Media brace for seismic shift

Fans lose in curtailed access to reporters

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What do Donald Trump and Tony Clark — the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association — have in common?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/04/2016 (2331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What do Donald Trump and Tony Clark — the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association — have in common?

They’ve both figured out you no longer need reporters to get your message out.

Trump, of course, is in the midst of a stunning U.S. presidential campaign in which he has defied conventional wisdom to become the presumptive Republican nominee by going over the heads of reporters to speak directly to the masses, via a stream of late-night — and often unhinged — tweets from his insanely popular Twitter account.

There’s been no multimillion-dollar ad buys on network television, no backroom political machine, no political action committees or slick Madison Avenue packaging for Trump. Instead, he’s figured out what an angry and disaffected American electorate wants to hear — that someone else is to blame for their problems — and then repeated it over and over again all winter long in the echo chamber that is Trump Nation.

CARLOS OSORIO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES
Major League Baseball Players Association executive and former Detroit Tigers first baseman Tony Clark.

So what’s that got to do with Clark and the MLBPA?

In a rapidly changing sports universe in which teams and athletes are beginning to believe things would be a whole lot tidier (and more profitable) if they could just remove all those pesky reporters as middlemen and speak directly to the fans — everything.

This seismic shift isn’t unique to Trump and sports.

Celebrities who once had to strike Faustian bargains with magazines such as People now simply get their message — and pictures — out themselves on Instagram.

Film critics who once got a free look at the new blockbuster movie weeks in advance of the première now have to buy a ticket like everyone else on opening night as production companies get their message out themselves.

You want an advance interview with the band that is coming to town for a concert this week? Here’s the address of their website… and the drummer, maybe.

But back to baseball. Clark made waves last month when it was reported he wants to curtail reporters’ access to major-league clubhouses as part of any new collective bargaining with MLB.

With access both before and post-game, reporters and baseball players have mingled freely for more than a century. The news Clark might want to change that was greeted with howls of protest, prompting Clark to walk back his demand.

But let’s face it, this genie ain’t going back into a bottle. The baseball players-reporters dynamic is almost unique these days, as every other major sport takes steps to restrict the access media gets to teams and athletes.

(Fast fact: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven’t been ahead of the curve on much, but they were way ahead of their time on this one, banning reporters from the CFL team’s locker room — with the exception of post-game — five years ago.)

No one is going to feel sorry for reporters who still get a free ticket to games (nor should they), but there is a reason fans should care.

Did you ever wonder why the casual sports fan in Winnipeg probably knows more about the personality of Toronto Blue Jays slugger José Bautista than about Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien? It’s because reporters have free access to Bautista for hours a day, every day, while Byfuglien is available for a couple of carefully scripted minutes a couple of times a month (maybe) — and even then, only if the NHL team and Byfuglien agree to a reporter’s request.

John Woods / The Canadian Press files
Hockey Hall of Fame member Dale Hawerchuk speaks to media after NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly announced the Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers.

I’d argue I know less about Byfuglien as a man — and I’ve covered him for three seasons now — than I do about Dale Hawerchuk, who I never covered. And that’s exactly the way Jets 2.0 — an organization that makes CSIS look like a bunch of blabbermouths — wants it.

In an era in which sports as high finance have married the technology of social media, the Jets and Byfuglien (or Bryan Little or Blake Wheeler or Jacob Trouba) have long since calculated there’s a lot more harm than good that can come of being open and honest with reporters.

What was once a bargain between two entities with equal power — you give us access and we’ll give you an audience — has become something else in an era in which the Jets have 350,000 Twitter followers.

The huge dollars of today have also changed things. It was vastly different when a feature on Hawerchuk in the local newspaper might lead to a sponsorship from a local company for the Jets player — a nice little sweetener in an era when NHL players were paid in the hundreds of thousands instead of the millions.

These days, Byfuglien lights his cigars with the money a local company could pay him for an endorsement. Indeed, he could probably just buy the whole company if he wanted.

It’s not much different with the Jets franchise. It has been the biggest game in town since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011 and has acted like it, making clear at every turn it believes a local media reeling with job cuts and financial uncertainty needs the Jets — and the fans who fill the arena — a whole lot more than they need the media.

Like many teams (the Blue Bombers have done this, too), the Jets have put in place an entire architecture aimed at making their organization the place to turn to for team news — in effect competing with the news organizations that cover them.

The Jets have two people with the team at all times who ostensibly “cover” the team, for the team. They tweet out team news and post-dressing room interviews on the team website before the regular reporters who conduct those interviews can get the information back to their organizations.

But while they’re first, they’re also mostly pap. You will not be reading on the Jets website about player mutinies and tracksuits being thrown in the shower. You won’t be reading about the chronically woeful special teams (except perhaps for some peppy “we just have to get our feet moving” encouragements).

And you most certainly won’t read anything on the Jets site about sensitive contract negotiations. That type of story was written by the Free Press’s Tim Campbell in December when he detailed the $152 million in salaries Andrew Ladd, Byfuglien and Trouba were seeking in contract negotiations.

Instead, what you get from the Jets are a lot of happy tweets (with a lot of exclamation points!!!) and a kitschy little flashing red light the team tweeted every time the Jets scored a goal this season — which mostly served as an unintended reminder about just how seldom that actually happened.

If you’re one of the sports fans in this town who think the local media are too negative, then the Jets’ Twitter feed is for you. Big-time!!!

But most fans, of course, see this stuff for what it is: team advertising by another name. And when a team is struggling as the Jets did this season, fans quickly go looking for more meaningful coverage elsewhere.

Which is why many pro sports teams are taking coverage of themselves a step further, hiring away local beat reporters and getting them to do the same job for the team website.

The Chicago Bulls, for instance, hired longtime Chicago Tribune NBA writer Sam Smith (who famously wrote an unflattering book on Bulls god Michael Jordan) to do the same job for the Bulls, no strings attached.

It’s a risky bargain — careful what you wish for, right? — but the presence of some serious journalism on the team website gives the Bulls coverage some credibility and an essential counterbalance to all those flashing red lights and exclamation points.

So, what’s a mainstream media outlet to do these days?

You can still buy a little better access.

The Jets book rooms at the team hotel and give seats on their charter flight to TSN’s radio and TV guys, for instance. They also give TSN an exclusive one-on-one interview with head coach Paul Maurice every game day. In exchange, TSN gives the Jets millions of dollars for their broadcasting rights.

As for the rest of us, there is nothing more liberating than having already realized your worst fears. While the access that at one time seemed an essential part of this job isn’t nearly as plentiful as it used to be, all the compromises you used to have to make to ensure such access continued have also been stripped away.

What emerges from all that when the smoke settles is still evolving.

There will be fewer quotes, for sure. But maybe there will be more critical analysis, written with a fearlessness that only comes when you’ve got nothing left to lose.

Hey, it’s working for Trump.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

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