Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blogger Interviews: Brian Cook

We're running a segment here at The Big Picture where we'll interview some of the biggest names in the sports blogosphere. What's the point? Well, these guys spend countless, thankless hours writing, so a little recognition from time to time is well warranted. Think of this as the blogger's version of a reach-around or something.

On the hot seat today is Brian Cook from the outstanding Michigan blog, MGoBlog. He also shares his college football wisdom at The FanHouse. We imagine he's been on a bit of a an emotional roller coaster of late, seeing as his beloved Wolverines are toying with their fans' heads. So go easy on him in the comments. But not too easy...

1. The rundown:

Name: Brian Cook
Age: 28
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Occupation: Blogger (seriously!)
Favorite team: University of Michigan anything
Links to your favorite all-time posts you've written. (3-5)

Quod Erat Demonstrandum
Eleven Swans
Zen And The Science Of Third Down Conversions
And, while no UFR (Upon Further Review) is a treasure trove of bon mots, it has become something of a signature offering. A typical example:
Upon Further Review: Offense vs Notre Dame (2006)

Time per day spent blogging and perusing the blogosphere:
During football season: lots and lots, unless we lose to Appalachian State or something. (Like that would ever happen.) I would peg it at eight to twelve. During the offseason much less.

2. Take us through a typical day of blogging.

1. Wake up. If I have something prepared for the early part of the day, post it and enjoy a leisurely perusal of bloglines. If not, frantically scramble for something to put up.
2. Either way, I'm reading bloglines constantly for FanHouse items or MGoBlog stuff.
3. What happens after varies so much. I could be reviewing the game for UFR or compiling the stuff from bloglines into various things -- recruiting updates, link dump posts, a sidebar widget I call -- or typing out some screed I will probably be embarrassed about when I hit publish.
4. Put stuff up.
5. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's fairly typical, I imagine.

3. Your analysis and statistical breakdowns are incomparable. How do you do it? Have you always had a niche for making sense of numbers? Are these features of your site designed at all to help you stand out from other Michigan blogs?

Well, a large part of the reason the blog exists is my frustration with the conventional wisdom that gets thrown about constantly in both the media and the fanbase. A typical game review gives you a bunch of stats you could look up in a boxscore, describes the key plays, and offers no insight whatsoever that you couldn't have figured out from watching the game. And when newspapers or TV talking heads actually try to get down to the nitty-gritty detail, the results are facile. Robble robble don't turn the ball over robble robble time of possession (which is stupid) robble run the ball!

So how do you fix that? Making things not facile necessarily means putting some numbers behind them, or at least reviewing thing systematically to see where the points of failure and success are. It means doing something other than parroting conventional wisdom. Conveniently, I appear well suited for this task. I've always been good with numbers. This is where I note the engineering degrees: computer, two of them. I often joke about "not using" these degrees and how this distresses my parents, but that's not actually true. I use both the skills and the viewpoint the degree imparted to me, and these are both very useful. While the analytical features of the site were not specifically designed to make the blog stand out from other Michigan blogs, they do so because there aren't many engineers -- and I remain one of those at heart -- who ditch the whole well-paid nine-to-five for this adventure.

4. One of the things that impresses us most about MGoBlog is that it's a narrow focus, blogging solely about Michigan. Isn't it hard -- especially during the dreadfully long off-season -- to come up with enough material to keep readers entertained? Any secrets you have to finding content on painfully slow news days?

The blog does cover basketball and hockey, albeit not so extensively as football, so the true offseason doesn't hit until summer. There is always recruiting, and previewing the upcoming season. But the blog's focus does waver in the offseason. I post on the Piston playoff runs, USA soccer -- though not any more since the FanHouse is a great outlet for that -- and then just random things that bug me or come to mind. It's usually not that tough to come up with at least one thing every day. Sometimes, yes.

I don't have any secrets about painfully slow news days, unfortunately. Sometimes in the offseason you just have to put something of dubious interest up. I've found most people are forgiving enough of the occasional clunker.

5. Dream job? Go.

Aside from head coach at Michigan, Scarlett Johansson boytoy, and professional poker player, I think this blogging thing is pretty cool. I don't have to wear pants unless I want to. (When to I want to? When I'm cold.)

6. There are all sorts of wonderful blogs out there. A few you'd recommend?

I figure we can take the FanHouse, Every Day Should Be Saturday and Sunday Morning Quarterback for granted, right? Maybe not given SMQB's traffic, which is good but depressingly low IMO. Everyone with even the slightest interest in college football should be reading SMQB. He is without question the best person writing about the sport anywhere. No qualifications, no restrictions. He's the best. Read him. Also Orson is the unofficial king of CFB blogging. He is our leader.

