Friday, May 11, 2012

Blogging vs. beat writing: The Grant Cohn story

For many of you who have been faithfully reading my blog since its inception, the roots of its title are no mystery.  I was given the nickname “Ruthless McLorg” some time ago, mainly because I have a knack for letting someone have it, regardless of their feelings or the consequences.

Up until now, I haven’t felt much of a need to be that brutal.  In many respects, Ruthless Sports is a misnomer.  If you’re a newer follower of mine, you were probably wondering where the name even came from.  Aside from the occasional zing that I’ll throw out on Twitter, I’m not exactly roasting people on a daily basis.  I’m not trying to make enemies, after all.

I started up Ruthless because I love sports.  I have lots of thoughts on them, and a large portion of my life revolves around them.  I decided some time ago that I wanted a rich life – one where I eventually get paid to do something that I love.  Not to toot my own horn here, but writing comes pretty naturally for me.  My passion for sports and my ability to write seem to be a perfect marriage.  While I trudge through the school system in an attempt to earn that piece of paper that hopefully lands me a job, I might as well get a head start on writing sports.  I don’t make money for writing on Ruthless. Bay Area Sports Guy isn’t paying me either.  I do this stuff because I love it.

I have great respect for the beat writers around the Bay Area.  We have a collection of guys who absolutely know their stuff, do their homework, and excel at their positions.  Andrew Baggarly, Hank Schulman, Matt Barrows, Eric Branch – these are just a few of the many beat writers whose work I read on a regular basis.  They are embedded in the teams that they cover.  They report the facts as they come and they offer their opinions when necessary.  Keep up the good work boys.

That’s more than I can say for Grant Cohn. 

I know, I know – this isn’t the first time that I’ve ripped the guy and I’m certainly not the first person to pick him apart.  It would be pretty easy to attack the “riding his father’s coattails” angle, but when it comes to Grant, that’s not really what offends me.  He is in an extremely desirable position, so for me to say that jealousy didn’t play a role in my resentment would be an outright lie.  More important than all that is the amount of effort that goes into the columns that I read. (Full disclosure:  I read them with the same interest that a driver would have rubbernecking a three car pile-up on 101 North.)

What is an article or a blog without facts?  Simply put, it’s an opinion.  Opinions not based in fact can sometimes be disguised when they are well written (see: Lowell Cohn), but when neither facts nor eloquent writing is present, it’s hard not to gawk. 

Take this article on the 49ers first round draft pick, AJ Jenkins, for example:

“I give the Niners an F for their A.J. Jenkins pick at No. 30 in the first round, and here’s why.

Whoa, whoa!  Stop right there.  Didn’t we learn early on (perhaps freshman year of high school) not to say “and here’s why” in our writing?  Maybe he missed that class.

“They will not win the Super Bowl this season unless they improve [third down conversions and red zone]. So, they needed to spend a first round pick on a player who would help the cause.
“So, what did they do? They drafted a 6-0, 190 lb. slot receiver who will be the fourth-string wideout and backup punt returner this season, most likely. In other words, he’ll replace Kyle Williams.

Lots of the word “so,” misplaced commas and opinions here.  The facts are coming, right?

“The Niners are sending a message, and it’s this: “We’re the best team in the NFL even if we’re the worst on third down. We were the best team last year, too. If it weren’t for Kyle Williams fumbles, we’d be champions. Now that we’ve replaced him, the Super Bowl is ours.”
They’re wrong. You have to be respectable on third down to win playoff games, and the Niners will not be respectable on third down this season because Michael Crabtree is still their possession receiver and Alex Smith is still their quarterback.”
Fin, sans evidence.  I especially loved the ending, where he took offhand shots and Crabtree and Smith without any facts to back up his points.
Let’s not beat the dead horse too hard, and instead move on to the column he wrote the next day, shortly after the 49ers’ second round selection.
“The Niners just drafted Oregon running back LaMichael James with their second round pick. I love the selection. I give it an A, and here’s why.
There’s that “here’s why” again.  And if I’m not mistaken, AP Style frowns upon referring to a team in a short form name, especially the first time they are mentioned.  I try not to refer to them as “the Niners” in any of my writing.  “49ers” isn’t all that hard to type.
“James could end up one of the best players in this draft. He was a great college running back, and he’ll be a better pro than Kendall Hunter.
A stellar writer with a crystal ball!  Still no facts, though.
“They wanted to make sure they had not one but two quality backups at punt returner, and they’re giving Alex Smith not one but two fast third down checkdown options – something he needs.

