Transcript: Couch Talk with Sambit Bal

Couch Talk Episode 54 (play)

Guest: Sambit Bal, Editor-in-chief, ESPN Cricinfo

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk.

Today’s guest is the Editor-in-Chief of ESPNCricinfo, Sambit Bal. We’ll be talking about where he sees cricinfo in the vast landscape that is cricket, cricinfo’s editorial processes, cricket media in the internet age amongst other things.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must declare that I’m covering the two-test series between West Indies and New Zealand as a freelancer for ESPN cricinfo. Without any further ado, welcome to the show, Sambit!

Sambit Bal – Thanks, Subash. Glad to be here. You are already conforming to ESPNcricinfo’s editorial policies by declaring your interest. That’s good!

SJ– What is your opinion about the role of ESPNcricinfo in cricket? That is, in terms of cricket reporting and shaping of opinion, and the types of media content that you produce.

SB– I see ESPNcricinfo as the global voice of the game. We ally ourselves with no country or cricket board. Though we are owned by a huge company, we perhaps still are the only independent global voice of the game in the truest sense possible. That is always been my objective- that ESPNcricinfo should always speak for cricket, speak for fans, and not be seen as an English voice or an Australian voice or an Indian voice. We ask our journalists to cover the game from the top, not from the sides. If you want to be a ESPNcricinfo journalist, you must first shed all your national biases and identities. Of course, you must bring your knowledge of the game, the way you know it intimately. If you are covering Indian cricket, you must know Indian cricket intimately. You should bring all that knowledge, and yet write in very independent voice. That is what we try to do, we sometimes fail. But that is our underpinning editorial objective.

SJ–  You mentioned being owned by a large company, Disney. How has things changed since Disney’s take-over? It is a large corporation and the stakeholders will be looking for maximum return on investments.

SB– Two things. The parent company is Disney, but we are actually owned by ESPN, which is a huge company by itself. The one good thing about ESPN is that when they bought us, they told me “We are a content company. We are not sales or marketing company. We are focusing into providing the best content possible.” Editorial independence, as understood in developed nations, is the value system that comes ingrained in ESPN in the sense that since ESPN bought cricinfo, in the 5 years, I’ve never had a directive to me saying “You should cover cricket this way…. You should do this because this is going to maximize our profits.” My brief from my company is to get as many readers as possible by doing the best journalism as possible. I can say that I’m lucky and blessed to work in a company where the editorial independence has been, to this date, absolute.

I work in India, and I know a lot of people in the Indian media, and they envy me for the kind of independence that I have. If I fail , that is my failure. I can’t blame anybody else.

SJ– As an intention, it is a very honest and pure intention to have. You still need to have checks and balances. What sort of checks and balances do you have in place so that you stay true to that cricket reporting is not just chasing the bottom line?

SB– Chasing the bottom-line is not my brief. My brief is to create the best product possible. Checks and balances come from having strict journalistic guidelines. We have a strict code of conduct, we have a journalistic handbook which tells our journalists what is expected of them. My journalists are completely insulated from any pressures from sales or marketing. I’m saying that publicly, and my colleagues can hear it. They know that they have never faced any pressures to take an angle. I tell them to not worry about traffic either. Do the right thing, traffic will come. We have done that for 10 years now.

When we bought cricinfo, I am not talking about the earlier days when I was with Wisden and we bought and then we bought cricinfo in 2003, cricinfo was already the leader in the market. They were not really a journalistic operation. They were primarily a place where fans followed cricket online for ball by ball commentary and stats. We made it a proper journalistic organization. But the advantage we always had was that cricinfo was already a market leader. We didn’t have to go about and chase market traffic.

We said that we will do the right things to create proper journalistic organization and cover cricket in a global way and traffic will follow. We have been lucky that traffic has always grown. So we’ve never been under any pressure from anybody to ask how to increase the traffic by 5% or 10%. We don’t ever set that kind of targets. I tell the people – “you don’t worry about traffic, you don’t worry about revenues.” I don’t worry about revenues. My job is to spend money, not to earn. That is a lucky position to be in. I need to spend my budget every year. I just ask for more money.

