Much of this is the fairly benign fallout of the digital world we inhabit, where the traditional terms of authority between the press and the public have been upended; the conversation, as it were, is no longer one way. But things do get nasty, particularly when a sports writer runs afoul of the company line. The person who seems to have begun the attack-dog trend is “Rufus Dawes,” the cyber moniker of someone widely rumored in Kansas City media circles to be within the Kansas City Chiefs’ front office, who since 1998 has led a jeremiad on kcchiefs.com against local writers and broadcasters who have criticized the team. His favorite target is Jason Whitlock, an influential sports columnist for the Kansas City Star who also hosts a local radio show.
A Dawes-on-Whitlock sampling:
I believe an argument can be made that he [Whitlock] has lowered the bar as far as media behavior in Kansas City is concerned. He and the nodding sycophants at the various radio stations who have serviced his interests are kings of the low brow and to say the Kansas City Star’s coverage has gone down hill since he arrived in town is like saying Bin Laden has an image problem.
Daniel Snyder, meanwhile, who owns the Washington Redskins, has gone even further with his efforts to control the press. To both boost his local media holdings (several radio stations, Web sites, and team-oriented television shows) and punish The Washington Post for reporting developments the team deemed premature, Snyder ordered team news to be distributed on his media holdings only, denying the Post exclusive interviews and breaking news. Meanwhile, on a Snyder-owned Web site called ExtremeSkins.com, a Snyder apparatchik named Arthur Mills obsessively blasts Post writers.
For sports reporters, this hostile new approach to media relations is compounded by the fact that access to players and coaches has been shrinking for years. Athletes have become miniature corporations, with strictly controlled public relations to match. Getting unmonitored time away from the locker-room scrum to probe deeper issues than that night’s one-for-four at the plate is increasingly rare.
A few media behemoths, namely ESPN, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated, will always get favored-nation status, due to their audience size. Meanwhile, local reporters make do with less and less information. NBA mega-star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, has a policy of not doing one-on-one interviews with local media. Why crack open his electric personality for an outlet that only reaches fans in a portion of Ohio?
Not so long ago, the beat reporter was essentially a fan’s sole conduit for news about his or her favorite team. Now, by the time the beat writer’s game story appears in the next day’s paper or on the eleven o’clock news, fans not only have had access to the unfiltered statistics and transcripts of post-game interviews, they have discussed the game’s various twists and turns in depth among themselves online.
Given this reality, and the reality of ever-tighter budgets across the newspaper universe, beats are being dropped or merged. The Hartford Courant stopped sending a reporter to Yankees games, for instance, and the San Francisco Chronicle pulled beat coverage of the San Jose Sharks, relying instead on wire service reports. MediaNews Group, Inc., which owns the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune, among other newspapers, consolidated sports coverage across its chain. Over in the state capital, the Sacramento Bee dropped beat coverage of baseball entirely, relying on wire services for information on the nearby San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s.
Hidebound reporters may cry foul, but there is potentially a blessing in disguise nestled in this tale of loss. The concept of the sports beat writer needs to evolve—reporters need to be unleashed a bit to compete and remain relevant. If the rise of the blogosphere has taught any lesson, it’s that sports fans have an appetite for strongly opinionated takes on virtually every facet of their team, from performance to personality. While a daily presence in the locker room occasionally results in an intriguing story, far more prevalent are the canned clichés that even the most casual fan can recite by rote. This is not to say the sports beat writer should become just another columnist, spouting all opinion all the time. But the all-important access that those writers sought to maintain through a play-it-straight, just-the-facts approach is being lost anyway. Why not let beat writers showcase their writing—sports departments often have some of the best writers in the newsroom—and give readers the full benefit of their nuanced understanding of the team, its personalities, and the sport itself? They can still report. They can still cover the games and do the locker room interviews. The difference is how it is all put together in the final product.