The power of firsthand narrative: Outsourcing the NHL finals

Brian Kennedy, a professor English at Pasadena City College, covers the NHL at night. We think he's the only Ph.D. in the press box at Staples Center. His latest book is "My Country is Hockey: How Hockey Explains Canadian Culture, History, Politics, Heroes, French-English Rivalry and Who We Are As Canadians."

mycountryishockey.jpgYou may not realize it, but if you go to a major hospital in the US for tests, the results of your x-ray or MRI might be read by a doctor as far away as India, who is on contract to provide a preliminary diagnosis based on the evidence sent to her or him online. If you get your taxes done by a large commercial accounting or tax prep firm, what you see in the front office is not representative, necessarily, of where the work is done.

The data could very well be crunched half a world away, and the results shown to you electronically for an e-signature and subsequent submission to the IRS. So says Thomas L. Friedman in his book, "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," originally published in 2005 and updated a couple of times since. Why is this condition possible? By the intersection of three things: an educated and capable foreign workforce, the "need" (questionable to some) to perform work as cheaply as possible, and the ability to move data around the world quickly and reliably via fiber optics over the Internet.

The upshot of all of this is that jobs done locally prior to the past decade or so may now be exported, with the end user of the product seeing no difference in quality or delivery time.

Friedman spends considerable time discussing how the Internet has decentralized the power of production, with one phenomenon of particular concern: the creation and distribution of news and information. Once held by a few large entities (newspapers, broadcasters), this function is now spread to the masses, with anyone who owns a relatively inexpensive computer and has access to the Internet being able to be his or her own "channel," distributing information and, as a logical outcome, creating the news.

The result is what you see around you: the financial failure of daily newspapers and the increasing reliance on the net for information, to the point where what is a "trusted source for news," to use the old tagline, has been entirely redefined.

Obviously, LA Observed is one such new-style source. But if LA Observed is news outsourced, how close to the action does the writer have to be to write the story?

To marry the terms I began with to the area that I work when you read me here (hockey coverage from the point of view of the "PhD in the Press Box,") leads to a key question:
Could someone in India with sufficient knowledge of hockey cover the Stanley Cup Final effectively? (That is, if she or he wasn't busy reading your MRI or doing your taxes.)

I ask this because at the moment, I'm in the countryside across the Swiss-French border from Geneva. I've been abroad since February, working. And while I covered the Kings for most of the season for a national online sports outlet, I didn't expect the team to get to the very brink of winning the Stanley Cup. So I was caught out when they got to the point they've arrived at, and couldn't get home. Still, my editor had arranged press credentials for me with the NHL. What to do?

One choice was just to leave readers with no coverage. Not an option, and there was nobody to fill in. So it was decided that I would cover the games from afar, without making representation that I was closer than I am. For someone used to creating stories based on firsthand knowledge of events, this felt at first like an odd arrangement. However, I soon realized that the kinds of stories I typically write could have traction from a distance.

Being an academic and having established a style which features historical and literary references and perspectives, and because my mandate is not to write "gamers" but analysis, I found that my stories felt about the same to me as they would were I in LA. In some cases, I could even imagine myself doing the very same pieces sitting in my Pasadena office or at Staples Center rather than half a world away (where the cheese is amazing!) Then, too, I had lots of firsthand information at my disposal, largely because the technology which Friedman discusses. But there were also deficits.

I had to rely on NHL transcripts for my interview material. I couldn't ask players the questions I might have had I been at the arena. And yet even this lack is tempered by what I have learned about covering a series as big as the NHL Final.

Going all the way to the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, I know that there are so many reporters around during the Finals that it's almost impossible for one guy to grab a player and talk to him exclusively. Someone's always listening. Often, nowadays, that person is recording, making video, or tweeting. In addition, players, always careful about what they say, are even more guarded when the stakes get high. Hence, the chances of getting a scoop or an inflammatory quote at this time in a season are slim.

So what makes what the reporter does, whether in print or online, any different from what anyone with a computer and the internet could do from his or her home in Bangor, Maine or Bangalore?

The answer lies in the double bind of technology. It gives the appearance of knowing, and it undeniably spreads a kind of knowledge. Yet machines do not create narrative, people do. Further to that, however, is the sense I've gotten while writing about these games from far away: that narrative is best created on the spot.

With the proliferation of technology and the access given by pro sports teams to players, contemporary fans have essentially the same set of data available to them that reporters have to them. Postgame comments are often broadcast live or close to live via team websites or those of credentialed media members who have captured video.

Thus it may be that technology fools us into thinking that being present isn't crucial and that access to raw data in the form of video of interviews and press conferences as well as statistics about the game is enough, allowing fans to create their own stories out of the data available. It might seem that there is no longer any need for the presence of a filter in the form of a writer. But that's an illusion, because sifting data, creating stories where none exist, figuring out what things mean, is still a skill learned and practiced at cost of time and energy, and this is still best done firsthand.

If I were in LA, I'd be writing analysis pieces. My raw materials would be watching the games, listening to player interviews, coaches' press conferences, and so forth. All of that is available to me from a distance. My job, then, would be what it is now: to digest the
information and present it in a way that readers hadn't thought of themselves, and this might be the last thing left to a journalist in the internet age. This, further, is something no amount of "tweets" will do, no matter how seduced both journalists and fans are by that technology in the moment we live.

Yet as I write this week, I find that it's not enough to rely on what I can learn via the Internet, even with the inside information that having NHL Media access provides. My experiences in covering the team for most of the regular season are essential to draw upon. Things players have said to me, ways I have gotten to understand them, and insights gained from observing up close all came back to give me perspective on what they were saying now.

But I also sense that feeling the energy of a team winning or the sadness of a team losing, dealing with the emotions of the players, no matter how carefully masked, must happen face-to-face in order for the most powerful stories to be created, because sports, like business or education or any human endeavor, is about people doing what people do, and how they react afterwards.

The day the games are played by machines, machines will be able to provide total coverage of the events which transpire. But as long as players are human, prone to highs of joy and angry lows which see them smashing sticks over crossbars or kicking over garbage cans, the only way to give fans a sense of why things happened as they did is to see it for yourself.

Your McDonald's drive-through order may be as accurately taken from several states away as from several feet distant, to cite just one final example from "The World Is Flat," but that's because production of fast food is not essentially an emotional endeavor. Trying to win the greatest trophy in the history of sports is, which is why, to cite an old ad, there's no substitute for being there.

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