USATSI_9589042_168381442_lowres

Digital Media and a Baseball Team: An Interview with Mark Shapiro

In the Rogers era of the Toronto Blue Jays, we have witnessed many different relationship styles between the front offices and the media. J.P. Ricciardi didn’t hold back, said way too much, and ended up having to apologize when he stepped over the line. Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston were the opposite, as they could speak for hours and say nothing of substance, just using corporate talk to stall until interviews were over. Now, we have Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, two leaders who strike a balance between the two extremes, and are doing a petty good job of it. On that note, I spoke with Shapiro, the Blue Jays President & CEO, earlier this week about his relationship with the media.

So much goes on behind the scenes of a Front Office that we as fans are not privy to, but that raises the question as to why the team will tell the media some things, but keep other items behind closed doors. Shapiro said there is a balance to strike between the two because there are multiple factors at play:

“I think the balance when it comes to media always kind of lies in the reality that it is important to communicate because the media is a conduit to your fans. Not communicating is not an option. Where the challenge lies is that you’re talking about human beings. And so people’s lives, people’s careers, their well being, their potential earnings, their security, their families, their health…so, you oftentimes [have] reasons for decisions [that] can’t be articulated, because if you did, you would be saying something hurtful. While we may have good reasons for decisions, the nature of the decisions can’t always be fully explained publicly. I think that leads to frustrations from the media themselves, as well as fans, but it is one of the biggest challenges. That, and the reality of the news cycle, and the competitive nature that is has created.”

I was intrigued by his answer because only just recently, it was announced that Andrew Tinnish, one of the club’s Assistant General Managers, would be leaving the team to go work for Alex Anthopoulos in Atlanta (he has since backed out of that deal for personal reasons and will remain with the Blue Jays). At the time the move was reported, the Blue Jays were silent. This was something that seemed odd to me because Tinnish has been with the club in a variety of roles since the early 2000’s. I imagined that the club would have released a comment. Instead, they were silent, both when his exit was reported and the subsequent return. Shapiro said that there isn’t a “steadfast rule” when it comes to making comments, rather that the situation is fluid:

“In that circumstance, you’d have to ask Ross [Atkins] probably, but I think that is more about the Braves and Andrew, so it is up to them to comment, then it is about us. As far as how that would pertain to us, I guess it would be an overarching belief [that every employee has a] right to choose whether you stay or go. [That is] something we have always believed in, whether here or in Cleveland. We believe in unequivocally granting permission and letting each individual make the decision that the culture here is one they want to be a part of, or whether the opportunities elsewhere are compelling.”

That’s good to hear and was made even more clear just hours after the interview when it was announced that George Poulis would be leaving the club to go to Atlanta. The club shouldn’t force employees to work for them if they would rather be elsewhere.

I was still curious about the decision-making process of deciding when to comment and when not to, so I asked Shapiro about how he decides whether it is right to comment when false reports are put out there. His answer sheds light on what we already know: the club doesn’t comment on speculation very often:

“When it comes to speculation, if you start denying speculation, then the one time you don’t deny it, the media is going to know you’re not telling the truth. That creates a challenge of it probably [being] better not to comment, regardless of even if it is false, unless you’re going to comment every time – and nobody has time to comment every time.”

In addition, Shapiro said that when he talks with writers who don’t cover baseball exclusively, sometimes he must “remain patient”, which is “not always easy.” Those same writers in Toronto are also the ones who will from time to time create false narratives out of thin air to serve their agenda, rather than basing their stories out of fact. I don’t understand why the Blue Jays still give credentials to writers like that, but Shapiro said it is their duty:

“We don’t have the luxury of making decisions on who has access based on what they write, regardless of how much we disagree with it, or how sound we feel the process [was] – in writing the article, or in reporting the information, or publishing it on the internet. If you’re in this business, criticism – at times even unfair criticism – is just part of what you have to accept. I think you just want to be right in the end, not necessarily along the way.”

That cleared things up in my mind because every time I see columns from certain writers I wonder how the club can still in good faith give them credentials when there are people in the city who add more to the discourse who can’t get access. That led me to ask about what Shapiro views as the difference between the “old media” and the “new media” online:

“An analogy I always use is that the emerging digital media, be it from blogs or websites, provide a little bit of the freedom of expression that Netflix and HBO provide to programming, as opposed to network television or even traditional movies. It’s a longer format. It provides for more storytelling and probably more in depth analysis, without editors being restrictive in space, or even directive in commentary. So I think you’ll find a little more broad range of attentiveness, and sometimes more thoughtful analysis as well.”

I took that as very complimentary to the work being done here at BP Toronto and other sites like ours on the web, and Shapiro later added that “a lot, not all, of the analysis [on new media sites] is thoughtful.” However, he added that what he thinks “is not constructive, is anonymous internet social media exchange,” because “that is clearly more mean spirited and the level of anonymity provides people with the access and ability to  put out some pretty appalling commentary.”

Shapiro clearly had opinions on the type of content published online nowadays, so I took the opportunity to ask him something I was particularly curious about: whether he felt that media outlets, even ones like BP Toronto, have any duty to consider the impact of revealing certain leaked stories. I know that in my time reporting stories over the last little while this is something I had to take into consideration, so I wanted to know how he felt about it:

“I think that would assume that I am capable of doing someone else’s job better than them. I would always [consider the impact]. That is who I am. Considering the potential personal impact is something that should be factored in. I understand that someone who is more black and white, and [someone considering] what the responsibility of reporting is, might not factor that in, and I would never purport to know how to do their jobs. [But] for me, I would probably factor that in, in any consideration, in any business.”

Lastly, I wanted to know why his regime has been so much more inclusive when it comes to the new media than Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos were in their time in charge. The “blogging” landscape has completely changed in Toronto since Shapiro took over, and I didn’t think this was an accident. He said that it wasn’t “a strategic thought” to be more inclusive, rather he just enjoys the “exchanges” with our ilk:

“Look, in Cleveland, we hired guys from media. You guys are passionate about the game of baseball. You’re thinking about it in an in-depth way. There’s potential to learn from talking to you, I think, as well as reading [the work of online media]. I’m less likely to learn something from a traditional media that has to report on something in a very limited amount of space, with a narrative. I am just as likely to learn something from talking to them off the record, because of the amount of baseball they see, and the games they cover, [but] it’s just less likely than through what they write.”

That was pretty amazing to hear. I think all of us who write articles on the web are doing it for their own individual purpose, but to see that sometimes our subject actually takes notice of what we are publishing is good to hear. Some of the most intellectual baseball arguments and challenging of ideas that I have seen were published on sites like this one, so it’s excellent that Shapiro recognizes that he and his staff are able to learn from every possible opportunity.

Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Related Articles

6 comments on “Digital Media and a Baseball Team: An Interview with Mark Shapiro”

Paul Coretti

Great Interview Gideon interesting read.

Gideon Turk

Thanks, Paul. Glad you liked it!

Arjon

Good interview – and fwiw, I’ve done several hundred myself. They’ve been in other parts of the broad entertainment industry, but even so, I am very aware that they’re frequently not nearly as easy to do well as some (maybe many) people think.

anon

Excellent stuff! Liking Shapiro more & more..!

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username