Inside the conflict between NJ Advance and Rutgers

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In his first day on the job, Rutgers University’s new head football coach lobbed a rarely muttered criticism at the team’s press corps. “I heard all this stuff about the New Jersey media and East Coast media. You guys are tame,” Chris Ash told reporters Monday. “Come on. I’m looking for the hard questions.”

The school’s president jumped in with a warning for the new guy: “Just wait.”

For the past several years, Rutgers has felt the blow of intense reporting on the university’s athletics program. The most impactful journalism has come from one news outlet: NJ Advance Media, which publishes The Star-Ledger and NJ.com. Since 2008, the outlet has dug up a number of Rutgers public-relations bombshells, from unchecked spending to scoops on allegations of abuse and, just this summer, the suspension of the former football coach, to name a few.

The timing has been particularly bad for Rutgers, as much of the turmoil plaguing the university has come during its embattled entry into the elite Big Ten sports conference. Meanwhile, NJ Advance Media’s persistent reporting has nudged some Rutgers fans to claim the company is actively harming the university, either for kicks or financial gain. 

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The hiring this week of new head coach Ash, along with new athletic director Patrick Hobbs, has prompted questions about the future of the rocky Rutgers/Ledger relationship. It’s unclear how a cocktail of bad blood and new leadership will affect that dynamic. But hacks and flacks alike can learn from the story of what happens when a powerful institution clamps down on its cooperation with the media.

Journalists and the institutions they cover are inherently at odds. That’s why, according to longtime Star-Ledger sports columnist Steve Politi, it’s crucial as a reporter to be upfront with your subjects. “I’m going to try to be as fair as I can,” he says, summarizing what he told the university’s new athletic director, “but I’m not going to be a cheerleader, and I’m going to be critical when warranted.” It may seem like obvious advice, but establishing that baseline is key for Politi, because it weakens the argument that the news outlet is simply out to attack the athletics program. Expect positive stories when the scoreboard demands it, Politi adds, and negative takes when losses and scandals accumulate.

Rutgers officials, on the other hand, have done a generally poor job of dealing with the media. Rutgers’ former athletic director, Julie Hermann, handled negative coverage and nosy reporters by shutting her door. But she still felt the effects of stories reporting allegations that she had abused her players in a prior coaching job, along with other negative coverage. Hermann’s relationship with the media reached its lowest point in the spring of 2014, when she publicly wished for the death of The Star-Ledger. That didn’t stop the publication’s reporters, who instead relied on anonymous sources to break big news.

Perhaps the increasing intensity with which NJ Advance Media covers the university has yet to sink in. When Politi came on in the late 1990s, he says Rutgers sports were low on the paper’s radar. Now the school’s football program tops the reporting priority list, with two full-time beat reporters, an investigative journalist who follows the money, and a news desk that offers supplementary coverage. As Politi notes, he and his colleagues are treating Rutgers Athletics like the top-tier department it’s trying to become. The Garden State’s largest newspaper is all but required to examine the state’s largest university, athletics included. It’s the school’s responsibility that it become accustomed to the increased scrutiny.

Politi covered Hobbs a few years ago when he was the interim athletic director of a nearby college. Politi wrote about a number of Hobbs’s high-profile decisions, and the two had an amiable working relationship. That history makes Politi optimistic about the paper’s relationship going forward with Rutgers.

While the university and NJ Advance Media may seem completely in conflict, both sides stand to gain from a breakout Rutgers football season in 2016. “It’s better for everybody if they do well. There’s more eyeballs, there’s more clicks, there’s national stories, and there’s book deals for all of us,” Politi says. “It’s just funny–people think that, ‘Oh, you just hate Rutgers.’ It couldn’t be more the opposite.”

A spokesman for Rutgers’ athletics department and a spokesman for the president’s office declined comment for this article.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha