Callum Borchers' Blog

Sociologically significant sports (and class assignments)

Losing the freedom to be average, not the freedom to fail, is the real threat

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Rather than raise the bar of excellence, Americans seem content to lower it. (Photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following essay is a response to Michael Goodwin’s video about the freedom to fail.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” Grant told me, which was sort of like an Olsen twin claiming to have a lot on her middle. Grant is the third of my seven younger siblings, and he has autism. On that disorder’s broad spectrum, he falls somewhere in the middle: Neither a savant nor a simpleton, Grant had long been enrolled in mainstream classes but always needed academic assistance.

Now in 11th grade, Grant worried he would not receive a high school diploma. He had failed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, a prerequisite for graduation, a second time. My perpetually relaxed little bro was suddenly stressed to a degree I’d never seen.

Grant’s situation divided my sensibilities. I applauded the state’s effort to combat the culture of social promotion described by Michael Goodwin in “New Threats to Freedom.” No longer could compassionate, or exasperated, teachers dress unqualified students in caps and gowns; every kid in the state had to pass a standardized test. But was Grant — who worked harder than most of his peers — really the kind of student the Department of Education meant to target when it conceived the MCAS?

Goodwin argues that “losing the freedom to fail really takes away the opportunity to succeed.” But the real threat is not losing the freedom to fail but rather losing the freedom to be average.

A brilliant senior on graduation day doesn’t resent a handicapped classmate — or even a slacker — who collects the same scroll she does.  That they did not fail does not cheapen her accomplishment.

What she does resent, what does degrade her sense of achievement, is that so many of her ordinary contemporaries somehow finished high school with extraordinary grade point averages similar to her own. The boy beside her doesn’t know the difference between affect and effect, but he, too, earned an A in English class. The girl two rows back isn’t sure which Roosevelt held office during World War II and remains convinced that water occupies a square on the periodic table, but she, also, made the honor roll.

More often than they push through students who ought to fail, our schools artificially bolster the GPAs of students who ought to carry 2.0s. If the former is social promotion, the latter is social inflation. It is the bar of excellence, not the bar of passage, we have lowered too far.

Americans don’t need to revive failure to promote success. Overcrowded prisons and high unemployment rates testify to the robust health of failure in this country.

Instead, we need to defibrillate mediocrity. Our unwillingness to identify the middling members of society subverts our ability to celebrate the truly superb.

“Without failure, we can’t know what success is,” Goodwin contends. “There’s no way to measure it.”

Without mediocrity, there’s no way to measure either.

Grant passed the MCAS on his third try. He got his diploma but didn’t go to college. He works at The Home Depot.

Seems pretty average to me.

Written by callumborchers

March 26, 2011 at 10:19 am

The cantankerous character behind BostonDirtDogs.com

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The post didn’t make sense, exactly. The morning after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, BostonDirtDogs.com posted a photograph of series MVP Edgar Renteria hoisting baseball’s championship trophy, under the headline “Rent Owns.”

In the body of his entry, website founder Steve Silva took the 34-year-old’s postseason renaissance as an opportunity to chide the Red Sox, who traded away the former All-Star after the 2005 campaign. “Why can’t we keep shortstops like that?” Silva asked.

Yet, he also teased Renteria, who piled up 100 strikeouts and 30 errors during his lone season in Boston. “This Just In: The Red Sox Are Actually No Longer Paying Rent-a-Wreck’s Contract,” Silva wrote, an exaggerated reference to the fact that the Sox paid $8 million of Renteria’s $26 million salary from 2006-08.

To anyone who would argue that such competing sentiments are irreconcilable — how can you simultaneously complain that Renteria stunk in Boston and that the team dumped him? — Silva counters that logic has nothing to do with being a Red Sox fan.

“The site is immediate, like day to day,” he explained. “It’s just the slice of what the feeling is today, what the thought is today. It doesn’t matter what was written in the post the day before. You can be a bum one day and a superstar the next. It’s just building them up and tearing them down, based on their words and actions.”