We’ve grown as a company and business. The pressure has never been there. in that sense, the really good thing that happened to us when ESPN bought us the economic climate wasn’t really great around the world. People were losing their jobs, and in the Indian media and around the world. Because ESPN bought us, we were insulated from the pressure. They bought us because we were the best in the world and they wanted a presence in all global sports. That was a period when salaries were getting cut and people were getting retrenched. But, we actually hired people. As I said, sometimes, I have to pinch myself to make me realize that I’m not living in a dream.

SJ– In the Letter From the Editor titled “The Unshakable Bond”, soon after ESPN took over the ownership,. You had written, and I quote “Whatever threatens cricket, we will raise our voice against it.” One thing that really sticks across a lot of fans, especially in India, is the intrusive ads on television during a cricket broadcast. And, you did a show soon after the India-South Africa series in 2010/11 with Harsha Bhogle. This would have been a pure unadulterated case for sticking for the end consumers – the fans. but, cricinfo hasn’t been seen enough of that. Why so?

SB– We have raised our views. I can point to you about the other articles that we have done about it, including the follow up to that interview with I&B Secretary, who said that there is actually means by which consumers can complain. This would not have happened in UK or USA, because there are clear and strict guidelines. There are guidelines here (in India) too, but the consumers are not active or alert enough to raise their voice.

We can only bring this to the fore. We are not a company that will go out and file a PIL against this, that is not our job.

SJ– You may not have to file a PIL against the broadcaster. But, doesn’t it fall on you, as the global voice of the game…?

SB– We are the global voice of the game, we are not the Indian voice of the game. When we cover something, we give equal importance to all the cricket playing country. This is an issue which is purely limited to India. I’ve not seen too much of TV in Pakistan or Bangladesh, so I don’t know how severe the problem is there. What is it that you would expect us to do? I sometimes fight with our sales guys, saying that we shouldn’t be clustering the site with ads. In the end, if we want to do quality products, speaking from cricinfo’s point of view, we must have enough resources. I have a problem…not with too many ads on television, because the cricket rights have become so expensive. And any media business must be self sustaining. It shouldn’t be surviving on doles. But, I think that you have to be smart enough to have the right balance of ads and content. Television channels in India have been a little crass, been a bit insensitive to fans. Not little, quite a lot, in fact.

SJ– You mentioned that sometimes the end users are not active themselves. Do you see it in your role to get the fans going?

SB– We have never been campaigning, or activist sort of organization. Our role is to raise issues and point them out.We have never seen a situation in which we want to be the change ourselves. We don’t have the time and energy to try becoming an activist. There are hundreds of things apart from this too- match fixing, lack of playing spaces in India…all kinds of things. If we became an organization like that, our purpose will change. We have been clear about our role, we have limited resources, we might have more people working in Bombay and Bangalore than in the UK, but these guys are doing a global job. They have to cover cricket all over the world. We have to channel our resources in a way to do our first job right –to cover cricket in whatever depth possible in all parts of the world. We can’t get obsessed with local issues too much.

SJ– I want to talk to you about the editorial processes put in place at ESPNcricinfo. Firstly, it has become quite common for a reporter covering a series to write match reports which should strictly be classified under “news” as well as providing analysis and opinions features. With that practice, the line of demarcation between news and opinion is getting blurred, and there is concern that opinions are passed off as news and vice versa. You mentioned earlier the conflict of interest as well. What are your thoughts on that?

SB– When you are writing a match report, we don’t do an agency kind of match reporting. Cricket writing is a little bit more than that. the person who is writing it, their personality must be there in the match report. Otherwise, you will end up writing a match report that said this happened and that happened and so many runs were scored and this bowler gave away so many runs. That will drain the match reports of any kind of color. I don’t think readers enjoy that kind of reports, there are agencies’ copy for that. Then why spend so much money hiring these many people if they can’t write?

