Tackling Assertions that TrueHoop Recently Started Sucking

One of the things that differentiates a blog from other media is that it is a conversation. It's not The Word From Upon High. It's a blogger making a case, as a human. Then other humans -- commenters, e-mailers, and other bloggers -- respond. It rolls on and on. At its best its the kind of conversation that makes you smarter.

Some media people survey their consumers to find out what they like and don't like about the product. I laugh at that: For years, I have known within minutes of just about every post what TrueHoop readers think about it.

And I'll tell you, I am the luckiest guy in the world, because the people responding to TrueHoop -- many of whom I have gotten to know very well through the years -- generally say nice things. Don't get me wrong, there have always been trolls, but by and large the time I spend my days conversing with people who make my days both smart and happy.

It's a good way to live.

Over the last month or so, though ... wow. Where there once was a bunny or two of bitterness now there's a whole breeding colony. (Anybody know where I can get some rabbit condoms?)

This morning a TrueHoop reader named James sent me an e-mail that started like this: "You have finally convinced me that you're an idiot. Just like the comments below your column have been screaming for months." These kinds of e-mails have probably quadrupled in the last few weeks.

One or five of those means nothing. But once you get a certain number of them, you can't help but wonder: What's going on here?

The economy? The season heating up? Has the novelty of being the new guy worn off?

I walked home from work yesterday, and couldn't help but think of something my friend Max had said about NBA players: He saves his highest respect for those who have dealt with tough things, like big injuries. He wanted to see Dwight Howard and LeBron James after real trials like that -- then they'd ascend to a higher level in his mind. Real gut checks.

Cruising to success is nice. But better is getting a little dirty, and still hanging in there.

Gut checks are a great part of sports -- one of the things that we fans can really experience just like stars!

So, I recognize that TrueHoop has had a pretty easy ride so far. It was about a month old when it got an award from Forbes, and about a year old when ESPN first called. Traffic has grown and grown, and all along the way everyone has had nice things to say.

Now, it's just a little bit bumpy. Some portion of TrueHoop readers are just not as happy as they once were. I'm taking that as a gut check, and thus a chance to impress Max.

So, let's roll up our sleeves and dig in.

Let me be clear: I don't like having lots of TrueHoop readers upset. If there are ways the site can be better, I want to know them.

But I'm not willing to accept that all this criticism is on the money. Some of it is miscommunication or misperception.

Let me tackle the two dominant complaints:

Complaint: All I Want to Do is Promote the Blazers
I can tell you that almost nobody loves sports enough to find a job in this field without first falling for a team. That's just how most humans are wired. So -- look around the media. Just as I love the Blazers, almost every journalist (there are real exceptions, of course, like Chris Sheridan) loves some team or another.

You can decide what you think is the most honest, fair, journalistic and balanced way to address that reality. I respect the rights of everyone to disclose whatever they want. But I choose to be honest about my fandom, and a lot of other stuff, because I feel it gives my work more integrity, not less. (If I say Brandon Roy should be MVP over LeBron James, well, then you know where I'm coming from and can adjust accordingly.)

I also see this kind of disclosure as a part of what bloggers are bringing to the media table. Instead of the illusion of impartiality I had to practice when I worked in traditional media, we're bringing a real human voice -- more like the guy on the next stool in the sports bar, less like the guy in the makeup and suit reading the news without passion.

Having spent my whole adult life working in journalism, I know that true impartiality can be an illusion. Removing that illusion encourages readers to do what they should have done all along: Employ what one of my media professors used to call "a crap detector." As in, question things, at least enough not to be taken for a ride. Poke and prod for the truth. Make it make sense. It's good for the whole process.

So, by telling you I'm a Blazer fan, part of what I'm doing, intentionally, is telling you to crank up your crap detector.

Now, how does my being a Blazer fan affect what happens on this site? Not exactly as you might think.

Since 2005, when I have been awake, I have spent most of my time reading, listening, and watching just about everything I can get my hands on about the NBA. I stay up late and I get up early. Game broadcasts, e-mails, Tweets, Facebook posts, phone calls, RSS feeds, books, newspapers ... the list goes on and on.

Through all that, what I'm looking for are TrueHoop stories. Things you can learn from. Little tiny or big huge things that aren't told a bunch in other places. Moments that are memorable. Angles that matter, or are funny, or are well-told.

I miss a ton of great stories every day. The league is just too big with too much going on for one person to follow. What's undeniable is that of good stories I miss, few of them are Blazer stories -- 'cause I follow that team closely.

The truth is though, that while there is some bias in what I read, there is not bias in what I write.

Everything I run across that fascinates me makes its way onto this website, where I write about it as fairly and as transparently as I know how. And the vast majority of content has nothing to do with the Blazers.