Silva claims BostonDirtDogs.com, a feature of Boston.com since 2004, is the most-read Red Sox fan site on the web. It drew an average of 25,531 unique visitors per month last season, according to compete.com, which tracks online traffic.

But, when he launched the site during the 2001 season, Silva held no ambition to create a leading online source of snarky Sox commentary. He just wanted to sell some T-shirts.

That summer, Silva was a member of an informal, but spirited, Red Sox e-mail discussion group — a bunch of friends exchanging baseball banter in their spare time.

“One kid talked about wearing his ‘Yankees Suck shirt‘ out in L.A. and how great it was,” Silva recalled. “And I said, ‘God,’ I just hated Yankees Suck — everything from the chant to the shirts. … And I’m thinking, ‘Why all the focus on the Yankees?’ You know, the focus is on the Yankees, it’s just kind of crude and crass, it’s not fun, it doesn’t really promote the Red Sox. What a lousy alternate theme for the Red Sox is Yankees Suck. There’s gotta be something better than that out there to be kind of a fun alternate theme for the Red Sox.”

Silva says that alternate theme hit him during a Sox series in Toronto, a four-game set with the Blue Jays played from June 29 to July 2. Boston won three of the games and left town with a half-game lead in the American League East, despite injuries to ace pitcher Pedro Martinez and all-star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. A group of gritty unknowns — Trot Nixon, Brian Daubach, Jason Varitek — were keeping the team in contention.

“[Toronto pitcher] Paul Quantrill and [manager] Buck Martinez, they made a reference to dirt bags,” Silva said, “and then it turned into dirt dogs, and it was just a passing reference in a [Boston] Globe story. And I said, ‘Gee, I love that dirt dogs thing. That’s such a great little nickname for the team. It embodies the spirit of the team and how they’re doing.’”

So Silva, who was doing contract marketing work at the time, decided to turn the “little nickname” into wearable merchandise. A buddy designed the logo, and Silva started pedaling tees outside Fenway Park.

The shirts were a hit. Red Sox players wore them. Bob Lobel, then the Channel 4 sports anchor, promoted them on TV. Major League Baseball considered licensing them, until the Red Sox — and fan interest in the team — faded down the stretch.

Although BostonDirtDogs.com is a popular source of commentary today, the website started as an online venue for founder Steve Silva to sell his popular Boston Dirt Dogs T-shirts. Click on the image above to view a slideshow of some of today's best-selling Boston baseball tees.

“While that was going on, I started the website, first to sell the T-shirts,” Silva said. “I was like, ‘Hey, if people can’t get to Fenway, they might still want to buy these T-shirts. I’ll put up a little e-commerce site so I can ship ‘em off to people around the country.’ Then, along the way, I said, ‘Gee, I’ve got this great little Red Sox group of people with all this interesting commentary. Why don’t I start putting commentary on the website too?’”

Silva posted his very first piece of commentary on July 28, 2001: “BEWARE OF THE DOGS,” he wrote.
“Because they’ll come back to bite you.”

Two days later, after Garciaparra returned and went 2 for 4 with a home run and 3 RBIs in a 4-3 win over the Chicago White Sox, Silva’s headline read “GRRRCIAPARRA ROCKS THE BONE YARD!” followed by “Nomar, you are a God among men. And God spelled backwards is Dog.”

“I liked the idea of just doing something really quick-hitting, splashy, and kind of in-your-face,” Silva said of his style.

Clever quips transformed the site into a sustainable venture that has maintained its popularity long after the Dirt Dogs T-shirt craze subsided. In June 2004, months before the Red Sox would win their first championship in 86 years, Silva sold BostonDirtDogs.com to the New York Times Co., The Boston Globe’s parent, and joined the Boston.com staff as a sports producer.

“It was a case where the site had just become so popular that we wanted to add it to our portfolio of Red Sox coverage,” Boston.com sports editor Matt Pepin said. “People really enjoyed the humor that it brought, and it was something different from what we had.”