Similarly, with news, there are times when news needs some perspective as long as it doesn’t have the person’s bias coming in there. We cater to a specialized audience, we are not a general interest organization which is catering to a large audience. If you are writing a cricket report for somebody in America, the report will be drier. But, we know that we are reaching out to a fairly discerning, evolved, engaged cricket audience. We need to respect them, to give them informed news.

We have different categories for news analysis, opinions etc. You might at times find that a writer’s perspective has come into a news piece. When you do a piece on team’s selection, for example, it ends in 3 paragraphs if you are just reporting the selection – “these are the new guys, and these are the guys who have been dropped.” That’s it. but, is that what the readers expect from cricinfo? They will expect more, a little bit of perspective. It will need a bit more back-ground. Does that mean that we just do a news piece and do an analysis separately? In cases which mandates two pieces, we will do two pieces. There will be times when you really don’t need to do two pieces, because that will really be stretching both the pieces too thin. So, you combine news and analysis into one piece, which I think any discerning reader would understand.

SJ– What is preventing you from keeping the news side of cricinfo separate from the opinion side? For that matter, having the same people wear two different hats; they might then be susceptible to that their personal biases coming in.

SB– That is why we hire the kind of people we hire. That is why we have a fairly rigorous training process in place. You can’t keep news and opinion completely separate. Then, you almost  have to create two different sites. You can’t be sending three different people on the roads to do two different things. You will have to have the same people doing news reporting and the same doing analysis too. There are cases where the tagging may not have been perfect. We have 100 pieces going up every day. There might be a bit of news in the analysis piece but gets tagged as news. But, as long as we are honest and know that there is a professional news gathering and opinion writing machine in place, I don’t think we are breaking any rules of journalism. If you open a newspaper, you see that news and opinion have merged. You don’t see dry, bland news. You can check The  NY Times, The Guardian, or any place – most of these places are embellished with perspectives from the journalists.

SJ– Another issue that has been raised by a lot of fans on social media is that there are various articles that are published on the cricinfo with byline as ESPNcricinfo Staff.

SB– I think it is a very small group of people raising the issue, very small among the millions of readers.

SJ– Let’s say there was one person who raised the issue. If it is a valid issue, it doesn’t matter how many people have raised it. Under that by-line, if it is strictly news story for 3 or 4 paragraphs, it is perfectly alright. But, there have been instances where opinion has slipped into these stories. How do you keep a track of these things?

SB– That would happen very rarely. ESPNcricinfo Staff stories which start from a press release that have come in from somewhere and the author hasn’t done on it enough to take a by-line. Or, it is a re-written agency story, reproduced. This is like another newspaper has reported it and we (our staff) don’t take a by-line on that. but, opinions coming into those pieces will be an exception.

SJ– How do you make sure such things don’t happen?

SB– It is written under the name of “ESPNcricinfo”, anyway. Even if it is an opinion, it is of ESPNcricinfo. The Economist does not have by-line for any of their pieces. But, anything that goes on the site and someone who reads it says “This is written by ESPNcricinfo Staff” – we try to distance ourselves from an opinion. But even if there is an opinion there, it is of ESPNcricinfo.

SJ– ESPNcricinfo stands behind the opinion?

SB– Of course it does. In the sense, this would be an exception rather than rule. People have pointed it out once in a while. At times, we have corrected it. You must understand that we run a website which runs 24 hours a day, 18 hours a day at least. We don’t have the luxury of a magazine, or a newspaper that has a very orderly cycle. We try to minimize mistakes. When we make mistakes, we correct it.

