Committed to quality journalism: Sambit Bal

20 Jun,2013

 

By A Correspondent

 

Sambit Bal may have started in the profession as a sports journalist but he spent a fair bit of time in mainstream media is an Indian journalist. First as a correspondent with the now-defunct The Daily and The Independent and later with Deccan Herald. He was editor with Gentlemen magazine for five-odd years before joining Mark Mascarenhas’s total-cricket.com as editor. Later, he joined Wisden Asia as editor and he has been editor of ESPNcricinfo.com since August 2003.

 

As the premier cricket website completes 20 years, Mr Bal takes our questions on cricket, journalism and specifically how Cricinfo (or ESPNcricinfo as it’s called now) is beyond scores and statistics, as it is perceived to be. In cricketing terms, we tried to bowl him some short-pitched deliveries, but he hit them back with much ease.

 

Read on…

 

Despite playing host to some good cricket journalism and cricketing greats writing for you, Cricinfo is still essentially known and referred to for its scores, stats and ball-by-ball commentary. As you celebrate 20 years of the site, is this an image that you are happy with or do you consciously try and work towards being a well-rounded cricketing site?

That’s an incorrect perception. Apart from being the ultimate resource in cricket in terms of live match coverage and cricket statistics, ESPNcricinfo is also recognized, by fans, players and administrators, as the most authoritative and credible global voice in the game. We employ some of the finest cricket journalists and writers around the world and we follow the highest journalistic practices. Our credibility is based on editorial independence and the fact that we are the only media organisation in the world that can provide a global perspective on the game.

 

Our next question follows this: if scores and stats and commentary are what people look for, then is there any point paying for expensive journalists and content? In fact over a period of time one has seen that you don’t have too many ”celeb” writers?

If scores and commentary were all that people wanted, ESPNcrinfo wouldn’t have the position it occupies in the cricket world. We do provide the most reliable scoring service and the best quality of running commentary narrative, but our competitive edge comes from the editorial package we provide, the voice we have, the influence we wield in the game. And it’s a voice we have acquired by investing in and staying committed to high-quality journalism. A scoring and data service can be easily provided, the editorial reputation we have built is not so easily replicable. That’s the reason no other website has managed to come anywhere near us.

 

As for the second part of the question, I don’t like the word “celeb”. We choose our writers and contributors on the basis of the quality they offer, not how well known their names are. We don’t believe in ghosted columns; we want contributors to add genuine value, and form our cricketer-contributors we want intelligent analysis and true insight. We have plenty of well-known former cricketers on our roster. In India we use Rahul Dravid, Sanjay Manjrekar and Aakash Chopra. Globally, we have Geoff Boycott, Ian Chappell, Ian Bishop, Martin Crowe, Ed Smith, Mark Nicholas and Mahela Jayawerdene to name a few. And of course, we have the finest stable of professional cricket writers in the world.

 

Would it be right to say that you have moved from being community-driven to commerce-driven? Did the change of ownership impact the editorial direction of the site?

Completely wrong. We have moved from a community-driven site to an editorially-driven site. Our journalists enjoy the kind of editorial freedom that will be unthinkable in the majority of the Indian media. The best thing about ESPN is that it is a content-driven business that believes in building value, not in shortcuts to drive pageviews. Our editorial mission is to serve cricket and the needs of the cricket fan. If anything, the change of ownership has given us the stability, resources and access to world-class technology to enhance our editorial coverage.

 

How does the ownership by Disney and ESPN impact you?

I have answered that somewhat already. ESPN is among the world largest sports- media businesses, which believes in serving the sports fan. It’s a company that invests in quality content. Being part of ESPN gives us the perfect environment for growth.

 

In the recent IPL spot-fixing controversy and the controversies that have followed them, you had blocked off the comments feature. The web is all about freedom to contribute and discuss and argue. While we appreciate the legal implications, do you think there needs to be a different approach that affords interactivity?

Freedom must come with responsibility. We are fully committed to integrating the voice of the fans, but we are also a responsible media organisation. When passions are inflamed, it leads to irresponsible and intemperate comments that are not only libelous but contribute little to an intelligent debate. We moderate user comments and occasionally take the extreme step of disabling comments.

 

Sports coverage is a rights-based business. As the digital media becomes more important than conventional media, do you think you’ll have problems in the years to come doing the coverage?

We have built a website based on editorial values – that’s our real strength. That’s something that can’t be bought. Not having rights has never been an issue for us; we don’t infringe on any rights and we are open to acquiring some. What we have is far more important: we have the trust of our readers to tell the story as it is.

 

As a senior journalist and cricket writer, how would you rate Cricinfo vis-a-vis scores of publications with well-known sports journalists writing for them?

I wouldn’t want to compare, but our numbers tell the story. We are the world’s favourite, most-read cricket website. We are known for credibility and integrity, so we must be doing some things right. But we have a unique advantage over most newspapers, which are constrained by the demands of the local markets. We follow the game from a wider angle, our writers are trained to see the game from a global, not parochial, point of view.

 

 

Aside: do your commentators and scorers cover matches from the stadium or off TV? Is there any time lag?

We do it off TV.

 

What do you expect Cricinfo to grow into 20 years from now? And the next 5-10 years?

The internet is an ever-changing medium and websites need to evolve continuously. The biggest opportunity lies in handheld devices, and for a content-rich site like ours, the major challenge is to provide an in-depth experience on mobiles and tablets.

 

Video will become a bigger part of our package, and this need not be only match clips. Video can be used for storytelling and analysis. We have grown our video content steadily over the years, and that process will be accelerated in the coming years.

 

But one thing is unlikely to change: ESPNcricinfo will stay committed to quality journalism and to covering cricket in the best way possible.

 

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