But, while their affiliation benefitted both The Globe and Silva — new content for the former, new platform for the latter — they resisted a complete marriage. Silva likens the distinction between his roles as Boston.com sports producer and BostonDirtDogs.com blogger to the separation between church and state.

In the top, right corner of BostonDirtDogs.com sits the clarifier, “BDD is a feature of Boston.com. The site is not produced by the Boston Globe sports dept.”

“That was sort of a protector for both,” Silva explained. “That was so that if I did something wacky, off the wall that pissed people off, that the Red Sox players and the clubhouse wouldn’t go after [The Globe]. … And for the original dirt dog fans that were screaming, ‘Oh, you sellout! You’re gonna work for The Globe, you’re gonna be censored,’ and all this. It was saying, ‘Hey, what we do here is separate from The Globe. So, it served both parties, that disclaimer.”

In at least one, very tangible way, the two sites have stuck to their principle of divergence. Though he works in the office of New England’s largest newspaper, Silva remains the solo author of BostonDirtDogs.com witticisms.

In fact, the Dec. 3 post about the re-signing of Varitek, the team’s longtime catcher and captain, was the first in more than a week. When Silva goes on vacation, so does his website.

“People think there’s a big staff, you know they think it’s a whole operation,” Silva said. “I kind of describe it like the Wizard [of Oz]: People are like, ‘Oh, ah, what is this thing? What do you guys do?’ It’s like, ‘No, it’s just me pulling strings behind a curtain.’”

While Silva seems to have mastered the blog medium, he is not unique. Minimally staffed sites, like BostonDirtDogs.com, are gaining on their more traditional competitors in the clout department, according to Northeastern University journalism professor Charles Fountain.

“I know that my son, for instance, who works at ESPN, reads sites like Boston Dirt Dogs and Barstool almost every day,” Fountain said. “I remember I was doing some coverage for The Globe one time, and my son found my stuff on a blog. I hadn’t even told him to look for it. … I think for that generation, some of these blogs might be more influential than the newspaper columnists.”

Fountain’s observation parallels what many media analysts have noted about contemporary information consumption, in general. It reflects a growing preference for Comedy Central satirists over network anchors, for instance. Some people like their news sarcastic, not straight.

Sarcasm is Silva’s specialty. The Stephen Colbert of Red Sox commentators, he doesn’t report the truth — instead, he reveals it by playing a character.

“[I write] within the character of what my grandfather and father were: the disgruntled Red Sox fan, the Red Sox fan that’s never been satisfied with the team,” Silva explained. “They love the team, but they’re a bunch of bums, and they’re never quite doing good enough. And that was the reputation of the Red Sox fan for many, many years because they hadn’t won in so long, and the fans were cranky, but they were into it, they were passionate. So, I spoke — and the character speaks — in the voice of that Red Sox fan and still does today.”

Written by callumborchers

December 10, 2010 at 11:46 am

Taking a whack at the Pinyadda

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It’s a mediocre idea, and at the moment, it’s not well executed. That’s my take on Pinyadda, which calls itself a social news RSS reader.

To be fair, I’ve never used an RSS reader consistently anyway, so my lukewarm appraisal may reflect a broader sentiment. As we watched “The Power of Pinyadda” in class, I just couldn’t buy into this notion that it’s “too much work” to visit multiple news sites individually, that I need some kind of aggregator to simplify my life by bringing the news to me in one, central location.

But, even if I suspend my own opinion for a moment and go along with this argument, I’m not sure Pinyadda is the service I’d choose. While the site presents stories “pinned” by folks I follow in a Facebook-esque news feed, it still navigates to other sites when I click on headlines. By contrast, I can read full-length stories in Google Reader without ever leaving that site. If I’m going to be lazy, I want to be really lazy.

Then there’s the juvenile badge system, which makes me feel more like a gamer than a news consumer. Frankly, I have no interest in becoming a curator or a maven — or bearing any digital status symbol, for that matter.

And I don’t find Pinyadda to be very intuitive. For example, I think it’s slightly odd that I can’t comment on a story by clicking on a story. I have to click on a tiny comment bubble below a story, or the name of the last person to comment on a story, to leave my own thoughts.

