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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Sports leagues as media moguls: What happens when the people we cover start to control the news?

[Today, we're starting a four-part series by our friend Justin Rice on how the media tables are turning in the world of sports, where the subjects of coverage are becoming the creators of coverage — and what implications those shifts have for the rest of the news business. —Josh]

Thirty-eight days after Major League Baseball launched its own cable channel, MLB Network, in January, the new station found itself covering one of the sport’s biggest stories in years: the news in the baseball world that Yankee slugger Alex Rodriquez had tested positive for steroids in 2003. MLB brass boasted that the coverage — praised by many — was evidence of their ability to cover all the bases of baseball news, whether good, bad, or ugly. The network was praised again last month for jumping on the story that Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games for taking a banned substance.

We’ll spend the next three days looking at the broader implications of what happens when media power shifts toward the institutions journalists cover. Journalists are still adjusting to “the people formerly known as the audience” and their new publishing power; what about the people formerly known as our subjects? What happens when the people and organizations we cover also cover themselves? Are they our sources, competitors or some sort of hybrid? In many cases our sources and subjects have better access to the readers and viewers than news organizations do — not to mention the ability to put artificial limits on reporters’ access or coverage. They also have the same, if not better, technology we consider tools of our ever-changing trade.

This disintermediation of media isn’t limited to the sports world. We all know about candidate Obama using his own web site to connect directly with voters and citizens. Government agencies have launched their own “news services” to get around their traditional path to citizens, newspapers and TV stations. The rich and powerful can now use social networking tools to speak directly to their desired audience; when Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, he did most of his talking about the deal via Twitter, not via a reporter.

Journalists on many beats are just beginning to wade through these issues. Luckily, sports journalists, especially the officers of the Associated Press Sports Editors, have the battle scars and war stories to help the rest of us navigate through this digital warfare. Perhaps most notably, sports reporters and editors have fought against rules by MLB and the National Football League that limit the amount of audio and video content newspapers can post and archive on their websites to no more than 120 seconds per day in the case of MLB and 90 seconds in the NFL’s case.

“It’s more about who owns the history; do they own the history or can we be part owner of the history?” John Cherwa, APSE’s legal affairs chair told me in a phone interview. Cherwa, who is also special projects editor of the Orlando Sentinel, has spent the last decade fighting MLB, the NFL and other leagues over the fine print crammed on the back of credentials that traditionally only lawyers bother to magnify.

Journalists, Cherwa says, have traditionally invoked the First Amendment to fight for their position. “These are not First Amendment issues,” Cherwa says. “They are contract law, intellectual property law and copyright law. It’s not constitutional law. To try to get people to understand that is hard. I know our reflex button is to cry ‘First Amendment, First Amendment.’ Well, the First Amendment protects a lot of what we do, but the First Amendment does not protect us from going into someone else’s home — i.e. their practice facility — by invitation, by contract and doing exactly what we want to do. I wish it did. But it doesn’t.”

Photo of Rodriguez by Antonio Encarnacion, used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://www.metaspring.com Case Ernsting

    Justin,
    I have been tunneling through the internet looking for stories like yours. Why it took 2 months to find it is beyond me…anyways. Social media and blogs have made us all more transparent. Most of the time, this is a positive when things are going good. But when things get bad, like with A-Rod and criminal stories of the NFL, transparency loses priority to crisis management. As if the journalism industry didn’t have it tough enough, League-owned networks are one more obstacle to overcome. Thanks for the article.

  • http://www.crediblecontext.com John Berard

    In sports, the league owning the network and paying the reporters merely cuts out the middleman. The real problem is when it happens in industries like finance (see: CNBC) or politics (see: fox News).

    Sports, no matter who reports, ultimately is tied to the score of the contest. In finance and politics (and health care and the environment), when the network is part of the “company town,” we all suffer.

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  • SoCalGal

    Awwww, poor babies. Joooornalists don’t like it when they don’t control the news? Well, too damn bad. I swear, Satan himself runs the media. It’s his instrument of terror. The problem is medialoid–defined as the infiltration of tabloid journalism into traditional media sources, including the proliferation of sensationalism, triviality and disregard for privacy, with particular emphasis on news coverage of the sports and entertainment industries. Medialoid thinks they make the rules by which society must live. They think they define what is and is not free speech. They have no morals, no decency and no shame. What we have is not qualified reporters reporting on newsworthy topics but packs of bloodthirsty jackals always on the prowl for their next victim. Ka-ching! They hide behind the First Amendment while they tear down society by pandering to humankind’s basest instincts. From their presumed position as the final arbiters of what people should think and what they should be thinking about, they smell blood in the water and circle the victim like a bunch of braying hyenas. Ka-ching! I hope you jooornalists are all proud of yourselves. Michael Jackson…now Tiger Woods. Tiger isn’t the one who should be ashamed—except before his wife. Medialoid should be ashamed for the disreputable way they behave when a high profile personality stumbles. Ugh. I hate the media. You all make me sick. Every damn one of you needs a leash…and a license.