I want to keep this brief, because if I list a dozen blogs it's like "why didn't you say mine"... so Hawkeye State. Er. Steve Alford's Hair Gel. Uh. The Hawkeye Compulsion. Er the second. Ah-ha: Black Heart Gold Pants, an Iowa blog that keeps frickin' moving but is fantastic. As funny as EDSBS. Seriously. Big Red Network is comprehensive and professional coverage of Nebraska; the Hog Blogger is a great Arkansas blog; Hey Jenny Slater and the Georgia Sports Blog are top-notch Georgia blogs; I love Troy Nunes is An Absolute Magician for its "Octonion" posts; Bear Meat is a deeply hilarious Baylor blog; Braves & Birds covers Michigan and Georgia with more dead-on WWII era comparisons than you can shake a stick at; Burnt Orange Nation and Rocky Top Talk are flagship Texas and Tennessee blogs, respectively; I have *completely* failed at my attempt to not list every blog on the planet. I should give a shout to Ron Bellamy's Underachieving All Stars, as well, a Michigan blog of erratic posting but one that is really gripping when you need to be gripped. And the M Zone.

7. Most rewarding parts of blogging? Most frustrating?

The most rewarding part is being able to write something that people need. For a given definition of "need," anyway. The first three posts above are written in the aftermath of big, remarkable wins that validated something about the program and by extension Michigan fans or the most surreal tragedy in the history of the program, when people sort of needed something to grab onto. Sometimes it becomes clear that the enterprise of MGoBlog is important to people, and that's a nice feeling.

What frustration there is lies in a sort of always-on mentality. I was doing this as a hobby for a while, then starting doing it for serious serious just over a year ago. Sometimes in the maw of the offseason getting something up seems a chore; sometimes in the heart of the season I end up with 95 tabs open at once -- this happened yesterday -- and a game tape to review and it's just a little much. Burnout is a threat at times. After the year's over I'm taking a vacation.

8. This might be a loaded question, but, in your opinion, what's the future of sports blogs? Enlighten us.

I think we're heading towards a sort of free agent punditry. Occasionally I will follow my blog's referrers, and of late I've noticed something interesting: people are referring to me by my full name. I don't even use my full name except on the FanHouse -- on MGoBlog it's just Brian. But certain people are catching on that I am this person and I write things here and also there and that makes me an Entity. I occasionally get into conversations with people and the conversation veers to these things and I end up saying things like "please don't throw me into a wood chipper, but I am a brand. MGoBlog is a brand, I am a brand, and given traffic vectors and suchlike and so forth this could end up being something major." Orson is a brand, too, as is SMQB. And as these brands grow to a stature where they are not dwarfed by what I often uncharitably refer to as "lolmsm" you're beginning to see credibility attach to them. As this happens and more people start finding blogs they like, the stigma of pajamas-wearing basement dwellers fades, and all we're left with is the content. And, frankly, the best content on blogs slaughters most tepid MSM offerings. It has to to get attention.

You can already see the landscape shifting in newsy things. In college football, Demetrius Jones provides an interesting exemplar of the change. Charlie Weis made a huge deal of not revealing his starter before the start of the season to surprise Georgia Tech and keep the pressure off whoever it would be. People jumped all over him for this. Then a few days before ND's opener a few blogs, including Rakes of Mallow, ferreted out that it was Jones via Facebook and just the general WOTS. Word spread like wildfire -- I threw it up on the Fanhouse -- and various newspaper articles picked it up. This is remarkable: they're reporting based on blog assertions now. Of course they did the standard CYA thing by attributing it to "blogs" in general, providing no links, and making it very clear that they regarded this information as extremely dodgy, don't know why we're even telling you this really, probably full of crap, these blogs, underwear basement where's my cranberry juice?

But Jones started. Then rumors started spreading on Notre Dame message boards that Jones was transferring. FanHouse's Brian Stouffer was the first person to report on this, and SMQB was the first person to note Jones' registration information popping up in the NIU online phonebook after industrious messageboarders dug it up. It was on ESPN hours later without accreditation. The Internet is becoming a source of information; it's always been one but now all the best information trickles out onto message boards before it hits newspapers. Every major school has Scout/Rivals/indie message boards populated by sources close to players and coaches and these days I know 75% of the actual news before it hits the papers. Knowing the dimly lit alleys of the Internet and knowing who is reliable and who is not is now just as valuable as being an actual journalist, and at some schools even more so.

This isn't to say newspapers or beat writers are obsolete. I think bloggers will reach par with the establishment in five years, though.

9. What's the ultimate goal of your site/your writing?

In Edmonton there is this dentist named Paul Laurieau (spelling not guaranteed). In addition to being a dentist, Laurieau also spends his evenings belting out national anthems at Oilers games. Edmonton adores this guy because he makes Oilers fandom better. I would like to be a version of that for Michigan.

10. The BlogPoll is a great feature that incorporates most of the CFB blog world and anyone else who's interested. Where'd you come up with the idea for this clever poll? Is it a huge hassle tallying up the ballots and putting out a finished product? Think the real pollsters -- those coaches and writers -- are taking notice?

