and was beginning to feel that if I didn’t get it over with soon, one of the other authors would get thrown under the bus or we’d all be sacked. I chose the path of least resistance, immediately regretted it, with that regret only growing over the years.


The moral of the story should be that you should, whenever possible, punish the rules violators only rather than the vast majority who did nothing wrong. Cleveland.com, rather than using their own overly broad community rules to weed out what they thought were the bad apples, decided to remove comments for everyone by closing their comments section entirely.

Please read the comments: Part 1

Background

As of February 27, there are no comments on any cleveland.com (the web home of The Cleveland Plain Dealer) article, ending a feature that’s been there for at least 20 years. It may surprise you to hear this, but I view this as a horrible move for both the site itself and Northeast Ohio readers.

Before I get into any further commentary, here’s how Chris Quinn, editor of cleveland.com, justified the move (emphasis added):

 In cleveland.com’s 20-plus year history, comments have been our biggest flashpoint. Screening comments for personal attacks, profanity or off-topic remarks has become an increasing drain on newsroom resources. Despite the invested time, money and effort, we have failed to dampen pervasive meanness. It’s such a shame. We genuinely wanted the platform to work, because people have so few places to meet others with different viewpoints who want to discuss the topics we cover.

As a result, beginning Thursday, we will eliminate the ability to freely comment on every story on cleveland.com and will remove comments from old posts. We want our site to contribute to the greater good. It’s why we’ve cut way back on using mug shots that perpetuate racial stereotypes. It’s why we have been a leader with our Right to be Forgotten policy, in which we remove names from dated stories about embarrassing things people have done. Not hosting a place where a tiny number of people spew caustic nonsense is our latest step to make for a better Greater Cleveland community. 

Add this example to a growing number of businesses that clothe what should be a simple cost-savings move behind a robe of piety: despite the other moralistic reasons thrown in, I think that this was done purely to save money by the company that owns cleveland.com, especially given that the archived comments are going away as well. Don’t believe me? Look at this article from another Advance Publications property (al.com) posted on the same day (February 25):

 Beginning Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 at 5 a.m. CST, we’ll eliminate website comments, as have many other sites in our company and as have other news sites over the past decade.

Website comments have been replaced by better, more constructive spaces for meaningful engagement. And we want to continue conversations with you in those places. 

How about this one, from mlive.com (February 18)…

 I’m writing today to announce a significant change to the MLive.com website experience: At 6 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, we will permanently close the comment sections on our articles.

We’re not doing this lightly. Comment sections have been a fixture at the end of articles on MLive since the early 2000s, and there was a time that they were a vital part of our efforts to engage you in the work we are doing. 

[snip]

 But comment sections leave an out-sized impression. Conversations routinely go off-topic, the tone can get uncivil or even nasty, and our moderators (and a vendor our company hires) [emphasis added - Ryan] stay busy around the clock policing the conversations, addressing flagged comments and even going so far as to ban some users. 

and this one, from nj.com (February 25)…

 On Thursday morning, NJ.com will remove comments from the site. Archived stories also will have comments eliminated. We understand this will be upsetting to some of the people who read and post comments, but our editors will continue working to find the best ways to engage and hear your voice. 

syracuse.com (February 25)….

 On Thursday morning, we are joining many other media outlets in retiring our comments section. 

silive.com (February 17)….

 The Advance and SILive will stop hosting comments on our website’s articles Thursday. The move is in response to our readers’ steadily growing preference to engage with our content on social media; the proliferation of other communication options; and an increase in personal-attack comments that required around-the-clock moderation. 

…and I could go on. Every Advance Publication that I checked has closed its comments section as well, which looked to be a plugin from a third-party vendor. Perhaps the contract with that vendor was up, and that prompted the move. I should also mention that Advance Publications is the majority shareholder of Reddit, which is going to be one of the places readers are going to go to express their opinions on a news article. In fact, while searching for the various announcements, I came across a new subreddit, r/ Syracuse_Comments, set up explicitly to comment on syracuse.com articles now that you can’t do so on the site itself.