We have introduced a new policy where when we make a major correction in a story, we acknowledge below. If you are correcting a typo or a comma, we might not acknowledge that, that is a genuine subbing mistake. But, if there is a big change that changes the story or if you add new information, that will always be acknowledged below. These are the editorial practices that we follow. You must appreciate that there are times when people are working on immense and strict deadlines and there are huge turnover of copy where this sort of mistakes can happen in branding or in by-line not going – that could happen. Sometimes, we correct them. Sometimes, they go unchecked or uncorrected. These are not serious problems where we are being unfair or untruthful or misreporting things- those are the bigger problems.

SJ– In this era of internet sports media journalism, it is quite apparent that it is a polarized world- articles and opinions are written just to wind up the other group of fans, sometimes just to the extent of disrespecting the opposition. What do you think is cricinfo’s role as the leader in this industry to reduce this acrimony?

SB– That’s what i said in the beginning, the writers are trained to write globally, write with a global voice, write with the understanding of different cultures in different countries. Sometimes, we need to be strong in certain places. It is a highly important role to see issues and events in a fairly objective and global way. I keep preaching the global voice method, because there is no other voice in cricket that covers the game as globally as we do. For all series, we would have two people covering the game. That sort of interaction helps.

We are a truly global organization. We are all over the world. We meet all the time. We have staff exchanges. An Indian might spend some time somewhere else, and someone from England may come down to India. Even our choice of columnists, the columnists generally reflect the world view that people would like to go at. Take (Ian) Chappell, or Sanjay Manjrekar or Peter Roebuck who wrote for us globally – every writer brings his own personality, his own likes and dislikes. You and I will not think alike on most things. But, in our choice of journalists, that is the important criteria. We don’t want who are parochial and narrow-minded to write for us. That’s as much as we can do.

There would be instances where you need strong Indian point of view, or a strong English point of view, and the two views could be different. So, cricinfo will find space to put them together. I would say, to a large extent, we have succeeded in doing that.

SJ– I want your personal take, as someone who has been in journalism business for so long, your commentary on how cricket is being covered- the bond of trust between the reader and the writesr is one of the purest one because the trust is not asked for, it is just there. but, that trust can be easily eroded if the writer has his blinkers on and peddles on his own agenda.

SB– I think readers quickly see through that. I think, social media has helped in a great way. The readers’ opinions have come to the forefront in a great way. And, you will quickly find out that people can cut through these biases and personal agendas. Because of the internet, everybody reads everybody. There is no hiding place, really. There is a greater amount of accountability amongst the writers. The writers might choose not to be accountable. Fans will see through that, the discerning fans will.

There is a large number of fans who are not discerning! Sometimes, the kind of comments that are posted on the sites, including our sites, appalls me. People don’t read the full article before commenting. They might pick up the headline, or pick up just another comment which itself is ill-informed. That happens so much on Facebook. It is sort of embarrassing at times. Sadly, it sort of happens to a greater degree among the fans in the subcontinent, which does not create an informed debate and discussion.

I’m disappointed with the kind of discussions we have in our comments section. It is not up to the degree which you can point to and say that our comments are as good as our articles. That is because there are smarts people who play this very, very well. There are people who post comments knowing exactly what sort of comments they are looking for. Very quickly the focus shifts away from what is written in the article to somebody else commenting under it.

I’ve not seen all the comments under the reports of the first test between England and South Africa. I’m sure there will be a lot for Indian fans gloating and saying “Hey, See?”

Having social media interaction is great, fans having a voice is great, but there is a lot of noise.

SJ– You raised an interesting point by talking about the gloating among the Indian fans because I don’t think the gloating is because of the English team itself, but how the English media may have covered the tour, for example.

SB– Does the Indian media do any better?

SJ: That’s the cenbtral point I am arriving at. Shouldn’t the journalists hold themselves to a higher standards than just wind up the fans?

SB: I don’t think the journalists are trying to wind up the fans. I don’t think journalists anywhere write to wind up fans. they either write to serve their constituency and to fill their newspapers. You will find a section of Australian media , or Indian media, that is very strident. . they are perhaps catering to their constituencies. That is the fundamental  roles of the media – to give the people not what they want, but what they need. But, there are good papers and bad papers everywhere. In that sense, the English mainstream media is perhaps the best in the world. The quality of writing, analysis is very good. The Sky team does very good as a commentary team with the kind of people they have there. There are exceptions everywhere, though.

