Big Tents, Small Media, and Other Things

Notes from Arlington

As I mentioned earlier, I provided some straight race coverage this past weekend for the Clarendon Cup NRC race and the Air Force Cycling Classic, a USA Cycling ProTour circuit race. Due to changing life circumstances over the past few years, I don’t travel to do race coverage nearly as much as I used to – as you may have noticed, I do most of my sniping from up here in the cheap seats these days. And while I’m not sure yet if, after this weekend, I’m burned out or reinvigorated, it’s always fun to be part of the circus again when it’s in town.

In the new issue of VeloNews, Neal Rogers has an interesting piece about how professional cycling is covered. Or maybe it’s only interesting to people who have done the job, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a piece that many cycling journalists have probably longed to write – we’re painfully aware of how many readers like to complain about the flavor of the sausage, but lack any real comprehension of how it gets made.

In that same spirit of openness, I’ve jotted down some things below that occurred to me as I covered this weekend’s races. Not all of them are new thoughts, by far; they’re not all directly related to this weekend’s experiences; and I probably have far more than this if I really thought about it. But what the hell.

On Home Field Advantage

You’d think it would be easier to cover races that are within single digit mileage from your home, wouldn’t you? In some ways, that’s true. When the race is in your backyard, or takes place along your regular commute like this weekend’s races did for me, there’s no airports, no rental cars, no map reading, and no crappy hotels. You sleep in your own bed, and eat breakfast in the kitchen with your kids instead of at a fluorescent-lit buffet with Serge, the Ukrainian soigneur. And there’s something to be said for all that.

But there’s also something to be said for being fully committed to the task at hand, with none of the distractions that you simply can’t get away from at home, no matter how pleasant they may be. Doing race coverage for the web like this weekend, it’s not a big problem, but if I were hunting for features or sidebars or angles for print, it’s far better to be holed up in the race hotel, inside the bubble, where you can make a quick call to the front desk, be connected to someone’s room, and arrange an interview in the lobby in an hour. And the amount of off-the-record scuttlebutt you can get in a hotel bar should not be underestimated for its background value. When you drive home an hour after the finish, you miss all that.

What is Media?

Look, I’m sympathetic towards “new media.” After all, as much as I hate to admit it, you’re reading this on one of those newfangled blogs, and my last printed-in-ink byline was probably over a year ago. And I'm not the only one -- the press tent’s getting mighty crowded these last few years with the expanded roster of online outlets, and during the post-race interviews, a few more recorders are thrust between you and your subject and you feel a little bit more hot breath on the back of your neck. If that meant more widespread, diverse, and credible coverage of cycling, I’d be more than happy with a little less elbow room and a less advantageous spot on the rail. It is, literally and metaphorically, a big tent, and I think that’s great.

The problem is that, while some of these folks do good work, many of them don’t seem to be working at all, and in fact, never produce anything from the events they’ve been credentialed for. In the meantime, they’re using that credential to get in the way of the folks who are working – interrupting interviews to have their picture taken with riders and getting in the way of the working photographers at the finish line for the sake of completing their PhotoBucket galleries. As valuable to the sport as fans and amateur photographers are, that’s just not what media credentials are for.

And they keep eating all the damn donuts.

Probably the most frustrating thing, for me anyway, is the appropriation by those same people of material generated by those who WERE actually working at the event. Occasionally, it’s as inconspicuous as seeing a quote on a blog or somesuch that was in the article you wrote, and you know you were the only one who got that quote, because you were sitting in a moving team car with the rider with the windows up when you got it. That’s annoying, but the most egregious case I’ve seen was back in 2007, when someone who was very excited to have race credentials for his blog (enthusiastically posting about it prior to the race), proceeded, hours after the race, to cut and paste the entirety of my VeloNews copy to his blog. Yes, my name was still on it, but that’s still pretty far from fair use, for those who deal in such things. The kicker? He’s a professor of online journalism at a local university. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing “don’t steal material from other sites” is Week 1 material in an online journalism class, maybe Day 1, even. More bluntly and less legalistically: you were there, you had the same access I did, write your own damn story. And if you think the theft is bad for the writers, you should see what it’s like for the photographers.

