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What ‘Moneyball’ Taught Me About Journalism

One of the things that struck me while reading Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ investigation into just what in the hell made the Oakland Athletics so good for a significant portion of the last decade, was how much Major League Baseball appears to have in common with journalism.

Moneyball‘s overarching theme is how Beane used a refined system of analytics — sabermetrics — to figure out which baseball players were actually the best. The A’s were what baseball writers call a “small market team” (read: had no money) and Beane was forced to get creative with how he found talent. Sabermetrics clashed with how things had always been done. Traditionally, teams would send scouts — old baseball guys who were almost always former players — to look at young players and make subjective assessments of their talents. The scouts looked at all the usual stuff you’d think of (How fast can a guy run the 40-yard-dash? How fast can a pitcher throw the ball? etc.), but were also tasked with assessing a players’ more mystical qualities. The one Lewis details the most in Moneyball is called “makeup” — the sort of intangible ability of a player to be able to mentally grasp the game and handle its stresses.

Sound familiar?

Think of how newspapers were traditionally put together (and how some websites still are): The newspaper staff would hold a meeting and discuss the day’s events. Maybe they’d look at what some of the other guys were doing, and after a good discussion about what was important (using their “editorial judgment”), they’d break and proceed to build a front page around what they thought people wanted to know.

The modern digital journalist, then, would be Billy Beane. He uses a refined system of measurement to take out the guesswork, determine what people actually want to know, and builds his workload around that. Baseball calls its system sabremetrics; journalists just call theirs metrics or analytics.

They aren’t perfect systems — sabremetrics will often corroborate that the guys who we thought were the best in the game actually are the best, and web analytics will often reveal that what we thought people wanted to read was actually what they wanted to read — but then again, you don’t really need a system to tell you the obvious.

Where sabermetrics and web analytics come in handy is in analyzing subtleties. Billy Beane made the A’s, one of the poorest teams in baseball, competitive by figuring out which individual player statistics contributed the most to wins by a team. Similarly, an understaffed newsroom could make its brand competitive by figuring out which web metrics contributed the most to driving pageviews (or whatever was being sold to advertisers). And let’s be honest: These days, which newsroom isn’t understaffed?

Of course, Moneyball was published in 2003, by which time the A’s weren’t the only team using sabermetrics to field a good team on the cheap. And in 2011, your newsroom isn’t going to be doing anything innovative by taking a more metrics-driven approach to content. A newsroom will find innovation, and a competitive edge, however, when it plays with its metrics and finds the little cracks that no one else has thought to look in yet. Or even better, it will invent its own metrics.

The one major area in which Moneyball diverges from journalism is the How. Billy Beane had one task as general manager of the A’s: win. That’s what sports are about, after all. Journalism differs slightly in that it doesn’t just matter that a newsbrand “wins” (for the sake of this argument, we’ll call being the most dominant newsbrand in one’s market a win), but also how the win is achieved. The New York Times could’ve decided a long time ago to become Gawker, but its editorial staff and publishers had a legacy to uphold. Call that inefficient, but it’s understandable and even admirable. It’s a perfectly acceptable argument to say, “There’s no point in saving our newsbrand if it becomes something completely unrecognizable in the process.”

The challenge, then, for newsbrands, is to find the right mix of the old and the new. Give the people what they want, but also give them what you’ve promised (“All the news that’s fit to print,” or what-the-hell-ever). It’s also up to each individual newsroom to decide where The Line is in that mix — do you err on the side of old-school “editorial judgment,” or do you put more faith in readers, and let pageviews drive the editorial placement process? Lastly, newsbrands will have to educate advertisers — the people who actually fund many news organizations — as to how much value their websites can offer.

For all the uncertainty in the news business right now, it ought to come as at least some small comfort that we can now tell exactly where we stand at all times.

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