So with one pick, the 49ers magically fixed their third down issues; issues that were unbelievably glaring 24 hours ago!  Objectivity is the word of the day, and Cohn seems to lack it.  He hated AJ Jenkins, and ripped the 49ers as a result.  Conversely he loved LaMichael James and suddenly changed his tune.  But no college statistics?  No evidence for his “points?”  Beat writing at its finest.
About beat writing…
What separates a beat writer from your average blogger?  Both have intimate knowledge of the sport that they cover.  Both have a keyboard and internet access.  Both have some basic understanding of journalistic style.
The primary difference is access.  This brings me to Grant’s latest attention-garnering article on Randy Moss at the 49ers’ voluntary work outs.
Aside from the poor syntax and lackluster writing style that we’ve all become used to (starting off a paragraph with the word “but” and writing something that bordered on being a run on sentence in the second paragraph), this piece wasn’t all that bad.  He had access to practice and he gave fans information on it – stuff that we normally wouldn’t see.  We heard about who was stretching with who, who was there and who wasn’t, etc.  Good stuff.
Then he went on to write what could only be compared to a gossip column in a high school newspaper.  He portrayed Randy Moss as the new cool guy, while he painted the rest of the 49ers as swooning school girls desperate for his approval.  He said that quarterback Josh Johnson “hovered” around Moss and “trail[ed] the great wide receiver like a spaniel… trying to make a good first impression.”  How do you know that was Johnson’s intention?  Did he tell you that?
Crabtree and Ted Ginn (players that he referred to as “dudes”) apparently “shuffled over to Moss like star-struck kids.”  That’s not all – apparently Ginn is a style biter!
“Ginn even dressed like Moss – red shorts and black tights. Ginn was blatantly copying Moss’ style. Last year, Ginn had his own style. He always practiced in white tights which he pulled over the heels of the cleats. Lots of Niners coppied him – Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Frank Gore, to name a few. Today, Ginn was the copycat.
“Coppied,” huh? 
Then Grant described a little bit of the practice, which was full of good information.  Unfortunately, these good vibes didn’t last long, because he couldn’t keep this tidbit inside of his own head when detailing a Moss catch in the end zone:
“Anthony Davis threw his hands up in the air and squealed like a child.
Oops.  I think we all know where this trainwreck is headed.
By now I think I’ve made my point.  If the senior editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is wondering why his newspaper’s readership is declining while sites like Bay Area Sports Guy and Niners Nation are getting flooded with traffic, he should look no further than the material that he is publishing.  As sports fans, we want opinions.  We want facts.  But more importantly, we want to read something with effort and meaning behind it. All over the country, journalism students are working hard to achieve access to the places that Cohn can go.  This is what remains baffling to me.  This is what drives me to be a better writer.
 Because a press pass should be something earned – it isn’t just a (birth)right. 



  2. I liken Grant Cohn's ascendence to a politician who inherits their family's seat, without every having to go through the usual ropes (School board, city council, etc) of retail politics that help prepare you for a job of such wide exposure. Grant should have spent a couple of years covering high school sports in Redding or Bakersfield, then maybe a few years on the beat of a college team, then perhaps a shot at covering professional sports. Look how long guys like Maiocco and Barrows have been in this business before they moved to the NFL beat, and then before being elevated to write opinion pieces. Great national writers like Tim Keown started at places like the Yuba City Appeal Democrat, writing about local sports, learning the craft, developing a voice, etc. Grant may yet become an adequate writer, but his callowness really showed through in this episode. I wouldn't be surprised if his dad is telling him that "There's no such thing as bad publicity" but this is not serving his career well. When he's older, he'll look back on this with a lot of regret. He made himself the story here, and that never ends well for writers. (He's like a Jeff Pearlman with training wheels.) If he keeps it up, he'll be writing for the AutoTrader magazine before too long. And to be fair, let me add that Anthony Davis hasn't shown much maturity either, but my expectations for his behavior are much lower.

    1. I agree that AD hasn't exactly risen above this situation, but you're right - only one person in this situation is expected to handle this situation professionally. AD is paid to play football. Grant is paid to write about the 49ers objectively and skillfully. One guy is doing his job. The other isn't.

  3. I recommend everyone send an email to the assistant sports editor at the Santa Clara Press Democrat, Bill Pinella. He can be reached at, let him know how you feel. If we want something done about this guy, the best way to do it is to express our concerns to the editor.