Rules of the game change as sports journalists compete against teams they cover

In September of 2009, when I started writing a weekly column about digital sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, I figured one of my major themes would be the fraught relationship between the mainstream media (inevitably shortened to MSM) and indie sports bloggers. Despite the missiles lobbed back and forth (here a “tired hack,” there a “mother’s basement”), I thought the distance between the two was shrinking. And as a writer with a foot placed uneasily in each camp, I fancied I might be able to help dispel myths and misconceptions.

But over my column’s two-year run, MSM vs. indie bloggers increasingly struck me as a narrower and narrower distinction between two variations on a theme. Sure, I occasionally waded into MSM/indie-infested waters – see here and here, for instance. But such columns would prove exceptions. Another development struck me as more important, with far more potential to remake sports journalism.

That development? It’s that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents are all increasingly bypassing journalists and using digital tools to communicate directly with fans. Right now, this stuff is mostly marketing. But as sports organizations become more sure-footed digitally, they will become journalists’ competitors. And that will lead them to reassess bargains struck with newspapers generations ago.

As always with such things, looking back, you wonder why it took you so long to notice the pattern. As far back as the mid-1990s, any self-respecting member of the digerati would tell you that digital tools allowed anybody to be a publisher – everybody now had a printing press and a distribution network in their personal computer. Newspapers, magazines and publishing houses were no longer gatekeepers between authors and a world-wide audience.

But when we digital cheerleaders said “anybody,” we were usually thinking of really small subsets of anybody: activists, grass-roots organizers, whistleblowers and the like. We weren’t thinking about the Yankees or the NFL or the Pentagon or General Electric or other big entities whose voices were already heard loud and clear.

Stick with me for a brief excursion into history.

One of the biggest problems for news organizations trying to change today is they don’t understand why they succeeded yesterday. News organizations see themselves as providers of information and defenders of democracy — which is true, and well worth defending. But that civic mission isn’t what made newspapers pillars of their communities. They attained that status because they were really good at printing – specifically, printing information and distributing it in a timely manner.

In the pre-digital world, if you needed to tell a lot of people in a given area that you had a hot deal on sofas, a good selection of groceries, or were showing movies at a certain time, putting an ad in the newspaper was the best way to do that. Those ads paid for a lot of journalism, but the arrangement came with an odd mutual blindness: Journalists habitually focused on the articles and ignored the ads, while advertisers habitually focused on the ads and ignored the articles.

Sports was an odd duck, simultaneously news and entertainment. Unlike many newsmakers, teams wanted reporters to cover what they were doing. That led to a tacit bargain: Newspapers got access and readers, while teams got publicity and customers. And that bargain held, even as sports reporting matured to include economics and race and performance-enhancing drugs and injuries and other concerns that teams and athletes would rather not have discussed.

But now, that bargain is imperiled. Because now anybody can publish, and anybody turns out to really mean “anybody.” That includes teams, leagues, athletic organizations, agents and athletes themselves – all those who used to speak through sportswriters. As a result, the rules of the game are swiftly being rewritten.

Back in April, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote a blog post discussing what he saw as the role of media for sports teams. Cuban took inventory of the media platforms in the locker room after a Mavs game, discussing which ones were useful to the Mavs and which ones weren’t.

His conclusion: Newspaper and TV reporters were essential because they reached segments of the Mavs’ audience that wouldn’t go online for information, but Internet reporters were on shakier ground. Cuban saved particular ire for Web writers who get paid, seeing them as primarily chasing page views (and, therefore, controversy) rather than writing as a labor of love. That caused a stir in the blogosphere, but I was more interested in what Cuban hadn’t said. He hadn’t talked about news value, or the public’s right to know, or any of the things that send journalists to the barricades. Instead, he’d sized up the locker room as a businessman.

Cuban saw print and TV reporters as complementary to the Mavs’ efforts, while Web writers were competitors with the Mavs’ own online outposts. But Ted Leonsis – the Web veteran who owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics – had gone further at a Washington Post-hosted sports-business symposium.

I have a direct, unfiltered way to reach our audience now, and I think that harnessing that is what you have to do as ownership, because we are media brands … when someone goes to find out something about me or a team or a player, and they go to Google and they type that in, I want to learn how to get the highest on the list, and I’ve done that. I don’t want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks.

Now, throw in athletes who are taking to Twitter to connect directly with fans, and using it to break their own news. Most professional athletes on Twitter are still digital immigrants – they started tweeting after they were famous. But very soon, star rookies will arrive who have used social media throughout their teens. For them, communicating via social media will be far more familiar than confronting a scrum of reporters.

All of these developments point to another buzzword from the Web’s early days: disintermediation, or eliminating the middleman. When teams are publishers, and athletes can speak directly to fans, the cost-benefit analysis of opening locker rooms to journalists changes. Like all middlemen in the digital world, they’re endangered.

Maybe this won’t matter. The last decade has seen an explosion in sports news, analysis and chatter, and dedicated fans continue to devour as much as they can get. But at the very least, sports journalists will face powerful new competitors with unbeatable access. And one way or another, their old prerogatives will be challenged.

Sooner or later, Mark Cuban or some like-minded owner is going to decide that publicity from traditional news coverage isn’t worth the headache of locker-room interrogations. Sooner or later, Ted Leonsis or some like-minded owner is going to decide to stop helping the Washington Post get clicks. Sooner or later, some star athlete is going to save all his talking for Twitter, and a team PR minder will just shrug.

What will happen then? My fear is that journalists will trumpet the public’s right to know, only to find that sports fans are largely content with in-house stories, indie blogging, highlights on demand and athlete tweets, and will dismiss talk of journalism as a civic mission as special pleading.

Rather than risk being caught flat-footed then, sports departments should plan now for the era of teams as publishers and competitors.

  • First, think about what news teams will hold back to break themselves, and get out of the business of competing with them for it.
  • Next, discuss which stories are me-too fare that readers can get anywhere, and that waste reporters’ valuable time.
  • Having done that, think about what niches teams can’t fill. Fortunately, there are lots of these — statistical analysis, investigative reporting, scouting upcoming opponents, minor-league reports and historical perspective, to name just a few. Think about if any of those approaches make sense for your news organization, and brainstorm how middlemen can use their status to add value. (For instance, become a great curator, using news judgment to collect the must-reads for a team’s fans whether things are good, bad or ugly.)

Change is coming. By focusing on what to do now, sports journalists can make sure that day isn’t such a shock when it arrives.

Jason Fry is a writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. While at The Wall Street Journal Online, he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing. Nineteen of his Indiana University columns are collected as “Sportswriting in the Digital Age,” available from Amazon for the Kindle, and in other formats (including epub and PDF) from Smashwords. Email Jason at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    It was the year 1999. I was in the media room, working on the Philadelphia Eagles’ web page on draft day. They had just drafted the young #5, Donovan McNabb.

    The first thing the Eagles did was hold an online chat with McNabb, answering fan questions. We then took the chat transcript, and put it up on the web. As we did so, several print reporters gathered behind us, watching us put in some quick HTML to make the chat page pretty. And they realized, here are McNabb quotes, from real questions.

    Wow, quotes! That’s why we’re here in person, to get quotes! The rest of the story could be written watching the draft on TV. And they wrote the quotes down and put them in their stories.

    And I thought, here is the end of print journalism. You have added exactly zero value here. You didn’t think of the right question to ask. You didn’t collect the answer. And by the time your story appears, tomorrow morning, the question and answer will have been published and read by fans 18 hours earlier.