There would be an odd commentator who is a nationalist. Nationalism is the biggest problem in cricket. As I said, we have failed to see the game as a game, but we have failed to enjoy it. That is something that I’ve seen in the last 20 or 10 years where it has become far more polarized. I remember when there were times when the West Indies team would come and we would enjoy watching West indies. All those great players from Australia used to come, and we felt the same. But, these days, I don’t think the fans enjoy a batsman or a bowler purely for what they are. There is far more nationalism among the fans, or the media too. The fans have to be responsible for themselves. They can’t say that “we are shaped by the media”.

SJ– It is a vicious cycle, one feeds to the other.

How do you see sports journalism and cricket journalism evolve in the near future?

SB– I think the internet has made a huge difference. What we have tried to do at cricinfo is that we have tried to take all the values from print journalism to online. It is one of the guiding principles to produce print quality, as in high quality of content; and with speed. Also, what is increasingly going to happen is a mixture of text, audio and video.

What the web does is, it brings all of these together. It is not true of just sports journalism, but all journalism. That is the sort of thing that keeps changing, and now you can do any of these three. There are some stories that can be told beautifully in words. There are some match reports that can never be done on TV. But, there are discussions that go better on audio and video. What we have seen and will see is multi-skilled journalists, with people who are equally skilled in all the three media. The web allows you to use short-form journalism, we will be able to do off our mobile phones, for example. In 10 years’ time, cricinfo might do more numbers on mobile phone than on the web. We can’t take the same form of journalism from the web to mobile – we need to adapt, we need to see what will work better on a smaller screen.

SJ– That actually brings me to a question from one of your former employees, Nitin Sundar. Long form stories and in-depth editorials are no longer your staple for your average online content consumer…

SB– That is not true, I have numbers to back me up. When we took cricinfo over in 2003, and even then they said long form journalism is history. They said that we had to focus on stats, data and really short news pieces. My point of view is that the web allows you to do both. And, with journalistic quality you can report things, using web on basic reporting. You can do it in short form and almost convert journalism into Twitter. But, I think there is a huge appetite for people who want to go with that. That is something that web or print can do, but TV cannot. That is what cricinfo does best during test matches- our numbers are highest during test matches where we have global pieces, analytical pieces, match reports. Over 7 years, I can say that you can do all these things under one umbrella and satisfy everyone. I don’t think intellectual needs are going to go away. Our curiosities are not going to go away. And that is not going to be satisfied by twitter. Or social media. You still need professional journalists who are trained in a special way, who spend time and effort in talking to people, understanding subjects and then bring it out in a discerning way. Newspaper have lost their relevance, losing steam, not because people are not reading, but because people are reading differently.

SJ– So, the mode of dissemination is not going to determine the content quality.

SB– I hope it doesn’t happen so. It is like I hope the Test cricket will always remain relevant, but everyone around me keeps telling me it is going to be all Twenty20. But, I have my faith in our own human intellect that I survive with, that we will always be intellectually curious and we will always want to go deeper.

SJ– One final question. This is from another of your former employees, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan. Why aren’t you writing more these days?

SB– I wear many hats. That is one of my problems. Writing still gives me a lot of satisfaction. I need to isolated time for it. Perhaps, I’m not as good a multitasker that I should be, that is why I’ve not been able to write a book like some of my colleagues have done and I’m amazed that they managed to do that. the only time I get to write is when I take myself off the daily grind and go on a  tour. But, I don’t think people are missing too much. There are plenty of good writers.

I should be writing more for myself because that is something that gives me a lot of satisfaction, but the work doesn’t allow that much.

SJ– On that note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Sambit! It was an absolute pleasure talking to you!

SB– I look forward to seeing your work!

SB– Cheers!

SJ– Cheers!

[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman