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July 2, 2009, 9 a.m.

Five ways for sports reporters to maintain a balance of power with the teams and leagues they cover

In June 2007, John McClain, who covers the NFL’s Houston Texans for the Houston Chronicle, was getting tired of a league rule that limited the Chronicle to posting no more than 45 seconds of team video on its web site every day. So he and his colleague Anna-Megan Raley decided it was time for a tongue-in-cheek protest. They shot the video you see above, in which they interview several Texans players and officials while racing against the clock to stay within the NFL’s rules — yelling “time” and scampering off to the next interviewee whenever someone took too long to answer a question.

Protests like McClain’s — along with the lobbying of news organizations and associations — got the 45-second limit expanded to 90 seconds a year later. But many journalists still find it grating that the subject of coverage can dictate how it can be covered. (Can you imagine a mayor trying to dictate similar terms to a city hall reporter?) And as we’ve seen, teams and leagues are increasingly using the lever of access to dictate what kinds of coverage news organizations can provide.

What lessons can be learned from the battles sports journalists have fought with leagues that want to limit digital rights? We asked a few people who have been on the front lines, and here’s what they told us.

Keep negotiations out of the headlines whenever possible. That goes against the instincts of most journalists, particularly when a freedom-of-speech issue is at stake. But John Cherwa, legal affairs chair of Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE), said these negotiations are best handled outside public view for as long as possible. “Very few good things can happen when people are backed in a corner,” he said. “And when you’ve got both sides backed in a corner, the outcome is not as satisfying as when both sides can declare victory. Do everything you can to reach out.”

That’s not possible in every case, Cherwa said — if the restrictions have already imposed, more forceful action may be necessary. But even in the most drastic cases, like the NFL restrictions, a compromise was reached. McClain said there have not been as many complaints among sportswriters under the new 90-second policy and that, for the most part, 90 seconds is enough time to do a simple interview. (Although “if you want to do a feature with multiple players you can’t do it,” he said. “I had a bunch of fun ideas that I couldn’t pull off.”)

Cherwa says it’s important to understand the league’s motivations, “because a lot of needless fighting and bickering and bad feelings can be eluded if you can figure out what their end game is and what their goal is.” He gave an example of a dispute with NASCAR over restrictions on photographers’ rights. “We asked them what they were trying to do, and they said ‘Prevent people in the stands shooting pictures of [Dale Earnhardt] Jr. and selling it on eBay.’ ‘Okay,’ we said, ‘let us help you write that language that works for us and you.'”

Get creative to get around the rules. The NFL video rules restrict video content shot at team facilities. So McClain and Raley conduct longer on-camera interviews when the Texans make weekly appearances in the community. They’ve also done longer interviews with the team owner at the hotel across the street from the stadium.

During and after this year’s NFL draft, new Texans draftees appeared at the team stadium for interviews with the press, and the Chronicle kept cameras rolling well past 90 seconds. The reasoning? The players hadn’t yet signed contracts with the team and thus shouldn’t count under the 90-second rule. No one challenged them. (McClain suspects the NFL will eventually extend the 90-second rule to all interviews, regardless of where they are conducted.)

The NFL and MLB scenarios are certainly extremes. There is usually more room for negotiations and it’s even possible to find middle ground to collaborate on. But Cherwa said a deal has to be worked out before both sides get bent out of shape about perceived threats.

Stand up for your news organization’s place in the community. McClain stressed that a newspaper or TV station shouldn’t be afraid to hold your status as the local media outlet over teams’ heads. He said NFL teams often leak stories to national media outlets such as ESPN instead of local media. McClain said that, on occasion, he’ll remind the team that the Chronicle and its web site are the primary source of Texans news for Houstonians, not ESPN, and therefore help sell tickets and secure sponsorships more than the national outlets do.

“If I’m calling and [ESPN reporters are] calling and you give it to them than we have a problem,” McClain said. “I told all the coaches and general managers that [the national media] can’t get you fired. But if everyone in town wants you out, you’re out.”

Closely monitor all the information your team produces. With teams looking to serve as media outlets themselves, there can be valuable nuggets of information hidden on the back pages of a team’s official web site. The same applies to the social media tools that individual players and coaches now use to communicate directly with the public, whether it’s Charlie Villanueva‘s Twitter account, Curt Schilling‘s blog, or Tiger Woods‘ official site.

“Why not read them?” McClain said. “You might see something you can use in three months. You might find out something little in an interview that you can turn into something big. If I covered a police beat and the cops I cover are Twittering or on Facebook, I’d monitor the heck out of all them.

“People say at some point it’s too much information but I don’t think so. Unless it causes you to lose your mind, you need as much information as you can get about your job. That holds true for travel writing, food writing, cops and courts, no matter what it is.”

It is important to remember, though, that these tightly controlled messages are often little more than glorified press releases. APSE advises its members to cite any news that comes from MLB.com or NFL.com story as a “league report.”

Create your own brand, distinct from what the league or team offers. In the end, McClain’s protest video got so much traction not just because the NFL was implementing a silly rule. It was also because McClain has build himself as a local celebrity who not only informs football fans but entertains them as well. McClain says his trick is self-promotion and customer service. He always plugs his blog on Chron.com during his radio show and whenever he gives an interview to another media outlet (like this one). He replies to as many emails and blog posts as possible and always tries to make time for people who recognize him in public.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls in this new world, particularly when reporters’ desire to build a brand for themselves conflict with their traditional duties as journalists. What would have been considered clear-cut conflicts of interest in the profitable print era sometimes look more gray online.

“As the news businesses comes under unbelievable pressure, the temptation to get rid of old ethical standards become pretty overwhelming,” Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy said. “I don’t want to issue a blanket condemnation for what news organizations might do. I think it might happen on a case-by-case basis. Getting beyond the idea of reporters taking money from the people he or she is covering — that is obviously not something that should happen — I suspect everything else is up for grabs. There are a lot of things we may not like, but there may be some inevitability to it.”

POSTED     July 2, 2009, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Shifting media power in sports
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