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Raptors HQ talks to the Original Raptorblogger, Scott Carefoot

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What?? - Raptorblog and RaptorsHQ in the same blog post?  Yep, like Jay-Z and Nas on the same track it was long overdue...

This week has been "media week" here at the HQ.

We kicked things off Monday with the launch of our Facebook page, we followed that up over the next two days with exclusive video, insight and commentary from the Raptors' own "Media Day," and yesterday we spoke to one of the traditional media, Toronto Sun journalist Ryan Wolstat, regarding the off-season and upcoming year in Raptor-land.

Today we switch gears a bit and look at the evolution of sports media, specifically basketball media in Canada, and who better to talk to about this topic than Scott Carefoot.

As most of you know, Scott launched the very first Raptors' blog back in 2002, but has not only been discussing the team since then, he's also been at the forefront of the online basketball revolution, first via his blog, and now via The Score's digital department.

Over the past few weeks, he shared his insight on the industry with me, and among other things, we discussed the changes it's undergone since he first put finger to keyboard back in ‘02...


RaptorsHQ: So first question, a fairly obvious one.  Can you give us some of the background on Raptorblog and its creation etc?  What prompted you to start it, what sort of response did you get upon its arrival on the scene, and what was the media environment like at that time?

Scott Carefoot:  My motivation for starting RaptorBlog in 2002 came from a combination of factors. First and foremost, I thought it would be a great way to combine three of my passions: writing, sports and the Internet. Beyond that, I egotistically thought I could provide a level of insight, analysis and humour that I found lacking in mainstream Raptors coverage at the time. It's worth noting that I was unemployed and seriously depressed about my career path at that time, so it was also a form of therapy I took up to help me feel like I had something worthwhile to contribute to the world.

Heady stuff for a Toronto Raptors blog, I know. But this was three years after I earned my Journalism degree from Ryerson University so I really needed to find something to do that actually used my so-called skills. In terms of the response, people who found my site seemed to appreciate my "different take" for the most part. And the fact that I spent many years at the top of the Google rankings for "Toronto Raptors blog" (I've since been bumped down quite a few notches) certainly helped me to grow my audience in the formative years.

In terms of the response from the Raptors and the mainstream media, that's difficult to quantify. In the early 2000s, mainstream media seemed to want to pretend that blogs were irrelevant and didn't deserve anyone's attention. One particularly notable Raptors reporter has never publicly acknowledged that he's ever read my stuff and once responded to a reader question about me by writing that he wouldn't know me if he ran me over with his truck.

Now, of course, most (if not all) of the Raptors beat reporters have their own blogs. I've never particularly cared what the Raptors or their established reporters thought about me or my work, but I'm not too modest to point out that Michael Grange - who I've always respected as the most knowledgeable and readable Raptors writer in the biz - has never been shy in giving credit where it's due to me or any other bloggers out there doing good work. The media people who get it (like Grange) know that there's no point in pretending that blogs like yours and mine aren't part of the mainstream discussion anymore.

RHQ:  It's interesting to hear about your motivation for starting up the site, we had similar experiences on our side, especially in terms of our displeasure with the way "mainstream media" covered the team.  In the almost nine years now since you started the site, would you say you've seen progress in this capacity, or in your opinion is the team coverage void now simply being filled by the huge online Raptors' fan presence via blogs etc?

SC:  I think that Raptors' coverage has significantly improved overall since I launched RaptorBlog, both in terms of what we get from traditional media and the tremendous contributions from the Raptors blogosphere. In particular, I'm a big fan of how so many bloggers are using advanced statistical analysis to fuel conversation. It's clear that Raptors fans who read the various dedicated blogs out there are a lot more informed than they used to be, in that they don't take for granted that Player X is good just because he averages a certain number of points, rebounds or whatever per game. In much the same way an educated baseball fan understands the pointlessness of using RBIs and pitcher wins to measure the value of a player, there are many more educated Raptors fans who don't simply accept the Pablum fed to them by media outlets who feel they need to pander to a lowest common denominator. The great thing about blogs like ours is that we don't have to pander - we can assume that our readers will be sophisticated enough to understand what we're explaining to them and they're more informed as a result.

RHQ:  Keeping on the whole "changing media" theme, I remember at one point a few  years ago you wrote a post about press access, specifically referencing a Sports Guy piece along a similar vein; the idea was that in this day and age, you just didn't need press access any more to get a good  idea of what really goes on with a team.  Do you still feel this is the case, and if so, how did you react to Eric Smith's comments earlier this summer essentially saying that "if you didn't have press accreditation from a team, your work had to be taken with a grain of salt?"

SC:  The established sports media pundits have a vested interest in trying to make us believe that they have specialized knowledge because of their access to the teams. But what do they do with that knowledge? When's the last time a Raptors reporter broke a big story that we wouldn't have found out about almost immediately afterward? I did some beat reporting when I was a co-op student in the Toronto Sun sports department in 1999, so I speak from experience when I say that beat reporters are, for the most part, stenographers with a deadline. They provide a valuable service, but even when they are acquiring information that would be of value to the readers, they usually can't divulge it because of the risk of losing that access. It's a paradox that they have to be aware of but certainly aren't willing to admit to.

I've got a TV sports package that allows me to watch every NBA game that isn't on Sportsnet One, I have Internet access and a sixth-degree black belt in Google-Fu, and I now work at a sports network where people are actually in contact with the team on a regular basis. I have all the information I need to effectively analyze and write about the Raptors. I'm not sure where you guys stood on this team before last season, but I predicted that Turkoglu would be a bust, that Amir Johnson would be a pleasant surprise, and that the Raptors would battle for the eighth seed in the East. Did I simply get lucky? Will I be lucky again if my prediction comes true that the Raptors will struggle to win 30 games next season?

I don't need to go to Raptors practices personally or be fed misinformation by a General Manager who has to lie to reporters as a fundamental necessity of his job. (I'm not singling out Colangelo here, I've long stated that GMs are "professional liars" and anyone who takes most of what they say at face value is a fool.) If anything, I've witnessed how some reporters are more likely to be tainted by the access they have and I find that they are often less likely to be objective about their subjects. In November 2008, I recall that Doug Smith insisted to his readers that, based on his information, Sam Mitchell's job was safe and he wouldn't be fired anytime soon. On December 1, I predicted that within the next month, the Raptors would either fire Mitchell, make a trade, or possibly both: . Mitchell was fired two days later and Doug's reaction to being called out about it is an all-time classic:

So who, exactly, do we need to take with a grain of salt? Shouldn't sportswriters be judged on their writing skill, their apparent knowledge of the sport and their objectivity rather than whether or not they've ever had a beer with the coach? I like to let the readers decide that regardless of what one of the Smiths thinks.

RHQ:  Don't even get me started on Hedo.  As our readers know, I've hated "the Ottoman" since his time in Orlando and along with Kelly Dwyer, who was possibly even more vocal than I on this subject, bemoaned Turk's possible arrival in Toronto, going so far as to say that the team was better off keeping Delfino.  To that end, I wholeheartedly agree with your take on the press access situation.  And I've always found the paradox you note regarding the ability to divulge "insider info to the public," quite comical.  It's a bit akin to telling your friend that you know his girl is cheating on him just know. 

So next question.  Because of the way media is evolving, do you see mainstream media increasingly becoming "buddy-buddy" with teams and their ownerships resulting in a lack of truly investigative journalism?  MLSE is a perfect example of this as you get the feeling that a Doug Smith is loathe to criticize the one team he covers for fear of reprisal, one that could not only impact his access but other Star columnists access to clubs like the Leafs and TFC.  As an example of this "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," I can't imagine this happening 10 years ago, or in many other media markets in fact:

Do you see blogs then filling in this niche and perhaps becoming actually more "authentic" then in their coverage than the old guard of mainstream journalists?  I think Adrian Wojnarowski is a perfect example of this - hard-hitting, sometimes quite controversial, investigative work, and yet housed on a search engine portal.

SC:  This is a tough question for me to answer because I can't speak for the motivations of most of the Raptors reporters in this town. For example, Holly MacKenzie almost never has anything negative to say about a player -- but that's not because she's afraid of losing access, that's just how she is. At The Star, Doug Smith and Dave Feschuk seem to play a kind of good cop/bad cop routine with their Raptors coverage. Whatever you think of it, it works because they get a lot of readers.

Wojnarowski is definitely one of the must-read NBA writers out there, both because he obviously has great sources but also because he's not afraid to rip players, coaches, whoever. His LeBron "Decision" coverage was absolutely stellar, and it cracked me up how Knicks fans wanted to string him up by his nuts until LeBron chose Miami, and then they were suddenly all on his side. Good times.