These are fairly minor flaws, but my point is this: A website that isn’t a bare necessity must attract uses by being super convenient. And, right now, Pinyadda doesn’t fit that description. That doesn’t mean it won’t get there, but it probably won’t be my thing, even if it does.

Written by callumborchers

December 9, 2010 at 4:16 am

Right to know vs. right to privacy

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This is off my beat, but I believe it’s worth sharing.

Last Wednesday, I wrote an article for Wellesley Patch, called “Wellesley Police Make First Arrests of Thanksgiving Week.” The story included brief accounts of two drunk driving arrests that occurred in the days leading up to the holiday. In keeping with the publication’s standard practice, we posted the offenders’ names and addresses.

On Monday, I received the following e-mail:

Hi Callum, I appreciate your attempting to alert the community, and as a mother of 4 children, I greatly appreciate what you are doing, but there is another side to this story that you should have been aware before you wrote this. A drunk driving offense could happen to anybody, you included. Pam Stanley is a loving, single mother who was on her way home from a holiday party. True her eyes were blood shot, but a big reason is because she had been crying. I understand that you want to report a story, but it is NOT necessary, and frankly I find irresponsible reporting, to print her full name and address. Because of your article, she is now in a position that she could lose her job. Then she would not be able to find another job once anyone hears the circumstances in which she were fired. She is the sole provider of her family. Her husband barely contributes in any way. He is living in VT and barely sees the children. Do you want this on your shoulders? I see that you are young. Since you had no problem including her name, seems to me that you haven’t yet made any mistakes in your life that you regret. Callum, one day you will and, for your sake, I hope no one throws it in your face the way you did to Ms. Stanley. This is Ms. Stanley’s first and last time offense. As wrong as what she did, she should be entitled to make a mistake and to her privacy as a first time offender. I am asking that you please delete her name and address from your article immediately – and certainly before her employment sees this. Thank you. Lauri

Today, I responded:

Hi Lauri,

Thank you for taking time to write to me. Ms. Stanley is lucky to have a friend like you who stands up for her.

I certainly can appreciate your perspective. An arrest report documents a single event, often a person’s most shameful event. It does not include all the good things a person has done in the past, nor does it account for other challenges in a person’s life. I understand why that seems unfair. Sometimes, a good person makes a bad decision.

However, the standard practice of Wellesley Patch and many other publications is to publish the names and addresses of all arrested individuals. Such information is publicly available at any police station in this country. Understand that while Ms. Stanley might desire privacy, she is not entitled to it. In fact, it is the public that is entitled to know the identities of people arrested in their communities.

I hope you are right that this was the first and last time Ms. Stanley will be arrested for OUI and that people who know her will — like you — not forget all of her admirable qualities because of an isolated incident.

Have a safe and happy holiday season,

Callum

Just an interesting reminder that we cover real people with real consequences. It’s easy to get frustrated when people don’t understand or appreciate what we do, but I think it’s important for us to understand their perspectives, too.

Written by callumborchers

November 30, 2010 at 3:43 pm

GlobalPost sets high standard for special projects

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I’m sure Charles Sennott and his GlobalPost staff are most proud of their high-quality content, but it is their site’s attractive appearance that draws me in first. The homepage is full, but not overpacked, and the layouts of some special projects, like “Life, death and the Taliban,” are magazine-like — downright artistic, in my opinion.

A more thorough appraisal of the site must include praise for GlobalPost’s impressive combination of depth and breadth. However, I admit that my own interest in international news is limited to the most important events and trends. I get most of my international news on the radio, by listening to NPR and BBC, and confess that some of the reports (cricket match fixing in Pakistan, let’s say) just don’t register on my care meter.

Perhaps that’s a personal flaw — shouldn’t I appreciate such enterprising journalistic efforts? — but it’s the truth. I feel, like many people, that I have only so much time to absorb news, so I want to make the most of it.

Compelling stories, like those in the Taliban series, are exactly the sort of international journalism I believe to be most valuable. To improve, GlobalPost should continue — or even expand — such projects.

