Why the NCAA Should Seize New Media Opportunities: Overcoming Faulty Assumptions and False Dichotomies

When Swish Appeal first launched way back in September 2009, we made the decision to cover women's college basketball and figured that we would try to obtain media credentials for games.

Given that we had both been credentialed to cover the WNBA playoffs for Swish Appeal and to cover the WNBA separately prior to the launch of Swish Appeal, we figured - perhaps naively - that getting access to college games would be a smooth process. We had we established some credibility at the highest levels of women's basketball and we figured so many schools go without consistent women's basketball coverage that they might see social media as an opportunity.

So I sent out about 20 emails inquiring about the process of obtaining a credential for both writers and all of the great photography you see on the site. Some didn't respond. Some responded immediately and simply said they would grant us access. Others granted us access after a follow-up discussion. But some said they had a policy of only granting media access to writers for "major news media outlets" and would not provide us with a credential.

We are obviously grateful for the schools that have provided us with access because we think it adds to the quality of content on our site. At the same time, I totally understand the rationale behind not providing us with access.

First, we were relatively new - there was no track record to determine what type of work we would produce about the college game. Second, blog quality varies so greatly that the skepticism about a new blog is justified - they may not want to let someone just to snoop around and make irreverent, sarcastic rants about their student athletes. Third, there were concerns about "professionalism", but let's be honest - there are writers for many established "major news media outlets" that hardly reflect anything remotely close to "professionalism" or "journalistic integrity" (see coverage of Woods, Tiger or Arenas, Gilbert).

With the number of fans writing sports blogs, the growth of major fan-centric sites like SBNation.com, and of course, Twitter, it's clear that fans see the value of new media in fueling their love of sports. However, sports teams and leagues have been a little slower to embrace it, as a recent New York Times article about the NBA's attempt to restrict distribution of a Gilbert Arenas photo demonstrates.

N.B.A.’s Effort to Censor Arenas Photo Raises Questions - NYTimes.com
Sports leagues are likely to become more prescriptive about what images can and cannot be used from its games, according to Cindy Cohn, the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on digital rights. To fans, that may take the form of more restrictions listed on the backs of their tickets. This is likely to lead to more tension between the league, its fans and the news media.

"There’s a fundamental disconnect between fans who consider teams part of their culture, history and town, and the owners of the teams that view them as their private property," Cohn said. "One saving grace is that they do care about their image and they don’t want to look like jack-booted thugs. But free speech is important."

However, last week the NCAA posted a release actually suggesting that member institutions embrace social media as a means to build support for programs.

Panel assesses changing times in media - NCAA.org
A panel of experts at an education session Friday indicated that programs willing to invest in effective communication can reap far greater support than at any time in their history. At the same time, the experts said those rewards may go unrealized if administrators don’t make the effort to develop creative, interesting content, even if some of it involves risk.

This seems especially relevant for women's basketball, a collegiate sport struggling for attendance and overall fan support. However, while the release outlined the affordances of social media, it did not necessarily address the nature of the perceived risk.

From our experience, it's not that sports information directors "don't get" the value of social media, it's that they are justifiably concerned about the quality of reporting on sites like Swish Appeal with much looser editorial accountability structures. Although that thinking is understandable, it rests upon a fundamentally flawed set of assumptions that confuse the medium, content, and good reporting.

In her assessment of the NCAA report, Women Talk Sports co-founder Megan Hueter wrote that NCAA SIDs shouldn’t turn anyone away.

NCAA and social media: Friends? : …Because I Played Sports
When I (a small, yet proactive blogger who has an interest in your team) calls you to ask for media credentials, please don’t tell me you “don’t do blogs” (yes, it’s happened). That just makes my heart hurt. Who are you waiting for? ESPN? This type of attitude certainly doesn’t make friends. Embrace any type of journalism that comes your way. Give up some control and trust us. It’s a rare thing these days.

Underlying the notion of “risk” involved in building relationships with social media outlets not only includes a lack of control, but also a feeling that the medium is somehow inherently conducive to bad journalism. It's as though people imagine that when I open up the writing interface on SBNation.com and try to publish something in AP style the whole network crashes (for the record, that is not the reason the network has been down at times).