RHQ:  Looking at how your career has taken shape, can you talk to us a bit about your transition to The Score, as well as the strategy behind the network's basketball coverage, specifically the blog network and the acquisition of TBJ?  Where do you envision the Score fitting in in Canada's basketball media landscape?

SC:  I wanted to work for The Score for a long time and when I had an opportunity to meet with the head of The Score's digital department in 2008, I used that opportunity to try to convince him that I could help The Score advance their online strategy. They apparently bought the bill of goods I was selling because they hired me and my two years with The Score have easily been the most gratifying two years of my career.

The Score's Sports Federation (our blog network) is technically why they hired me, but my role has evolved quite a big since then. You guys are part of a leading blog network yourself so you know the benefits (more traffic + sweet cash) already. I personally derive a lot of satisfaction out of helping promote our bloggers' work and enabling them to earn some ad revenue on top of it.

The Basketball Jones are fantastic, as anyone who follows them would know. I was a fan of theirs long before The Score hired me, and immediately after I started working for The Score, I started harassing my boss that he needed to hire TBJ because they were an obvious fit for what we were trying to accomplish both in terms of our basketball coverage as well as our progressive online strategy. I don't doubt that TBJ would have ended up with The Score regardless of my involvement, but it was still the most satisfying day of my employment at The Score when I learned that we hired the whole crew. I encourage everyone to put in their bookmarks because we've got big things planned for this season and I insist that it will be the best NBA blog around once we get ramped up later this month.

As for The Score's general NBA coverage going into this season, I've been instructed not to get ahead of the press release we're going to send out shortly. But I will invite your readers to ask themselves if The Score would send out a press release if we didn't have something we were happy to announce on the subject. We're committed to being Canada's home for hoops, and what we'll have to offer on all our platforms this season will make that clearer than ever.

RHQ:  One follow up one on this - can you talk to us a bit more about how TBJ fits into The Score's online strategy regarding basketball?

SC:  The guys behind The Basketball Jones are smart, funny, and they love basketball. It should be pretty obvious why they're a great fit at The Score. It's extremely cool that I get to work with them and I'm seriously pumped about what we have in store for NBA fans this coming season. If what I've been led to believe is true, they're going to add a pretty big name to their crew later this month. Stay tuned...

RHQ:  We've talked about media a lot so far in this Q and A, specifically relating to basketball, but let's talk about the subject of Raptorblog, the Raptors themselves.  How do you think the team will do this year, and in your opinion is there any reason for optimism from the fan base over the next few seasons?

SC:  As I mentioned in an earlier answer, I think the ceiling for the 2010-11 Raptors is 30 wins. I haven't seen any Vegas over-under lines on wins for the upcoming season yet, but I'll be shocked if the Raptors line isn't in the high-20s. Aside from Bosh leaving, the East will be much tougher this season now that Boozer and Stoudemire have joined the conference.

I don't believe the Raptors have a top-15 player at any of their starting positions, so it's not realistic to expect this team to compete this season. Raptors fans should set their expectations accordingly and hope that the team is able to land a potential superstar in the next draft. They're going to need a significant talent upgrade if they're  going to crack the 50-win mark within the next few seasons.

RHQ:  Finally then, and to that end, how do you view the job Bryan Colangelo has done?  This was someone who the past few seasons had promised fairly significant results on the court, only to have middling squads at best...not to mention the whole Bosh fiasco...

SC:  In 2006, Bryan Colangelo took over a team with cap space, a young All-Star in Chris Bosh, and a first overall draft pick. Four seasons into the Colangelo Era, the Raptors have yet to win a playoff round and that drought is virtually certain to extend to five years after this season. If he was going to be honest, I think Colangelo himself would have to admit that his results have been very disappointing so far. Having said that, I still think he's a savvy basketball mind and a great leader, and I'm willing to give him a chance to right the ship. People who think he should be fired never seem to be able to offer up a realistic replacement GM that would be a definite improvement.

RHQ:  That's my quandary too.  I've argued in the past that the point the team is currently at is one that Rob Babcock could have gotten them to, and I think if  you were to look at the job BC has done like any other in corporate society with targets etc, he would have been canned.  But...I've yet to realistically name one sure-fire superior option who is available.  

In any event, I think it's safe to say that the next few years of Raptors' basketball could be a struggle for fans so we'll all need a big dose of TBJ coverage!