Tuesday, July 04, 2006

I Did Her, Rod: An Alaskan Adventure

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on March 9, 2006.)

I challenge you to find a name with more double entendre potential than the Iditarod. You can’t do it. “I did her, Rod.” “I did her rod.” So wonderful. As is the Iditarod, which is as quirky an event as this column has ever covered. It’s part fringe sports uber event, part bizarre Alaskan spectacle. But that’s not unlike center media sports events: the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Daytona 500, etc. They all get consumed by media, either fringe or center.

Before beginning in earnest, here’s a quick Iditarod primer, courtesy of the official site. The essentials are this: teams of 12-16 dogs with a musher travel from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska over 10 to 17 days, a distance of 1150 miles. This version of the race has been run since 1973, when it was begun as a commemoration of the fortitude of earlier Alaskan as they traveled inland on dogsleds. Only a hardy people could survive commuting to work every day in conditions reminiscent of Bud Selig’s personality.

Not surprisingly, when airplanes showed up, dog sledding got real old real fast.

Sledding is still used to a limited extent in Alaska, but it’s been co-opted by much of the state as a legitimate and popular sport. There are numerous dog sledding associations running races in places like Fairbanks, and even “little league” events like the Junior Iditarod. The Iditarod is this fringe sport’s one flare a year – simultaneously the epitome of the sport to the outside world and also a misrepresentation that it’s all of the sport. Like the world suddenly turns to Anchorage to say “Wo, those dogs and that guy in the fur coat are intense!”

CNNSI.com opened its coverage with a cute piece on the dogs wanting to race, but followed that with articles from the first, second and third days of the race that legitimately discussed the actual results from the trail. Unfortunately, all of their articles are merely from the AP. So their coverage is almost exactly the same as ESPN.com’s, the Washington Post’s, and the New York Times’.

And even the AP has slowly gotten tired of covering the sport as… well, a sport. Its article from March 9th focuses far too much attention on the teams basking in the tender loving care provided by the fifty residents of Takotna. Takotnans felt a certain amount of joy as they “greeted arriving mushers and shoveled dog waste and straw.”

I’d call that a human interest story, except I’m not even sure it qualifies. Don’t humans have to be interested in a story for it to be a human interest story?

Contrast this with the depth and passion of the coverage in Alaska. And I don’t just mean the Iditarod, but dogsled racing in general. The Anchorage Daily News ran a story on a 12-year old musher and what he had to overcome to participate in the mushing competition of the Artic Winter Games. Granted, it’s a human interest story (and one without any dog shit), but it’s representative of a larger commitment to the sport of dogsledding.

It’s true that the Daily News contains their fair share of the same AP articles that CNNSI, ESPN, et al. use; I’ve become very well acquainted with Jeannette J. Lee’s writing style. But the Daily News shows that even when the center media is merely buying someone else’s articles, it half-asses coverage of fringe events. Lee has written far more on the Iditarod than CNNSI, ESPN, the Washington Post or the New York Times has published. For example, while all of those four published this article, the Anchorage Daily News published that article and this article.

What’s the difference? To be honest, I had a hard time telling. In as near as I could determine, the article that all five carried was almost entirely about Day 4 of the race, while the article that only the Daily News published was about both Days 3 and 4. Doesn’t sound like much of a difference, does it? But think about the way newspapers of media centers cover their professional sports teams. There are always numerous articles on overlapping aspects of the game from the night before. The Daily News’ willingness to do the same thing for the Iditarod shows their commitment to the sport as a sport.

This is reinforced by articles like the one on Karen Ramstead, which is essentially a player profile and has aspects of both sports analysis and behind the athlete human interest story (again, though, no dog shit). The Boston Globe publishes similar articles on Patriots players during the football season, Red Sox players during the baseball season, Celtics players during the basketball season, and Bruins players during… well, whenever the Celtics have the night off.

The Juneau Empire, the epitome of quality fringe media sports coverage, comes off as sub par when their coverage expands from the Juneau area to all of Alaska. The paper essentially publishes the same AP articles that every other media source does, for which Jeanette Lee thanks them kindly, I’m sure.