Commentary

I have a special insight into comments sections, as I was the managing editor and later moderator at Let’s Go Tribe, SB Nation’s Indians blog, for over a decade, a platform that grew into what it is today precisely because of the user community. And before that, I spent many hours on various message boards such as the ESPN.com Indians board, so I’ve also seen many examples of what not to do when allowing reader commentary. Those bad experiences on other boards influenced how I moderated Let’s Go Tribe.

So when I read the article explaining why comments were being shut down, I shook my head in disgust. Yes, the cleveland.com comments sections have been a running joke for decades now, but is that the fault of the trolls and bad actors or the people running the site? Let me address the various justifications separately.

Argument 1: Moderating comments was costly in terms of both time and money. This is the one that makes the most sense, so let’s start here. I will readily admit that adequately moderating comments is not a quick or an easy job, but it is possible. Let me walk you through how we did it at LGT:

Not many people commented at Let’s Go Tribe in the beginning, so it was easy to manage. However, once the site began to get some traction (thanks in part, ironically, to the state of the cleveland.com Tribe page), we got the same issues that many other sites have: comment spam, off-topic content (especially politics), name-calling, general trolling (“your team sucks, haha”). So Jay and I put together a list of ground rules; in other words, these were the categories of user comments or actions that would be moderated (original version, 1-25-2006):

1. Political talk. This is a baseball blog, not a political one. Fans who read this blog come from all points in the political spectrum, but have one thing in common: they are Indians fans. That's the community we want to cultivate here at Let's Go Tribe: a group of diverse individuals who love talking to each other about the Indians and baseball. Political debate is not something we want to bring into this community. 
2.Personal attacks. In other words, steer clear of "you're an idiot" or "you suck." A good rule of thumb: attack a poster's ideas, not the poster himself/herself. We want this place to be somewhere where people can debate various topics with civility, not a demolition derby.
3.Trolling/flame-baiting. Trolling shouldn't be too much of an issue now that registration is required, but I wish to avoid flame-baiting as well. Posting incendiary content in order to get a reaction out of other posters will not be tolerated. 
4. Profanity. Avoid the Seven Dirty Words, and you'll be fine.
5. Snobbery. Users are not required to like Arrested Development — neither the TV show nor the hip hop group — and should not be badgered about it.
6. Comment Spam. This is dumping a bunch of links into a comment in order to boost a site's search engine ranking. First offense: banishment.
7. Sock Puppets. These are users with multiple accounts. This hasn't happened all that often, but we'd like to nip this in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem. If you've forgotten your password, e-mail us and we'll send you a reminder. Don't create a new account.
8. Blatant Site Pimping. Don't miscontrue the title; we have absolutely no problem with users mentioning their sites/blogs here, and in particular posting a FanShot with a link to one of your articles. The larger the Indians blogoshere, the better for all involved. But please do not post content verbatim from your website or blog.  Post a proper FanShot link, and you'll get traffic. If you've started a new blog and would like to be added to our Indians Blogroll, please e-mail either of us.  Provided the blog (a) is relevant, (b) has original content, and (c) is updated regularly, we'll be happy to include it.
9. Please do not make your first contribution a FanPost. 
We feel that it is best to start commenting before posting original content, if only to get a better idea as to what this site is about. 

Other than the somewhat nebulous term “trolling/flame-baiting”, which makes sense in terms of a baseball site, the rest of the rules are clear and understandable to any reader. We were specific to the point where in most cases the decision to moderate was cut and dry, no matter who was doing the moderation. There were, as always, a few cases that skirted the line (those were the calls that ultimately I had to make), but the line didn’t move. I ended up banning perhaps two or three regular readers over the decade-plus I moderated LGT, which I think is indicative of how clear the rules were. We had tools, even in the infancy of the site, to get rid of troublemakers, especially those who would try to get around banishment.

In contrast, some of the community rules at cleveland.com are broad and mean different things to different people:

(1) Differences of opinion make for great discussion, but please do not abuse other users through name calling or ad hominem attacks. 

