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Quality Player Quotes and Press Conference Pablum

Should we really feel incensed when an NHL player declines a post-practice media scrum? What kind of value do we really get out of player quotes? And for that matter, what kind of articles have any value at all?

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Phil Kessel seen giving 110%, one interview at a time.
Phil Kessel seen giving 110%, one interview at a time.
Bruce Bennett

After another run-of-the-mill practice, Phil Kessel declined an interview even though the press had waited 25+ minutes to speak to him. This was, of course, unforgivable in the eyes of some media personnel. It didn't take long for one article to pretend that his media availability reflects his on-ice performance, and shortly afterwards Shoalts opened up with the same drivel. While it may be that these posts were written just to fill paper after a boring Monday practice, it instead seems to be indicative of the world's most self-serving leap of logic: If Kessel isn't going to give me even a token quote, I'm going to find a way to rip him.

MLSE PR claimed they "tried" to get Phil Kessel to talk to the media, and Nonis said it would be "dealt with." I really can't understand why MLSE would be pressuring their soon-to-be-UFA star to talk to the press against his will. We see top flight players like Malkin and Stamkos go relatively unbothered - shouldn't part of being a "player's GM" be about sheltering a guy from unwanted press attention? And really, what's to be gained from shoving him out in front of microphones? Are Bell/Rogers so worried about content production for their media wings that the tail wags the dog? And if MLSE risks of alienating one of their best players, shouldn't it be for the sake of some damn good content? In truth, you can lead Phil Kessel to microphones, but you can't make him say anything meaningful. Who gives a damn about a transcript of the usual cliches? Is there great wisdom when JVR says "we're taking it one game at a time"? Was there more value when a-n-y o-f t-h-e-s-e p-l-a-y-e-r-s said it in the last two months?

Funny enough, the unidentified reporter's question to Nonis belied the cliche narrative. "[What do you think about Kessel's lack of an interview] two days before a playoff series against the team he was traded from?" Here, let me write this article for you without player quotes: Kessel used to be a Bruin. 282 games later, he's going to play in a game against them! Now I'll add in the quotes for you: Kessel will talk about hard work, respect for their team, wanting to play a little harder, but y'know, also just as hard as usual. Pull quotes from every other time Kessel has played the Bruins. Mash in some rehashed drivel about the Phil Kessel trade (maybe you've heard of it, dear reader?), and it's like an article-in-a-can.

That presser-fed formula is really what we're talking about: interview scrums that generate easy quotes, but not interesting ones. Lazy narratives, rather than valuable ones. But beyond tearing down the shoulda-been-obvious, I was wondering what makes sportswriters worth following - how can an author avoid rehashed, mealy content? I came up with three things, only one of which needs to be satisfied to make a piece worthwhile:

Unique Timeliness

Today's twitter-verse has inflated many reporters' ideas that they can provide value through being first. Everyone's got an outlet, but, well:

"Unique." Everyone's got the same sources, finding it out at the same time. It's hardly enough to make a twitter feed interesting, and the same is true for a newspaper column (save the people who are already brand-loyal to a publication and have no other media outlets, but considering they're 1 old and 2, loyal by definition, it doesn't really make sense to tailor content to them, right?).

The obvious example of making this work are the trade-breaking powerhouse, Darren Dreger. He's often first, usually accurate when he says it's confirmed, and not really the kind of guy to get interesting quotes (and he's become even more one-dimensional in this aspect as his analysis has seemed dubious if not downright colored following the blatant pro-ownership stance during the lockout).

Unique Analysis

Most often, this is where the "replacement journalists" get to compete with the credentialed (and entitled). Don't confuse "analysis" with exclusively stats-heavy sources like David Johnson; there's tons of value in the input of scouting guys like Gus Katsaros and scout-polling like Corey Pronman. Part of it is just about having time - and a joy of looking at the problem differently - I mean, who else does stuff like Backhand Shelf's Systems Analyst?

Within the mainstream media, one of the best has been renowned homer and/or Leaf-hater James Mirtle. Tracking man-games lost to injury and pushing shot differential for player evaluation in a major newspaper is pretty rare. (Full disclosure for anyone unaware: Mirtle occasionally comments here.) I also think there's some room for really creative writing here - I mean, no one analyzes a game like DownGoesBrown.

Unique Insight/Access

This is where interesting player quotes might live. Interesting questions, interesting answers. Like with the race-to-twitter above, there's no uniqueness in transcribing the every-day player quotes after a practice.

I've said it before, but I feel bad for every fanbase that doesn't have a Jonas Siegel. I mean, rather than whining about Kessel's non-presser (or tying it to his performance), here's Siegel getting teammates' quotes on Kessel's quiet personality three days before the Monday practice "drama" happened, and without once implying that it impacts his on-ice performance. Everyone who wrote a similar article since then - and only after they were "scorned" - should feel badly. A preview of Komarov's game that didn't come out of a press conference.

If your piece doesn't live in one of these areas, what is it doing? "Phil Kessel faces old team, here's what he said to eight of us writing the exact same story, which we've basically written before anyways:" is boring. It's been written before, it will be written again. It's probably easier to provide some "unique" perspective on this if you're the only writer on the job, but in a market where every major paper has at least one full time reporter on the Leafs, if you perpetually fail these goals, what value are you even adding to your newspaper? (Side note: If you're wondering why everyone considers Elliot Friedman the king of this industry, I'd suggest it's because he hits on all three of these some time or another, be it on TV or via 30 Thoughts, when so many of his "colleagues" barely touch on one.)

Now, I'm no Hall of Fame writer - y'know, since the Hall of Fame doesn't induct writers - but in a world where editorial control seems limited to "does it generate hits?" and "how much did you plagiarize?" it seems like anyone worth following should put their pieces against something like these requirements above and see if they come out ahead. Would Shoalts? KPD? Feschuk? DiManno? The entirety of Sun Media?

I want to be clear that no reporter will have every piece fit this rather strict definition of "value," and that "value" isn't a measure of quality. At some point, the season gets long and repetitive, and everyone falls to quotes for a little bit of the publish-or-perish relief. I just wonder how many regular sports writers could fit the bulk of their pieces in one or more of these categories. I wonder how many reporters would still feel entitled to Phil Kessel's cliches if they could admit: they're just going to use them for a shitty article.