I don't think I can take much credit for the idea, since the idea of polling supposedly knowledgeable people about who the best college football team has been around since zoot suits were cool. I just sort of thought "hey, what if we had our own poll" three years ago and then threw it together. The ballot tallying isn't a big deal anymore, since it's all done with PHP and MySQL -- I basically hit a button and go type out the weekly post -- but the original construction of the system was a remarkable exercise in procrastination and then rapid prototyping. Though I have a couple degrees in computer engineering, I had never done any web stuff outside of CSS until I realized that a spreadsheet was just not going to get the job done for the poll. I mean... *yes*, it takes an immense amount of time. I feel like that woman in the Rice Krispie Squares commercial.

As far as real pollsters taking notice: absolutely not if we're talking about coaches. To paraphrase Nick Saban, they don't have time for this shit. The AP? Maybe. Sometime last year they started making all their ballots publicly available in an easy-to-access database, something the BlogPoll has done from the start. Maybe someone noticed and decided this would help credibility. (It doesn't, because now we know exactly who is rating Appalachian State #13.)

11. MGoBlog gets a great readership now. The content speaks for itself, but it needs to get out there somehow -- especially at first. How'd the initial promotion of the site go? Message boards? Email strings? And a piece of advice, if you will, for some smaller sites how to build a steady, interactive readership?

The first trickles of readership came when I would occasionally link something I had written on The Wolverine, Michigan's Rivals site. I was never comfortable with this. It felt like cheating. If the content was good enough, it would speak for itself. But when I put together a big post I wanted someone to read it, so I'd head over to a message board or two to promote it. Also, when I published a big preview of another team I'd slap up a plug post on their message boards. Once I started getting a few hundred hits a day, I stopped virtually all self-promotion and focused on the content itself; this strategy has been pretty successful. It helps that my content is exclusive: there is no UFR elsewhere. There is no comparable free recruiting coverage. And no one else writes columns from the perspective of a fan without access to lose. It has a high word-of-mouth quotient.

As far as advice for n00bs as regards getting traffic and attention: 1) write something great and widely accessible. The Joe Cribbs Car Wash was way more obscure than it is now before it put up a definitive post comparing Arrested Development to the SEC. The "college football teams as rappers/Simpsons/shoes/elements" post is played, but the JCCW did such a good job of it that everyone linked to it and now that blog has something of a profile. This is good for letting people know you exist. Then you have to keep doing this on a regular basis so people bother to pay attention to you on a regular basis. This is part 2) write great content. There is no way around this. Hits follow content. The thing of suck is this: you kind of have to be the absolute best at X to get attention.

The other thing I would like to stress: don't write a goddamned picks column. This is a generally applicable principle -- attempt to make your content unique, don't follow the crowd -- but also specific: don't write a goddamned picks column. Unless you are beating Vegas something fierce we don't care about your half-baked opinions about this week's games. Do not write a goddamned picks column. Don't. Don't do it.

12. Dude, what's up with Michigan? Two brutal losses. A big, yet possibly deceiving win over a Notre Dame team that might lose to a good high school squad. We don't need your assessment on the team right now. Rather, how disappointing has the start of the season been? Still, the Rose Bowl isn't out of the question at all. That's gotta be a silver lining, right? What's the sentiment around Ann Arbor right now?

The start of the season has been the most disappointing two weeks in the history of college football fandom. This is probably not true, but you can't prove otherwise so I'm sticking by it. I call this "The Stewart Mandel Method". We'll know more about whether to care or not after this weekend: beat Penn State and the sucky Big Ten appears ripe for the taking. It would be a comedown after all the expectations heaped upon the program, but 10-3 with wins over Ohio State and in a BCS game would still be a satisfactory season. Lose to PSU and Michigan fans will be hoping for a New Year's Day bowl but mostly focused on one question: Tedford, Schiano, Rodriguez, or Miles?

In general I would describe the fanbase as pissed but not despondent. Michigan will have a new coach by January after the first national search for a coach in 40 years. That's somewhat scary, but also mitigates any depression we might feel at the program's shortcomings. I mean, it's not like we gave the guy a 10-year contract or anything.


Ray said...

Brian is one of the best in the business. A religious daily read. Golf claps to both Zach and Brian.

Anonymous said...

I agree with ray. There is nobody better than Brian. I'm thankful that we have him.

SAMO said...

Niiice piece.

insomniac said...

How about a picks column that is really just a thinly veiled excuse to post pictures of coeds? That's still acceptable, yes?

Rupert Entwistle said...

This is a damn fine quote right here.

"Knowing the dimly lit alleys of the Internet and knowing who is reliable and who is not is now just as valuable as being an actual journalist, and at some schools even more so."

twins15 said...

Great stuff as always.

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