(2) Do not post dehumanizing material. This means content that is racist, obscene, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic or bigoted against individuals or groups. Please help the community by flagging such content. 

(3) Please use common sense. Do not violate anyone's privacy by posting identifying information or encouraging anyone else to do so. Do not encourage violence or criminal activity. 

(4) Please stay on topic. Posts that criticize moderation or distract from the article's topic by introducing unrelated hot-button topics may be removed. 

(5) Please be thoughtful. Comments that negatively characterize broad groups of people may be removed. Such assertions, which may feel satisfying to write, are unlikely to change anyone's mind and make it significantly more difficult to have a productive discussion. 

(6) Ask: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? 

I can now see why it was difficult to moderate the site with these guidelines. Numbers 1, 3, and 4 are straight-forward, but Numbers 2, 5, and 6 make practically any comment eligible for moderation, depending on the point of view of the moderator. In today’s society we are not only communicating with different vocabularies, but are using different definitions of the words that we do share. I think one of the major factors in the failure of modern sites (including social media sites) to moderate content without getting one group or another angry is that the terminology is too broad and open to interpretation. What’s “obscene” or “thoughtful” or an “ism” to one person may not have the same connotation to another.

However, putting together a list of rules is the easy part; it’s the enforcement of them that takes most of the effort. That means consistent and prompt moderation. To get more specific, that means reading (not just scanning for problems) as many comments as you can every single day, not only so you can anticipate any issues but also so you get a sense of the individual commenters as well as much-needed feedback on the original content (more on this in a later post). If you understand the interpersonal dynamics between individual commenters, you will be better able to address potential issues before they flare up into actual moderation (as in deleting a comment or banning a commenter). I’d often defuse a situation in the comments section before I had to delete a comment. Creating a “comments culture” is a slow and at times painful process, but once you get some momentum going the site began to police itself without much need for action from me.

Now, I understand that there’s a difference in scale between moderating a niche sports site and regional news site, both in terms of volume and in terms of content. I addressed political comments (which are usually the most heated in any type of forum) at LGT by simply deleting them, while a decent portion of cleveland.com’s content is purely political in nature, so they couldn’t do that. But even the non-political sections of cleveland.com had issues, so it wasn’t just the type of content.

With a better approach and a different understanding of the relationship between the publisher and the readers, it could have worked out. It seems, based on some references in the cleveland.com article and the comments (which unfortunately were deleted along with the rest of the comment archives), as if all the moderation was the responsibility of one person, with some automated assistance from the third-party comments platform. If instead, for instance, there was a Local News moderator, a Sports moderator, etc, and that moderator interacted with the commenters, being available to answer questions in a transparent way, and meanwhile providing his/her content manager with feedback from the readers, then it could have justified the expense of having those employees on staff. Paul Hoynes, the Indians beat reporter, would regularly interact in the comments section in his articles to answer a question or acknowledge a correction, and that was the type of interaction that should have been the norm in the other sections of the site.

“But,” you might say, “the newspaper/web news industry is contracting, so they just can’t afford to have all those section moderators on staff.” Which I agree with, in the present state of the industry. But comments on cleveland.com have been around in one form or another since at least the turn of the century, well before any appreciable decline had started to become apparent. The comments section has been mismanaged from the beginning; if it had been, it would have been much easier to maintain, as a good commenter culture, once it is established, can often on its own enforce the rules before a moderator even has to act, much like the players in the baseball clubhouse can diffuse a problem before the manager has to intervene.

Argument 2: Only a small number of readers actually commented.

This was a consistent point in almost every one of the announcements, but that’s missing the larger picture. A small number of people will comment on any platform, including well-run ones. There are always going to be way more lurkers than participants, for a number of reasons. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an interest in the comments section. Let’s Go Tribe is the only comments section I participate in, but I do read the comments (if there is one) on practically every other site I visit. In fact, an active comments section will draw more readers to your site, and more often. Readers may be drawn to a site initially by the articles, but they’ll stick out to read the reactions to the articles. One of the running jokes at LGT was that no one read the articles, and there’s a kernel of truth in there.

Most articles have a specific point of view, whether you are talking about baseball, movies, or politics, and often a comment will take the other point of view in response. Or perhaps it will point out an incorrect fact that a reader should know about, or provide some interesting content on its own. When done correctly, a comments section can be just as valuable to the site as the original article, and all the site has to do is to make it available. I think, as a result of this move, all the Advanced Publishing sites are going to see a much larger drop in traffic than just the small percentage that actually commented.

One thing to keep in mind: those that do take the time and gather the courage to comment are the ones that care the most about that article. Now that may not represent the average opinion, but you can at least learn what a portion of the reader’s opinions are and tailor your future content to take into account the concerns raised, even if only to refute them. Speaking of which….

Argument 3: There are other venues to publicly express your opinion, like Twitter and Facebook

This argument is true on its face. But, if removing on-site comments is truly about saving money, I think that the Advance Publications network will give back those savings because of the lost revenue. You can’t monetize comments that are on other platforms. In other words, Facebook and Twitter are not going to pay cleveland.com for comments left on those platforms. And let’s face it, many people on those social media platforms never click through to the site, instead feeling content to comment solely based on the headline and snippet available on that social media platform. Assuming this site still continues to operate on an ad-based model, the best way to keep the lights on is to keep people viewing your site, and one way to do that is to entice people to come back multiple times to see what the public has to say about an article.

By pushing feedback away from the original site itself, it allows the site owners to better control the messaging. For example, if an opinion piece (and given the state of the media today, what isn’t an opinion piece) is responded to only on Twitter or Facebook or Reddit, only a small fraction of the readers will know about it. It ceases to become anything resembling a “conversation,” with the points quarantined away from any counter-points.

Yes, the traditional letters to the editor and a texting program are going to be used as feedback, but those either depend on the editors allowing them to be published or will never be published at all. Maybe the editors at cleveland.com think this is a feature, not a bug.

(As this post is already getting ridiculously long, I’m going to stop here for now.)

In Search Of…

The Internet to me is an almost magical place because I lived a significant portion of my life without it. I learned to write letters (as in pieces of paper that you sent to other people via the Postal Service) in school because that was a key form of communication, went to the public library to research for school projects, and watched (grainy) television or rented videos at physical stores for entertainment. Nowadays you may think about these things as hardships, but 20-25 years ago they were the best technology we had at the time and were not thought of negatively. In fact, things like going to the rental store for a weekend movie was quite a novelty, at least where I lived.

By the time I reached high school, I had access to dial-up internet, and there were a couple of a computers at school connected to the Internet, but it wasn’t really until I got to college that I experienced anything like the Internet we have today. The ability to have your own constantly-connected high-speed portal to the Web was an exhilarating experience, my generation’s version of experiencing the widespread availability of electricity.

The delivery mechanism was the revolution that came with the Internet. We still communicate, we still research, and we still consume entertainment, it’s just that now we do these things from our computers instead of through physical means. Time and distance no longer matters; all you need is an Internet-connected device. That device allows anyone in the world to access the same information that a couple of decades ago was only available to people in universities or in large, wealthy cities. This democratization of access is one of the major breakthroughs of the last century, and we see the effects of that unfolding before our eyes every day. No longer does the average man or woman just consume information, but contributes it as well.

Surfing the web was the main pastime for me in the early days on the Internet. The joy was in the search, and occasionally you’d find a gem. The Internet, even in those days, was a massive, massive place, and although you rarely found exactly what you were looking for, you’d often find something that you weren’t looking for but was interesting nonetheless. Many of the sites that I follow to this day I found unintentionally, usually while I was searching for something completely different. Some I found because someone I regularly read recommended them.

When I first started this site, a huge chunk of my time and energy was spent figuring out how to be seen by other Indians fans. There were portal sites that you could submit your blog to, and ways to get noticed by the search engine spiders, but the more effective way was simply trading links with other sites; someone e-mailed you about their blog, you checked it out, then you posted a link on your site to his blog and he posted a link to you on his blog. In that way you created a connected community of readers, in this case Indians fans.

