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Freedom of Information

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One of the comments I get regularly is that readers love my work because they usually have to pay for the information I provide. That got me thinking about how information, sports, and media got all wrapped up in exclusivity that has honestly hurt sports overall. Why is it that fans have to pay for information that can be readily available?

I don't want to have to put all my readers through a talk about freedom of information, but if you're interested in the subject, follow the jump to join the discussion.

Americans have a long history of distrusting people that hold information hostage. We've essentially determined that there is a major difference between people who protect information about themselves (think Fifth Amendment) and information about others. In the legal system, you don't have to incriminate yourself, but if subpoenaed, you can be forced to testify against others in a summons called a subpoena ad testificandum (my Latin education comes in handy). In a situation such as that, failing to testify as ordered can result in punishment.

We've even drawn a line in the sand for our government. The Freedom of Information Act is almost 45 years old now, and even though there are notable exceptions to the information that can be released, it has resulted in a flood of information that was previously held hostage by a third party. Whether you believe in the politics behind the Act or not, the principle remains the same. We don't trust those who keep secrets from us if the secrets aren't of a personal nature.

This sort of feeling goes well beyond the borders of America, though America is notorious in sociological studies for being more distrustful of those with privileged information. Dozens of countries around the globe have some sort of freedom of information legislation, and knowing that I have a few readers here and there from other countries, it's important to point out that it has become part of the human condition in the 21st century to stop accepting the idea that some people are allowed to hold information over the heads of others.

Bringing this back to baseball and sports in general, the 21st century has seen a rising trend in the availability of information. Baseball in particular came about at a time where information was the privileged arena of newspapers. Beat writers essentially provided 100 percent of the information that people knew about teams and players, and a media member could skew things whichever way they chose. I don't have to go into a long diatribe about the dangers of that system.

Radio and television brought more and more fans into the game, and when television reached the age of maturity where fans could watch essentially every single game of their favorite team live, the norms of baseball began to be challenged. Fans started openly wondering why Player X was even a Major League ballplayer. Newspaper coverage began to incorporate more minor league coverage at roughly the same time, and with the Sporting News also being the main source of information with a broader subscription base, baseball decisions were called into question more than ever before.

It was in this era that the current-day prospecting bedrock Baseball America was born. It's only been just under 30 years since Allan Simpson started the magazine as All-America Baseball News, and even though I know that's older than a lot of my readers, that's still relatively new in the process of baseball writing. Simpson filled a gap where publications like the Sporting News were starting to go the other way. Magazines and newspapers were starting to feel the pull of mass appeal, and most sports readers could honestly care less about minor league baseball and the draft. That situation has just gotten worse over time to the point that mainstream sports magazines and newspapers cannot be depend on to provide any valuable coverage for those areas where passionate baseball fans find such pleasure.

As we all know, the game of baseball itself developed out of an era of secrets and suspicion, and teams have always been fighting over new places to gain competitive advantage. Competitive advantage always came out of finding value in places where information was less readily available, first in the American amateur market before the draft, then through incorporating African-American players, then through the Latin American market. This system, which is still in use today, promoted suspicion of outsiders, and the traditional network of keeping out non-baseball people was established.

At Baseball America, Simpson broke this stranglehold of information. He did it through hard work and the support of a few people that saw the same thing he did. There was just a lack of information available for baseball fans, and that just wasn't acceptable anymore. At the time, magazines were the best way to establish readership in America, and Baseball America simply tapped into that market. It was a simple business model. Simpson wanted as many readers as possible, and since magazines were the distribution channel of choice, there was a logical fee associated with getting the content.

Enter the Internet age. The World Wide Web changed things, whether you want to admit it or not. Baseball America jumped on the Internet bandwagon in 1999, and they continued what many Internet informational sites were doing at the time and that was charging for the privilege of reading their content. They weren't new to the concept, they simply followed it. After all, this was before the real dawning of Internet advertising, and they would have lost a significant amount of money on their magazine subscriptions if people could simply find the same thing online for free. It made sense.