However, with regard to the Arctic Games, the sports section contained an article on local athletes who had done well there. While the article was not on dogsledding, it demonstrated a commitment to arctic outdoor sports, of which dogsledding is an example, by the paper that is completely lacking in center media.

The Nome Nugget, billed as Alaska’s oldest newspaper, is a small local newspaper, but still managed to find coverage for the Junior Iditarod, the little league World Series of dogsledding, except the likelihood of death due to exposure is 100 times more likely. The article even lists the final standings. This makes sense, since Nome is arguably the true home of the Iditarod, as that’s where the race traditionally ends.

Josh Rogers, a former Nome resident, maintains a cleverly named blog on the race. He not only maintains it, he maintains it with passion. His coverage is far and away better than what is available through more traditional media sources, going into detail about back of the pack competition – who is moving in and out of the top ten, who is making a dramatic rise from out of nowhere to the leader’s board, etc. He also has some interesting comments on media coverage of the event, like this posting from earlier this week on Rachael Scordis, who last year attracted a lot of center media attention by being the only blind participant.

His coverage reminds me of NASCAR coverage when done well. If you watch NASCAR on a major network that doesn’t know what it’s doing, the announcers pay attention to the lead, maybe the top five cars. But if you watch it on a well informed network, the announcers focus on the most interesting elements of the race: who is moving around, which positions are really heated, who has moved from 21st to 10th place, etc. Those intrarace dramas are important to the informed fan, and the educated network knows this.

Josh Rogers does this for the Iditarod. Rogers isn’t the only blogger covering the Iditarod, and certainly not the only one doing it well, he just does it the best.

However, his coverage isn’t the gold standard of Iditarod coverage. That title belongs to Cabela’s Iditarod Race Coverage. Echoing media-sports ownership arrangements that Matt Gaventa’s Daily Digest column criticizes, Cabela’s is an outdoor sports and hunting gear supplier, providing the most in depth coverage of the Iditarod. The site boasts bios of mushers, extensive pre-race analysis, and lots of relevant extras regarding the day to day goings on of the race.

But what can we make of coverage that is potentially biased because of a conflict of economic interests? What happens if Cabela’s is providing gear to a musher who loses a close race? Does that affect its coverage on its site? Given recent precedent – the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox, ESPN’s lack of attention regarding the new major league baseball television contract – my guess is yes, very much. There isn’t enough evidence in Iditarod coverage, nor a wide enough sample base, for me to comment further, but it is worth noting and looking for.

The binge coverage of the Iditarod is almost the reverse of what happens with big events in center sports. In those events, like the Super Bowl, the media of the center goes NUTS, lavishing attention on all aspects of the event and sport; the actual competition and the human interest stories drown themselves in writers’ ink and flash bulbs. And while fringe media pays greater attention than it does normally, it general doesn’t go as nuts.

In the Iditarod, the center media is paying more attention to the race than it normally does to dogsled racing – ie, none – but it isn’t the same level of exposure that Alaskan papers and bloggers commit. Alaskan papers, each in their own way, treat the Iditarod like a major event that should be tracked carefully because the fans reading want to know.

Even a small paper like the Nome Nugget spends some of its limited resources giving its readers coverage. And while a paper like the Juneau Empire doesn’t saturate the event with major league coverage the way the Anchorage Daily News does, it still covers the type of sport in general.

Perhaps bloggers best show that the name of the game for all media sources is limited resources. Center media doesn’t purchase as many AP articles on Iditarod as it could because of it, Alaskan fringe media doesn’t commit as many reporters as it could despite fan support because of it. But bloggers don’t have the same constraints. They can cover whatever sports they’re passionate about, even sports that aren’t traditionally defined as sports.

As I read fringe sports media, I sometimes worry about the future of fringe media. As media centers extend their influence through cable and online publications, fringe media has less and less of a chance to compete. Local sports that used to receive lots of attention from their local papers and were allowed to grow no longer have the same privilege.

It’s possible, though, that bloggers represent the future of fringe media. They’re passionate about their unique, local and sometimes bizarre sports the way good fringe sports media should be. At the same time they don’t have to worry about publication and financial resources. I don’t know if this is good or bad. But I bet that they’ll be a lot more likely to write about the double entendres of the sports world than either fringe or center media.

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