Opinion: Professionally Unacceptable
At a recent University of Georgia football practice, a newspaper reporter requested to speak to a player after practice. While conducting the subsequent interview off to the side away from where the rest of the media was interviewing other players, a videographer from ISP Sports, UGA's new marketing company for digital media, approached and started filming the interview over the reporter's shoulder.
He then asked the reporter to hold the ISP microphone up to the player while conducting the interview. The reporter declined saying his hands were full with his recorder, a note pad, plus he needed to take notes. Following this exchange, the reporter said he would wait for the videographer to ask the next question. The videographer said he did not have any questions and would just "piggy-back" off the reporter.
The reporter walked off and left the UGA player holding the microphone. End of interview.
In another instance, an ISP person was overheard telling a camera man to get video of any interviews that reporters were conducting off to the side. The reporter that shared this story with me was frustrated because these videos are uploaded to the Internet and offered as premium content by ISP on GXtra shortly after practice ends. The reporter had planned to use the information from the interview for a story that was not scheduled to run immediately, and he was peeved that the quotes would be old news by the time his story went to press.
The frustration is building each day. After practice today, one writer had enough and said, "Do you mind? This is my interview," to one of ISP's video crew.
Welcome to the new relationship between colleges, conferences, and marketing companies and its negative impact on the media and the public's ability to get first hand information.
The Southeastern Conference is seeking to limit the media's ability to provide coverage to their readers and replace it with nicely packaged productions from marketing companies. You will not find ISP or the SEC's digital partner XOS listed under media outlets in media guides because they are not.
From the XOS online media kit: "XOS Digital is a leading sports content and marketing services company specializing in elevating client brand campaigns and advertising initiatives through digital syndication, and original video programming. XOS Digital's content offerings brings marketers not only an array of unique styles and formats but a strong digital syndication network enabling scaled but yet focused digital distribution network providing you an unparalleled way to interact in an ever-changing media landscape."
From the ISP website "About Us" page: "As the country's largest and fastest growing multimedia rightsholder, ISP serves as an active partner with more than 50 of America's leading universities, four major conferences, three postseason bowl games and two venues. . . .These many growing relationships feature numerous prominent sponsorship opportunities including official university publications, radio and television programming, Internet sites, game event promotions and stadium/arena signage."
I do not have a problem with ISP or XOS because they are only doing what they do and they do it very well. The problem is when restrictions are placed upon the media (no video and audio from press conferences, practices, etc.) and these marketing companies effectively replace the media. To add injury to insult, they do so with the media's own coverage by taking actual media interviews of coaches and players and presenting it as their own. In doing so, they also prevent the media from presenting their work to their readers.
While UGA has not placed any limitations on its media pursuant to their partnership with ISP, the Southeastern Conference has mandated restictions in preparation for its digital network launch later this month. While the questions, concerns, and uproar from the media over this have been many, the biggest to me and one I have been spouting in the many phone calls made over this issue is this: can an outside entity dictate the terms on which a state owned institution, staffed by state employees, on state property observes the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution? The one that guarantees freedom of the press?
As I pointed out in an earlier opinion piece, "Socially Unacceptable", in which I addressed the rise of social networking and its potential impact on college sports, I now say that this situation is professionally unacceptable.
I am not saying we should have access to team meetings, sit in the locker room after practice, or have access to more of practice than the coaching staff deems appropriate. There are simply too many members of the media in attendance covering these events, (plus those who record the media who are covering these events) so chances of information getting out that could negatively affect the team are real.
Imagine 25 media members jammed into a room around the coaches as they game plan. That level of access is not going to be granted, but it is not required for a journalist to do his job.
What is required is equal access, and then the ability to present factual coverage, not marketing, to the readers.
Replacing media coverage with marketing companies will negatively affect quality of information reported. Tough issues will not be addressed, even if the videographers are handed a list of questions, because it is always a sunny day in the world of marketing, and besides, who would be crafting those questions?
In light of the new restrictions, you might start to see more of what happened after UGA's football practice on Monday. While it is unfortunate that head coach Mark Richt had to be dragged into this, the beat writers did not ask any questions following Richt's opening comments. This happened for two reasons. One, to see if the marketing firm's videographer would actually ask a question, and secondly to show what it sounds like when a marketing team covers practice.
The silence only lasted for about 15 or 20 seconds. Richt stared at them, then started to whistle, and started to get up to walk away when the silent protest ended with the first question.
I do not think enough reporters have the guts to do this on a wide scale to make it effective, but it sure would be interesting to watch a press conference without media questions. Perhaps not, but I can hear the first marketing question: "So coach Richt, have you lost some weight? Tell us how good we are going to be this year."
Meanwhile, the beat writers are calling coaches and players on their cell phones for interviews and checking their social network pages for tid-bits of scoop. A good reporter will still do his job.
While I am not tooting our own horn here, sites like UGASports.com have played a role in the rise of college football's popularity as we now enter our twelfth season covering the Bulldogs. In 1998 when we provided audio of coach Jim Donnan's press conferences and digital photos from practice within a couple of hours after it ended-we were the cutting edge, and we even asked questions.
Recruiting coverage, which at one time was scorned by traditional media and to this day Rivals.com sites are still referred to derogatorily as "recruiting services" in an attempt to downplay our team coverage and place us on the fringe, is now part of nearly every media's coverage. Even then, they cover it and mock the "recruiting services" at the same time, but I digress.
Sites like this have provided video, audio, photo, team coverage (exclusive at times), for over a decade. With the direction of these deals with marketing company deals, we will still be expected to ask the tough questions, or all the questions, but they will be the only ones allowed to deliver it to readers in certain formats.
It is not about the money as far as my interest. I own two sites on the Rivals.com network, Georgia and, as of last spring, Georgia Tech. If it were simply about the money, I would allocate resources diminished by mandates that restrict coverage at Georgia to Tech because the ACC has not placed such things on their media outlets.
We at UGASports will do what we have always done regardless of the outcome; be that the SEC alters their policy or leaves it as announced. We will be innovative in finding other ways to keep our subscriber base informed, and our coverage will not suffer because of any outside influences. We retool, not rebuild.
In addition, I am not saying that the SEC should not have the ability to set policy. When Mike Slive scolded the coaches to be nice to each other following several high profile gaffs, that was fine. What is not fine is the SEC dictating to state schools the terms of which they can provide freedom of the press.
The silent protest by the UGA beat writers was a wonderful thing. Perhaps the fans should be more involved as they learn more about how these changes will shape the coverage they get down the road.
As one online dictionary describes marketing: "Marketing is an integrated communications-based process through which individuals and communities discover that existing and newly-identified needs and wants may be satisfied by the products and services of others."
We won't even go into possible antitrust violations.