Look, I don’t mean to sound like the crusty old guy here, but maybe I am, so I might as well embrace it. I’m not even suggesting that we start severely limiting access – at least not for events like last weekend’s, which generate a significant amount of local interest that’s best capitalized on by new media. All I’m asking is that, if you’re going to be there, and be all geeked out about having a credential (which is fine), then DO something with it. Write something, do some work, find an angle, produce something useful – or just stand outside the barriers like the rest of the fans and enjoy the race. There’s no shame in that. At the very least, stay out of the way and don’t steal my stuff.

Second Fiddle, Maybe Third

We saw two, good entertaining domestic bike races this weekend, probably the two biggest going on in the U.S. on those two days (note - there was a women’s World Cup in Montreal, Canada). That said, sometimes writing about races, even big domestic ones, for the bigger sites can feel like throwing words down a well. Like, say, when the events you’re covering fall on the last days of the Giro d’ Italia, where the gap between winning and losing is less than a minute, and the finale is being contested on wet cobblestones in downtown roads with aero bars.

So yes, I was not expecting, nor did I achieve, nor did I deserve, top billing on the site at any point during the weekend. For that to have happened, I think Chad Gerlach would have had to have won both the Arlington races by a minute and a half, allowing me to fully, shamelessly, and transparently work the human interest angle to the bone. That didn’t happen, but c’est la guerre. At least seeing my headlines sink rapidly down the column was not an unfamiliar sensation – the first race I covered live and in person, the 1999 Red Zinger stage race, ended on the same day Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in Paris. Talk about getting buried.

Life in the Desert – All Heat and No Water

Last weekend’s races – a flat crit and a circuit race with a bit of a hill – presented the riders with different physical challenges. You may not know this, but the two formats present the media with different challenges as well. The criterium is primarily a test of your ability to endure blazing sunlight and scorching pavement temperatures, as well as your ability to maintain riveted attention for 100 laps. Seriously, 100 laps. The circuit race, on the other hand, is primarily a test of your bladder. Sure, you’re in the shade of a car in the caravan, and you have air conditioning and a good view of the break, which is nice, but you’ve traded in access to the criterium’s port-o-johns and the associated comforts they provide. The coping mechanism is no mystery, of course – get up in the morning, and consume the absolute minimum of liquids, in my case a very small cup of coffee to get going. Then hit the port-o-johns about three or four times at the start. Then don’t drink anything until you’re done with your post-race interviews. Even then, many times, at the end of the three or four hour cruise, that lap belt is starting to feel mighty tight. It’s really not that long to go, but I think it’s more mental than physical: it’s the fact that you can’t go that makes you have to. But that first sip of water when you’re done is oh so sweet.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Among some of the regional teams this weekend, there was apparently some confusion as to who would be riding for what team, in which races, and what race number they'd be wearing, resulting in three or four different versions of the start list (which matches numbers to names and teams), depending on how you counted. Unfortunately, none of them really shed much light on the situation. Without getting too far into it, or pointing any fingers, if teams make roster or number changes and don’t inform the organizer or officials, or if they do inform them and the organizer or officials don’t communicate those changes to the media (either with revised start lists or on the fly via radio tour), don’t expect your name to be right in the reporting. Yes, if Mark Cavendish switched numbers with George Hincapie before Milan-San Remo, or Hincapie and Tom Boonen switched teams, we could probably pick up on it and sort it out on our own, but when we’re talking regional riders making their appearance in national events, we can’t always pick out the faces. We really are trying to give you your day in the sun when it’s warranted – just help a brother out with the right information.

But Who Cares?

If any or all of that makes you think didn’t enjoy working this weekend, you’d be wrong. Most of it is just part and parcel of doing the job, and you laugh about it and move on. It was a great weekend of racing, and next weekend, when the circus rolls on up to Philadelphia for the Philadelphia International Championship, I’ll definitely miss being under the big top.