However, 11 years later, we find ourselves stuck in the same system. Simpson's no longer at Baseball America, having moved on to head Perfect Game's Crosschecker product, but nothing has really changed over these 11 years. You still have to pay to get a Baseball America online subscription, a Crosschecker subscription, a Baseball Prospectus subscription, and an ESPN Insider subscription. I don't know about the rest of you, but the bill for those things is just too much for an average person with an above-average interest in baseball.

Enter my protest against the status quo. I figured that if normal people without a baseball background could get into the informational lock-down that is baseball, then I could too. However, once I got there, I wanted to make sure that I could offer the same amount and quality of content for free or a fraction of the price. This blog is the free arm of a business model that promotes using the new form of revenue modeling, Internet advertising. I don't get paid much at all, but SB Nation is building itself to a critical mass where they can provide information on almost anything inside sports that you want. It doesn't stop at linking to the work of people in the traditional media market. John Sickels provides unique, personally-collected information on the Minor Leagues. Beyond the Boxscore provides sabermetric analysis on par with most anything at Baseball Prospectus. Non-SB Nation sites such as FanGraphs supplement that information, and it's gotten to the point where media is only as good as its price.

If you want to be read online, you have to be free. That's just the cost of doing business these days. That's not to say that I don't respect what Baseball America, Crosschecker, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN do. That's not the case at all. However, the walls are being broken down bit by bit, and I think we're very, very close to knocking down pay walls almost everywhere. Imagine the results. Draft sites everywhere not fighting over information and its privacy, but fighting over giving you, the reader, the most valuable coverage available.

In all honesty, I shouldn't be able to do what I do. If Baseball America and Crosschecker gave out their content for free, I'd be out of business. They have the experience, the network, and the pure size that makes my operation look tiny and weak in comparison. However, because the information they hold comes for a fee, I find myself with a number of people reading my site that would be reading a Baseball America article if not for the price associated with it, since they can't afford it right now. That's great for me, but it's bad for baseball and for fans in general.

Can you imagine a day where all the writers of draft coverage come together to provide a broad range of information services just for you? I can. That day is coming, and it's coming sooner than you think. It's even happening behind the scenes as I type. However, until that pay wall comes down, cooperation and the economic benefits that come from cooperation and quality cannot be truly achieved.

Information should be free. Even as I develop my MLB Draft Notebook, I've put it at the cheapest possible price with which to break even. Gathering information isn't free, which is why the Draft Notebook even has a cost, but it's not as expensive as some places would like you to think. It's the production that costs so much money, which is why I'm heading down the PDF route and not the physical publication route. As it stands, every penny coming in from the early Draft Notebook sales is being reinvested into the content of this site. I can go to more games and provide more information, and that's how it should be. The Draft Notebook equates with Baseball America's Prospect Handbook. It's on top of what I could possibly do on here.

All this being said, I want to stress that taking things from behind a pay wall and posting them on free sites is both morally wrong and illegal. My new series, Casing the States, is designed to give you something to post on team sites all over the web when draft day comes. Have a question about a player your team just drafted? Head over here, copy my Casing the States writeup for them, then paste it appropriately. It's that easy. Don't steal Baseball America or Crosschecker's information, and don't copy and paste my Draft Notebook content. The reasons behind this are numerous, but the reason behind my decision to do this is that a sale of a Draft Notebook constitutes one final sale for me. Subscribing to Baseball America is a promise by them to provide coverage to you for the length of your subscription, but buying a Draft Notebook is a definable sale of one single product. It's affordable for pretty much anyone at $9.99, and I'm treating it (and the law is treating it) like a book sale.

I hope you understand my feelings on this whole matter. I respect all viewpoints related to this subject, and I encourage you to comment on it. The great thing about SB Nation is that it is easy to comment.

What are your thoughts?