Last week I wrote a column for Poynter looking back at my two years writing about digital sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center. When I began writing my NSJC columns, I thought the clash between the mainstream media and indie bloggers would be a subject I’d come back to again and again. But that didn’t happen; instead, I came to see the MSM and bloggers as variations on the same theme. Something else struck as much more important to the future of journalism: namely, that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents were all beginning to bypass journalists and communicate directly with fans using digital tools that let anybody become a publisher. As I see it, those efforts will inevitably lead to teams and other sports entities regarding journalists as competitors, endangering the old, tacit bargain in which newspapers got access and readers and teams got publicity and customers. (You can read the rest of my argument here.)
The reactions were interesting — one objection I heard from multiple folks was that teams and other entities aren’t capable of reporting impartially on their own doings, and therefore sports fans won’t trust information from them.
The first part of this is undoubtedly true (as it is for any organization); it’s the second part that concerns me.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument. I don’t want to get my concussion news from the Saints, my NBA lockout updates from the Knicks and my Madoff analysis from the Mets. But I’m not so confident that I’m representative of all readers, or that most sports fans welcome the press serving as watchdogs. And I think even the best-case scenario in which teams are publishers and competitors will be a challenge for journalists.
First, the readership question. We should admit that a lot of information generated by sports doesn’t particularly need interpretation by journalists. Lineups, injury reports, signings, and results are relatively straightforward affairs; given the ability to see highlights whenever we want, the game story has largely outlived its usefulness in professional sports, particularly since today’s athletes are trained to offer little beyond carefully bland clichés. Teams also now have plenty of indie bloggers following them, who offer plenty of fan reaction, historical context, statistical analysis and other perspectives without the need to set foot in a locker room. That’s a lot of information for sports fans right there, without having discussed traditional journalism at all.
Sports, of course, is bigger than just game results and team news — really understanding what’s going on with your favorite team demands some awareness of economics, labor relations, health issues, drug testing and more. But now we’ve moved beyond more casual fans to a smaller audience. And every time sports reporting moves beyond the basics of the games and the sport to controversial subjects, you get objections from some fans that a certain issue isn’t sports, or ruins sports, strays into athlete’s private lives, etc. I don’t think that’s true of reporting on government or civic institutions, or at least it isn’t true nearly as often. As journalists, we see ourselves as watchdogs protecting the public interest, but plenty of readers see us as institutions with our own agendas. What we think of as a necessary mission may strike plenty of readers as special pleading.
So what will happen as teams explore the possibilities of being publishers in their own right? You’ll see a lot of experimentation — they won’t all take the same approach. But there will be a basic scenario underpinning those experiments: Teams will be competing with journalists for clicks, and will have unbeatable access to information. That’s a pretty good hand to be dealt, and they’ll certainly do something with it.
The good news? One best-case scenario for journalists would actually be a very positive development. Teams may continue to accept that the publicity they get from news accounts is worth the annoyance of reporters’ disruptive questions and occasional bad press — they’ll be more aggressive about being publishers in their own right, but also welcome whatever audience they can get from newspapers, TV and the web. Realizing they can’t compete with teams for a lot of basic information, traditional journalists will stop reporting minutiae, writing traditional game stories and churning out commodity stuff. Instead, they’ll focus their efforts on more interesting fare, forcing an evolution of sports journalism that should be good for publishers and fans alike.
There are other possibilities, though. I can see team coverage being handled at the league level, which would give leagues control, standardize coverage and account for teams that don’t want to cover themselves or would stink at it. (Every league has teams that are smart and progressive about digital possibilities and teams that are Neanderthals about them.) We’re not that far from this scenario: Leagues already saddle news organizations with restrictions on the use of highlights and other information they produce. And consider that MLB.com, for one, has a big roster of team reporters who do a pretty solid job providing relatively unvarnished accounts of team news. What if these league reporters were given preferential access to clubhouses? Or sole access?
Then there’s the worst-case scenario, in which teams shut out traditional reporters as competitors who aren’t worth the problems they bring. Some fans are upset, but most relatively casual fans still have lots of red meat. Relatively straightforward news comes from the teams, color comes from the athletes themselves, and lots of indie bloggers generate information from any number of perspectives. In-depth stories about labor, stadium funding, college scandals, injury patterns and other issues become harder to write and appear more rarely. So too do good features that give us better senses of individual players and teams.
I hope we’re headed for that first scenario. But even if it comes to pass, sports journalists are due for some wrenching cultural changes. And I can’t rule out the other scenarios.
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I’ve collected 19 of my best Indiana columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from Amazon, BN.com, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!