How team-media is transforming the sports journalism industry
Picture this: It’s October 18, 1924 and Notre Dame’s football team just edged Army in a competitive contest. You weren’t at the game, though, and weren’t by your radio either, so you have to wait at least a couple of hours before the New York Herald Tribune publishes Grantland Rice’s game story from the historic win in its evening edition.
Fast forward nearly a century and sports journalism doesn’t quite have the same look. It doesn’t wait for anyone. It’s immediate. Quick. Fast. Rapid.
Something a little more like this…
It’s September 6, 2014 and the Michigan football team is taking on Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. You’re nowhere near a TV but that doesn’t matter — you’ve got your phone and are following live updates from local reporters on Twitter. When the game ends, you read two stories about it that are already published within five minutes of the final whistle.
That might be a little more what you’re used to, but don’t get too comfortable for long. Change has started and more is coming.
Imagine this now:
It’s October 10, 2020 and Michigan is hosting Notre Dame in football. You’re on vacation for the weekend but pull out your phone to follow the game. You watch a stream of the game on the team’s website and follow along with updates from a team reporter who has field-level access during the game and is allowed in the locker room during half time and after the game.
You stopped following local beat writers because, well, they can’t keep up with the team’s own in-house media. They don’t get the same behind-the-scenes access and that puts them at too large a disadvantage.
It’s not too hard to imagine this scene playing out in the future. In fact, it’s already playing out across the world of sports in which team-controlled media is reshaping the future of sports coverage.
Now, journalists aren’t the only ones covering teams, the teams are covering themselves. In a trend that’s scaring some traditional journalists, teams are increasingly adding in-house “journalists” to cover them on a day-in, day-out basis. Essentially, teams have decided that the press release is outdated and instead, have put out their own press — native advertising if you will — that covers the team but also always sells the team with a positive spin.
Take a recent Michigan basketball game in which Indiana walloped the Wolverines. An article from MLive called the game what it was: a “humbling loss” in which Michigan got steamrolled. The team’s official site, though, had a different take on it, emphasizing Michigan’s early temporary success with a headline that read, “After bright start, scoring drought sinks U-M against IU.”
One article takes an objective stance, the other talks highly about Michigan, even if underserving.
Perhaps no one knows the changing tides of sports journalism more than Steve Kornacki. Kornacki has written about sports for a living for nearly three decades. He started writing for the Detroit Free Press and moved onto gigs with the Ann Arbor News, Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and Fox Sports Detroit. For nearly his entire career he covered teams as an objective reporter, but two years ago an opportunity came up for him to work as Michigan Athletics’ in-house writer.
“I thought, ‘Well I’m going to work for a University now,’ ” Kornacki said in an interview with me. “I’m no longer working for a media connection. I’m working for a school. I’m no longer going to have an unbiased opinion. I have to cross that line to public relations — kind of a combination of public relations and writing. I thought about it, but one of the reasons that I didn’t hesitate was what was happening to the media, the newspaper industry.”
Like Kornacki acknowledged, he and other in-house media members serve as pseudo PR specialists dressed as reporters — and from a team’s perspective, it’s brilliant. It helps the team control the message. What major company wouldn’t want to be autonomous from the press? Politicians would jump at the opportunity to get to write their own coverage of their campaigns instead of being pestered by objective reporters. They would have more leverage to sell themselves. In sport’s, it’s no different: controlling the message matters.
And finding talented writers and journalists to fill these roles isn’t hard. As Kornacki notes, with newspaper circulation on the decline, PR type jobs often offer more stability.
While in-house team media might scare traditional reporters, it’s by no means unethical. Team media doesn’t hide from who it is or take steps to disguise itself. Michigan’s official athletic site is called MGoBlue.com. Anyone reading an article on that site doesn’t need to go further than the name of it to understand they’re getting information with a certain bias.
Kornacki admits this, but says that some teams, Michigan included, are allowing their own media to be more critical than might be expected from in-house work. After Michigan lost to Notre Dame in football 31-0 two seasons ago, Kornacki wrote an article about what went wrong.
“Here’s why Michigan lost,” Kornacki recalls writing. “Because they didn’t do this, they didn’t do that, they didn’t do the other. … And then I was concerned — because there was some negative stuff — that maybe I didn’t do what I should have done.”
Kornacki’s supervisor applauded his work and Kornacki says it helped give him credibility — that despite being a part of the team, he can still provide a somewhat objective view.
Former Michigan Daily sports editor Max Cohen isn’t scared of team media growing, but said he has learned to view them as more than simply PR agents.
“I don’t think it really changes the approach all that much,” Cohen said. “I think you realize that the team is now your competition, they want those website hits just like you want those website hits.”
His biggest concern, though, is that consumers may not understand the difference between team-produced media and that from traditional outlets.
“The average reader doesn’t know the difference between the biased team media outlet and an unbiased newspaper article,” Cohen said.
My take: Team media will continue to grow, but ultimately it will not mean the elimination of traditional media because at the end of the day, they have different goals.
“I think they’ll both exist,” he said. “I think you’ll have university websites that become even more prominent and even more numerous…but I also think that there’s also going to be the traditional journalistic ventures and entities that are going to continue to be successful.”
Kurt Svoboda, Michigan’s associate athletic director for communications, doesn’t just think the two sides will coexist, he thinks they’re dependent on each other.
“I think it has to coexist,” Svoboda said. “I think the old adage might be an organization — a sports team and the media — it’s a marriage where divorce isn’t an option.”
Team media wants to sell the team. Behind-the-scenes access and videos will help do that. What fan doesn’t want to feel like he or she was in the locker room after their team just won a championship? That sort of stuff sells. But fans also want to know the truth about their teams. Why isn’t this guy playing? Is someone injured? That’s the sort of stuff a reporter may be able to find with some good reporting but something the team media would not publish.
Derek Jeter, who founded The Players’ Tribune, a site where athletes can self publish stories they author, believes his sort of new media is good for both sides.
“We’re not trying to take away from sportswriters. Sportswriters are what makes sports successful,” Jeter said. “I think we’re sort of working in conjunction with them. We’re not covering day-to-day sports scores. We don’t have sports highlights. This is completely different. We’re starting the conversation. I think we can coexist.”
As of now, there’s an audience for both team-media content and traditional journalism content. In a poll I conducted via Twitter I found that nearly 1 in 10 fans prefers to go to the team site to get news, 1 in 5 use traditional outlets (newspapers) and that nearly half prefer getting their news via social media sources such as Facebook and Twitter. The numbers show that even though team-media sites get clicks, it’s still not a preferred destination. That’s changing everyday, though.
So long as there is an appetite for both traditional outlets and team-media coverage, both will keep serving consumers. Looking further into the future, the evolution of non-traditional sources including blogs and social media outlets will also compete for eyeballs as sports fans try to get their news down the road.