However, that thinking is also based on a faulty assumption that writers working for traditional news media outlets are inherently good and all outsiders are bad or at least worthy of suspicion. It avoids a necessary conversation on what good sports reporting is and why fans are turning to blogs, twitter, and message boards at increasing rates.

Social media, especially in sports, is not hurting newspapers because it’s free – people will pay for good content -- but often times it gives fans sports information in ways that better fit how they want to consume sports.

“Good” sports reporting was never solely about following rules, but representing sporting events well. Somehow, people have conflated following sets of rules with producing quality content.

Writing as curiosity-driven inquiry

In the past, I've liked Stephen King's characterization of writing as "excavation" best: a process of representing a situation -- rather than a plot -- as closely as possible to what actually happened. However, after a long discussion with a fellow online sports writer about the merits of writing with a credential, we came to a conclusion that's probably a better fit for understanding sports journalism.

Good writing usually involves the writer making some sort of claim about what happened and fleshing out the argument with the facts or providing the context and justification for a question that people should be asking but aren't. In that regard, it seems that good sports writing not only requires a desire to inform by reciting facts or just repeating what people have said, but a genuine interest in understanding what you're seeing better.

Dave Kindred " Thoughts on the interview process — and some familiar, tough questions as well " National Sports Journalism Center
You gotta want to know why and how. If you can watch Brett Favre do his old-man miracles and come away without a question, you are a walking, talking flat-liner. Curiosity amped up by the event and/or by the interview subject is the foundation of all good reporting.

Terry McDermott recently described how a decline in the type of curiosity that drives good reporting is what's killing newspapers, whether they are reporting on politics or sports. Curiosity about the phenomenon, according to McDermott, has essentially been supplanted by a technocratic rationality of filling in a cookie-cutter plot with quotes that confirm preconceived notions rather than contributing anything substantive to the discourse.

A Thousand Cuts : CJR
The bigger problem was that this removed the newspaper from its function as a seeker of truth. That’s not our job, we said. Instead, we wrote what we were told.

The net result was that even the best newspapers became predictable and stultifying. Color and flourish in the writing were banished. Curiosity was discouraged. At one job, there was a respected senior reporter who routinely wrote his stories before doing much if any reporting. Then he would go out to find people to tell him what he had already written. He was an extreme case—almost literally filling in the blanks—but hardly alone. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked what a particular story would say before I had done a lick of reporting on it.

While newspaper journalists are sometimes stuck in a world of rigid writing conventions, word limits, and time constraints, social media writers are free to seek creative ways to share a perspective of the game. In addition, they are not necessarily assuming an authoritative stance as if they are the sole gatekeeper between fans and facts.

A Thousand Cuts : CJR
In truth, though, I’ve never much liked reading news, even when I was reporting it. I’ve written a couple, but haven’t read a murder story in years, or a campaign-trail dispatch in many more. I’m a big sports fan but almost never read newspaper sports stories. Here’s why:

Cliff Lee looked like Neo on top of the building at the end of the Matrix. Like the game slowed down just for him and he could see everything in ten different ways while the Yankees were stuck in their little three dimension [sic] world.

This was Craig Calcaterra, a lawyer with too much time on his hands, blogging on The Hardball Times about the first game of last year’s World Series. This is almost the perfect beginning for a blog post. It assumed you knew what had happened. It cast its subject into pop culture and it was dead-on smart. Compare it to any newspaper game story and tell me which you would rather read. Yeah, me too.

Of course, there is a time and place for both the reporting of facts and the creative representation of a perspective on a situation. But perhaps the distinction between sharing a perspective and taking an authoritative stance is also what increasingly separates political reporting from sports reporting.

As a political correspondent, the reporter might indeed serve as a gatekeeper between politicians and their constituencies -- they have access to the politicians to ask about things that people are not seeing. For sports reporters it's different, especially in 2010.