There's this idea in a lot of comments and e-mails these days that I'd use this platform to not just share interesting stories, but to promote some kind of Blazer agenda (like to convert the team more fans, or somehow help them win more games). That accusation pisses me off. Mostly because I hope that reading TrueHoop has gotten across that I'm a measured, careful and honest dude. I have a journalism degree and various awards. People who know my career intimately know that I love my job, I love journalism, and I have always gone way out of my way to do things the right way. I'm just not sneakily promoting anything. My cards are on the table.

Never mind the fact that almost everyone who reads an inside basketball site like this is a long-term fan of some team. Converting fans? Talk about a fool's errand. And for what, anyway? Is my life somehow better if 2% of TrueHoop readers like the same team I do?

When Rudy Fernandez took a terrible fall, I called for players to remember the importance of being careful with airborne players. Some readers were adamant I only had that view because I'm a Blazer fan. It's just not true. Any fall that dramatic would have prompted the same post. The Blazer fandom was the reason that game was on my TV, but it did not make me start caring about safety.

It's difficult and more than a little weird to plead your own fairness. But one little example: Darius Miles was in the news earlier this season. The cap space to sign a potential star this summer was at stake, if credibility could be built around the idea that Miles ought to be medically retired. There was lobbying going on.

And from the very beginning my position was: Tough, Blazers. If Miles can play in the NBA now, he clearly ought never to have been medically retired. There were hundreds of other pro-Blazer arguments floating around, but I advocated a
position that ended up costing the Blazers millions of dollars and meaningful cap space. Not that I could have changed the outcome ... but if I had an agenda to unfairly help the Blazers, that surely would have been my opportunity to do so.

Complaint: The TrueHoop Network Ruined Everything
On January 20, we launched the TrueHoop Network. Before that date, I had spent all kinds of time laying the groundwork. There were whole days I didn't blog as I was traveling to and from meetings to talk about business models, traffic projections, and the like. The TrueHoop Network has definitely impacted my ability to spend time blogging. But not nearly as much since January 20 as it did for the year or two before.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the reality of the network gravely upsets a lot of TrueHoop readers. That makes me feel like I must have done something wrong, which I am eager to get right.

The underlying reality of the network is not offensive. There are, out there, passionate and talented writers churning out high-grade basketball content essentially for free. They are driven by a love of the game. What's sinister about shining a spotlight on that?

I think there's a sense that somehow ESPN may have corrupted TrueHoop by forcing me to get involved in this evil scheme for global media domination. The truth is the opposite: I was rallying bloggers to the idea of a network before I ever got to ESPN. I'm thrilled to have convinced people at the mothership to take this idea for a spin.

The TrueHoop Network means the world to me, and as long as I have any say about it, it's not going anywhere.

Remember, the model of old local media -- the way most of you follow your team -- is almost completely broken. If you want reliable coverage of your team day in and day out, it's going to come from some a business model that is new or not yet existent. The TrueHoop Network model -- independent writers, owning and potentially profiting from their own sites, while having their best work rewarded with attention from one of the web's busiest sites -- is a decent place to start.

A mild change in the appearance of TrueHoop seems a small price to pay. Yes, there's one new kind of post each day -- The TrueHoop Network Shootaround -- which is a roundup of the best of the TrueHoop Network. It's new to us, too. We're tinkering with how to make that post work best. Expect it to evolve, and hopefully to get better and better.

But in case you don't like that kind of change to TrueHoop, we made it look completely different than other posts. If it's not your cup of tea, by all means scroll right on past it.

But as you do so, rest assured it's not costing you any original TrueHoop content. My days are the same -- I'm blogging just as much. (And for what it's worth, I've been told I publish more original words every year than anyone else in any part of ESPN.com.) Even better, the TrueHoop Network brought us the talented Kevin Arnovitz, who, when he isn't managing the network, makes time to create fantastic original TrueHoop posts like the one where he compared Steve Nash in a Terry Porter offense to a hummingbird trapped in a sandwich bag. That's good stuff we didn't have before.

I wonder if there is another thing going on here: At roughly the time the TrueHoop Network was launched, The First Cup disappeared. That was the big morning roundup of links that people had really come to love -- myself included. I want it back, too.

The truth is that the First Cup involved a lot more than just my efforts. The resources that drove it went scarce with the economic downturn. We're trying to resurrect it. Eventually I think we will. But its disappearance has nothing to with the TrueHoop Network.

OK, I've talked your ear off enough about these little housekeeping issues. Thanks for hanging in there.

This is a great time to be an NBA fan. It's a magical time of the season, with so much tremendous basketball on the horizon. I'm unbelievably pleased that for so many of you, TrueHoop is part of how you're going to enjoy the League moving forward. Thanks.

And for those of you who are less sure about TrueHoop these days, the important news is, I hear you, I care, and we'll get it right.