And, based on Sennott’s presentation on Monday, that’s exactly what he plans to do. If GlobalPost’s future endeavors match the standard set by its Taliban series, I believe the site’s resources will be well spent. Most of my criticisms of the series are nitpicky production notes about the videos. Sennott’s narration is solid, but I would love more sound bytes, even if through a translator. In “Talking to the Taliban,” we see lots of footage of Sennott interviewing Taliban officials but hear very little of those interviews. And in “GroundTRUTH in Pakistan,” we hear a veteran reporter’s voice — though the audio is too low — but do not actually see him speaking.

Also, the sort-of video mosaic on the main Taliban page is slightly confusing. For one thing, the introduction — ostensibly the first video a viewer should watch — does not appear first. “One family, one street” is featured most prominently (on the left and four times the size of the other four videos) and is clearly GlobalPost’s favorite of the bunch. Visually, I think it would have been better to place it in the middle. I also think the player interface is a bit odd: I’m not sure every viewer will know intuitively to hover over a video still to watch a short preview, then to click to watch an entire video.

Nevertheless, the storytelling — in the videos and the written articles — is superb.

As for the Study Abroad section, I found significant variations in quality. Some students wrote strong pieces to accompany their photos and took the time to write detailed captions. Others wrote only a couple of paragraphs and used a single, vague caption for every photo. In 2007, I spent a semester in London and can think of several story ideas that would have been excellent candidates for this series.

One might include profiles of the immigrants who lived in my neighborhood. I lived on Edgeware Road, where English actually was the minority language. Most of my neighbors and local business owners spoke Arabic. I think their stories could be told best in video because readers connect most strongly to profile subjects they can see and hear for themselves.

I also would’ve loved to compile a slideshow of photos from London’s parks, which are simply stunning in the spring, when I was there.

And, as an American sports fan, I think it would have been fun to write a story about the NFL enthusiasts who pack pubs at odd hours to watch the games. Monday Night Football at 2 a.m., anyone?

Written by callumborchers

November 30, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Tighe-ing up a legendary career

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November 26, 2010 at 11:16 am

NewsTrust rating system adaptable but imperfect

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My initial impression of NewsTrust was that it is very serious. As its name implies, the organization’s purpose is to gauge how strongly readers can trust the news they read — a pretty serious mission. So, given the freedom to post stories of any kind for a class assignment, I was curious to find out how NewsTrust would handle a topic slightly lighter than the Haitian cholera outbreak.

I led off with Dan Shaughnessy’s column about yesterday’s Patriots-Colts classic, and was impressed by the way NewsTrust adapts its rating system to this genre. Instead of asking, “Is this story factual?” and “Is it fair?” as NewsTrust does about hard news stories, the site asked, “Is this story informative?” and “Is it insightful?”

In this way, NewsTrust passed a big test in my estimation. The concept of a point-based rating system is a good one because it allows for easy comparisons between articles. However, such a system only works if it fits every story, and NewsTrust has made an effort to tailor its system in that manner.

The system is imperfect, however. While I like the tiered rating forms — short, quick, full, advanced — I’m not a fan of the review forms, also available in short, quick, full and advanced. It’s great that NewsTrust caters to people with two seconds or two minutes to spare, but eight different ways to evaluate a story is just too many.

Also, it seems odd to differentiate between a review and a rating. In NewsTrust world, the difference is that review questions are black-and-white — a story is either fair or unfair, factual or not factual — and rating questions are more nuanced, scored on a five-point scale. However, reviews are converted to the five-point rating scale to help measure a story’s overall score. For example, a reader using the short review who called a story factual and fair and said he would recommend the piece produces a score of 4.0. So, on the short review form, there is no way to award a story a perfect 5.0.

Since I used the full rating form to evaluate two other stories, Boston Globe pieces about holiday shopping projections and the UMass presidential search process, I managed to produce more thorough scores. But, in some cases, I think NewsTrust’s rating system sacrifices accuracy for convenience.

Written by callumborchers

November 22, 2010 at 9:04 am

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