Nowadays, the best way to get noticed quickly is to just stake out a spot in the walled gardens of the large social networks and try to play by their rules, because that’s where the readers are. If you’re a consumer of content, you’re going to go to one of the big sites, because that’s where the content is; you just have to allow these sites to know your search history and some personal information in exchange. This begins a positive feedback loop resulting in much of the content being concentrated in fewer and fewer places. For example, Vidme, one of the few competitors to YouTube, shut down last year, noting the extreme difficulty in monetizing user-generated video content. This comes in the form of the hardware needed to stream millions of videos concurrently, the algorithms needed to curate these videos, and catering to the needs of fickle advertisers. For a place like Facebook, you add the difficulty of poaching users: you can’t just convince individuals to jump to your platform, but entire circles of people, because people aren’t going to go somewhere new if their friends aren’t there.


A Sidebar: The Ad-Based Revenue Model

The modern digital currency is not the dollar, yuan, euro, or bitcoin, but personal information. This currency is the backbone of the ad-based Internet, and the reason why Google and Facebook are two of the largest companies in the world today.
When you visit any kind of website that is both free to the reader and has advertisements, you are the product. The content provider makes its money via advertisements, and they get more money with more impressions. The more people visit the site, the more impressions the advertisers get, and the more money the content creator gets. This model itself is not new, as newspapers, television, and radio all have operated under this for decades. The difference with this new medium is that advertisers have immediate feedback on how much traffic they received as a result of that ad. Instead of getting partial feedback (for instance, the prevalence of discount codes tied to specific advertising campaigns is an attempt for companies to judge its effectiveness), companies know exactly how many people clicked on that banner ad, plus perhaps other information on those people.

Digital content companies like Google and Facebook have taken this a step further. Because of the data they have on their users, they have the ability to place ads in front of the people who are the most likely to be interested in them. They have massive user bases, and more importantly information from those users to be able to tailor advertisements to them. This is accomplished through a computer algorithm, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself. In brief, these algorithms sift through the massive amount of content on a site like YouTube and determines what you see on the site based on the criteria they are given. For example, the YouTube algorithms could be operating with a goal of maximizing the average time spent on the site, and the algorithm takes it from there, even if it affects the makeup of the audience and the type of content that is preferredGoogle’s AdWords is the dominant advertiser on the Internet, with ad revenue accounting for $95.38B for the company in 2017.

Another important distinction between the “old” and “new” method of advertising is that the actual content on the “new” sites is not being created by the company, but by its users. Google/YouTube, for example, provides the infrastructure to handle streaming videos, as well as the algorithms that attempts to give people videos they want to see, but they (for the most part) don’t make the videos themselves. If the local newspaper followed the Google/Facebook model, they would own the printing equipment and the distribution network, but not write any of their stories.


I was one of the first people to adopt many Google products, including Blogspot (which Google had just purchased in 2003) and Gmail (which is the reason I have a rather unique e-mail address), but I have begun to recognize the downsides of the algorithmic ad-based model. Many YouTube content creators, stung by demonetization, have gone to Patreon or similar sites so that they can get  a consistent income without going behind a paywall. Some new sites, like The Athletic, have committed to a pure subscription model. There are also browser-based models being tried out, which shifts the walls from the site to the browser. I hope one of these competing models succeeds.

The algorithm is just a tool, neither inherently good nor bad.  But even if it works well, it still removes much of the agency of the user, and in order to fully utilize the algorithm, you need to provide these sites personal information you wouldn’t want anyone outside your family or close friends to have, never mind available to the Internet. There has always been a trade off in this arrangement, but over the past several years that trade off has become much less tenable to me. I’ll use these major sites as ways to find content, but once found, I’ll read/watch them via an RSS reader, which I think is a way to consolidate what you want to consume, rather than relying on a site telling you what it thinks you want to consume.

So if I’m not on  Facebook as much as I used to, or suddenly move this blog to a different platform, you’ll understand why.

While writing that last sentence, this popped up in my Facebook feed. Maybe the algorithm knew I was writing this post…..

See below for videos mentioned in this post:

Continue reading “In Search Of…”