For years, Mike Hubbell, an engineer more comfortable with chemical equations than sentence composition, devoted fall Saturdays to his alma mater’s football team.
He shared that passion with most Penn State University graduates. He paid for the expanded cable package to watch every game from his home in Texas. And when a resurgent 2005 season led the Nittany Lions to their first conference championship in more than a decade, Hubbell read all the latest developments on the websites of newspapers across the state.
Still, he had a sense something was missing. He wanted a way to feel connected to the Penn State community, even while living thousands of miles from its campus in State College, Pa.
He tried Internet message boards, but with people free to post their own topics – however inane or inflammatory – the discussion often descended into vitriol. He wanted something better.
He discovered a site called MGoBlog, a gathering point for fans following University of Michigan athletics. It allowed fans to freely exchange ideas, with some rational parameters, and the author of the blog guiding the discussion. This was back when many considered blog a new fangled thing. But the Michigan fans seemed to love it.
“I thought, ‘What the hell? Why don’t I start a blog?’” Hubbell recalled. “People flock to a Michigan blog. Why not a Penn State blog?”
When a Google search turned up only a few long-abandoned links, he realized he found a void in the market place for him to create his new blog. He named it Black Shoe Diaries – an homage to the simple, no-frills dark cleats worn by the Penn State players and their famous coach, Joe Paterno.
He spent an entire Saturday writing his first post, fretted over its grammar and spelling and threw into the Internet abyss, not knowing who would ever read it.
During the 2006 season, he slowly built his page views up to 500 per day. Though his writing improved and became more effortless, he never fancied himself a professional. The effort was mostly for fun. Even at its peak, the blog paid “enough to cover groceries.”
But he believed in one key value, no different from the more traditional scribes that came before him. Balance.
“I always tried to present both sides of the argument. I didn’t try to point out only what I thought was right,” he said. “I just kind of through the topic out there and said, ‘What does the community think?’”
But that even-handed approach should not be confused with unbiased coverage.
“The key difference between me and someone in the mainstream media?” explains Adam Bittner, a Penn State student journalist, who has served as a contributor at Black Shoe Diaries. “I’m not afraid to say, I want Penn State to win the football game.”
While Black Shoe Diaries might be among the granddaddies of PSU football blogs, it’s far from the only. Penn State fan blogs of all different tones and vantage points, updated with various degrees of consistency.
And that’s just blogs about Penn State. For most teams in major sports at the college or pro level, fan blogs have a strong foothold – straddling the line between committed fandom and traditional journalism.
As a Penn State sophomore in 2003, I decided I wanted to become a journalist. I wanted to be a sports reporter because – why else? – I loved sports.
But I received a surprise once I started my new career. While an enthusiasm for sports is essential to great sports writing, loving the team you cover is not.
I felt no strong allegiance to any pro teams. I grew up on Penn State, my one and only “team.” After spending my freshman year hanging newspaper clippings about the team all over my dorm room, it felt weird leaving that fan passion behind.
But others in the profession have dealt with more difficult conflicts, so I learned to look at sports as a human drama. I learned that watching a team struggle on the edge of achieving success or sinking into failure offers plenty of intrigue. I regarded my front-row seat watching those storylines unfold a greater privilege than screaming from the upperdeck.
Some now argue that today’s aspiring journalists – whether they be students looking for a career or engineers wanting a hobby – don’t have to make the same choice I did. Fan blogs and websites permeating college football – and other sports – have created a new hybrid category, a way of chronicling the team that resembles journalism but is told from a fan perspective.
Some tension exists between the traditional members of press row and this new wave of writers with a rooting interest. And it burst into the limelight earlier this year.
Shane Ryan, a Duke University alumnus and unabashed fan of its basketball team, ran a popular blog called Seth Curry Saves Duke. While covering a tournament game involving his alma mater, Ryan got into a tiff with a radio broadcaster. Ryan wrote a lengthy post about the incident, excoriating the sports writing establishment and questioning whether the notion of objectivity even made sense in this new age.
In an apology post, Ryan responded with regret for some of his harshness toward the profession: “I’ve just sacrificed my future for two hours of feverish writing.”
On the contrary, though, Ryan has since parlayed the notoriety – and his entertaining writing style – into a new blog and a regular writing gig with Grantland, a well-regarded new sports writing website, alongside more renowned writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman.
So the appetite for this content is abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already. And it’s here to stay. On the other hand, it’s not hard to find people who see that fact as troubling in some ways. Mike Poorman, a senior lecturer in PSU’s College of Communication, said he admires the way the blogs blend insightful commentary with a vibrant voice in their writing. But worries that the information they disseminate – rather quickly and efficiently – has little to no backing in fundamental reporting.
“I wouldn’t say they don’t have ethics,” said Poorman, who teaches a course called “Joe Paterno, Communications & the Media,” which studies how PSU football is covered. “But they are a bit looser with their ethics, and they wear it as a red badge of courage.”
The bloggers, of course, say they serve a different mission – as a repository for any and all information about Penn State sports. Be it fact, message rumor or a listing of links to traditional newspaper stories. Black Shoe Diaries, in particular, strives to be a one-stop shop for everything being said or written about the team. Taken together, it tells the story of a season and a team.
“I’ve been surprised over the last couple of years the growth of non-traditional people on the beat,” said Poorman, who himself covers the team for a website, StateCollege.com. “That’s been co-inciding with fewer traditional media people covering the team, especially at away games.”
It’s also worth noting: The presence of bloggers on press row would have been unthinkable five years ago. But Bittner and Hubbell both said Penn State has been relatively accommodating of new media, and one reporter confided in Hubbell that every Lions beat writer reads his blog, “whether they admit it or not.”
“We can’t do what we do without real reporters,” Bittner said. “You need them, and you need what we present to have a well-rounded conversation about Penn State football.”
And as you probably presumed, this mania for more information extends beyond Penn State’s fan base. Fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide, PSU’s week 2 opponent, can follow their team on any of four premium sites (Crimson Confidential, Alabama 247 Sports, Alabama Rivals, and Alabama Scout) and a multitude of fan blogs (Roll Bama Roll and Crimson Tide Zone).
For Penn State, the influx Internet interlopes strikes an interesting contrast, given the team is best known for Paterno, the 84-year-old coach prone to crack a joke about his technological illiteracy.
But even the life of the old coach isn’t unaffected, and not just because some blogs bear his likeness. Hubbell’s venture with Black Shoe Diaries got its big break in 2007 for an event neither Paterno nor any Penn State fan remembers fondly. A group of football players got into a brawl at an apartment party off campus. Some newspapers, including the student paper, did some hard-nosed reporting on the ground to break the story, but the early details leaked out on online forums.
Hubbell compiled and sorted all the wide-ranging information and innuendo, put it in one place and his hits went through the roof. The incident took on a life of its own, with ESPN later doing a segment on it, causing quite a headache for Paterno. And Hubbell learned everyone wanted to hear the bad and the ugly, not just the good.
“People were starving for information,” he said. “I didn’t try to be coy about how, ‘My inside sources said, blah, blah, blah.’ I just gathered the information together on one site and let you talk about it.”
Wade Malcolm worked as a sports reporter and editor at Penn State’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Collegian. He now covers higher education at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., and now enjoys cheering for the Nittany Lions without restraint.