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June 29, 2009, 9:17 a.m.

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.

POSTED     June 29, 2009, 9:17 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Shifting media power in sports
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