For major sports reporters -- even those covering less popular sports like women's college basketball -- thousands of people have either seen or heard some account of what happened in the game by attending the game, watching it on television or online, listening to the radio, or following any number of game tracking systems online. Therefore, before a reporter even leaves press row for interviews, thousands of people -- and likely a large percentage of the intended audience -- already have some access to "what happened" and some basic facts.

The key then is not simply to provide an account with top scorers, two quotes of elation, and and a generic "we're disappointed" or "both teams played hard" quote from the opponent. It's to put the game in perspective from the standpoint of someone who has a little more time and access. That's often times what bloggers have the freedom to do.

Confusing the medium with quality

So the idea that all "bloggers" are bad and all reporters are good is a false dichotomy of epic proportions. The medium, as a commenter on McDermott's post made, is less important than the quality of the writer.

A Thousand Cuts : CJR
Sadly, the effort to chase readers and to curb circulation declines have all-but-eliminated unique journalism from the pages of the nation's papers. Playing it safe won't offend anyone but curious, smart citizens, The reading public knows that. If you want proof, check the comments on really good investigative stories and you'll get a snout full of praise for the story and many laments for its rarity.

You want to rescue newspapers? Bring back aggressive, fair, independent journalism. Do that and readers will flock to your paper or website.Don't and the web fanatics, who have a spiritual or financial interest in beating up newspapers, will win.

It's not always true that sports organizations -- and especially collegiate athletic departments -- which unilaterally dismiss bloggers or independent writers are "missing the boat": there are some bloggers that I wouldn't ever want to have a five minute conversation with much less allow to cover my institution. But the problem is that they're operating on a very antiquated journalistic reputation system that is rapidly losing value.

There are "walking, talking, flat-liners" who have little, if any, genuine interest in what they're covering beyond collecting a paycheck working for reputable news organizations. Conversely, there are highly creative, insightful writers who write out of a genuine love for the sport they follow working outside of the traditional apparatus.

So two conclusions come from this:

  • Having a strong complement of independent writers and writers working for major news media outlets is therefore beneficial for the coverage and growth of any sport because ultimately they have different roles. While an independent writer can collect interviews, look at stats, put it all aside, sleep on their ideas, and write a summary of the game the next day, writers for major news media outlets are forced to fit a story into narrow constraints. Those basic facts are good as an archive of what occurred and often times are the reason why other writers don't need access -- those articles give other writers something to respond to.
  • Policies that rigidly prohibit bloggers and independent writers from obtaining credentials for sports struggling for any attention like women's college basketball are misguided, if not wholly irrational. It's antithetical to the growth of the sport in a new media age, especially niche sports that need all the attention they can get.

Hopefully, women's basketball -- both collegiate and professional -- can actually have a conversation to find more ways to work with social media writers in the future in a relationship that could be mutually beneficial.

Transition Points (updated 5:45 pm):

  • I, for one, would definitely love to sit down and have a conversation with NCAA SIDs about how we could bes serve each other. I am under no pretense that I am a perfect writer who people should be lucky to have interested in their institution. I'm still learning and greatly appreciate those who have allowed me to refine my writing by granting me access to their games.

    But for now, I must confess that the post above probably illustrates the risk people fear: my editor, MS Word, is often lazy and misses a lot of very basic grammatical errors and rarely bothers to check for flow or accuracy. It's a problem. So if I don't get a chance to edit until hours later, there is a possibility of either misinformation or ambiguous information to sit on the web and negatively represent a team (for the handful of people that stumble across this story). On this post I did exactly that -- re-reading the piece to myself in its entirety and making changes as necessary. The substance of the ideas did not change, the representation did. I like the ideas, but you know, if I could spend more time refining it, I would.

    However, it's not that there is no editorial accountability -- I hate making mistakes and will correct them whenever I get time to do so. I hold myself and others that write for Swish Appeal to at least basic standards of writing and accuracy. The problem is simply that there is no editor. When I click publish it's out there, good or bad. Is that a tradeoff of working with bloggers? Yes. But is it worth it if we can provide copy and pictures about the game that would otherwise not exist?
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