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Post Marketing or journalism?

Thursday August 13, 2009

By and large, the media deals announced by the SEC and the University of Georgia during the offseason are going to be great for fans. There will be more Georgia sports available on television to more people. The deal has even led to one of the nation’s largest cable operators carrying a channel they should have had in the first place. Online content will also be enhanced with the coming SEC Digital Network. All good news for fans.

But the money poured in has come with the expectation of access, and it’s put the conference and schools into competition with the media. The SEC released rules last week which amounted to the conference wishing the media good luck, in the words of Don Corleone, “as best as your interests don’t conflict with mine.” The same exclusivity that applies to whomever is broadcasting a game has been extended to the locker room and practice field where media will be prohibited “from posting video from games, practices and news conferences” in deference to the SEC’s agreement with XOS Technologies and the SEC Digital Network.

Why should fans care though? I think David Hale gets to the main concern:

They think you’ll be satisfied with the controlled information you are given from them — essentially replacing the media with a public relations firm….I’m guessing after your favorite team gets spanked by a rival, you’re not looking for the watered-down version of what happened. Perhaps you really don’t care where the information is coming from, but my guess is that you value quality journalism a lot more than they give you credit for.

UGASports.com publisher Steve Patterson goes down the same road when he warns about “nicely packaged productions from marketing companies.” The Mark Richt Show is a nice inch-deep review of the past game and goings-on within the program, but a sterile packaged presentation like that shouldn’t be a template for covering the program on a daily basis.

Patterson’s distinction between marketing and journalism is an important one. XOS Digital and ISP Sports answer to their clients – the SEC and the member schools. As with any marketing company, it’s their job to manage and grow the “brand”, and that’s not necessarily in line with the traditional role of the media. The UGA beat isn’t especially adversarial, but you can usually count on some healthy skepticism where it’s called for. It’s not so insidious as spin or covering things up, but what would a marketing partner of the athletic department gain by questioning things?

Patterson’s account of how this policy is being implemented at Georgia is especially troubling. A camera peeking over the shoulder of a reporter doing a one-on-one interview isn’t exactly value-added content. At best it’s tacky, and really it’s just insulting to journalists. Not only can’t the reporters post their own video; they’re now roped into providing the content for the school’s “exclusive” video product. The pushback by the beat writers after Monday’s practice was a very necessary reaction.

Now the SEC is reconsidering the rules, and you’d expect them to after hearing from 35 to 40 media outlets. But if this Dr. Saturday piece is correct, the rules that impact the fans the most are the least likely to change. Restricting credentials to full-time, salaried members of the media was a ridiculous idea to begin with, but the media shouldn’t be mollified just by lifting that restriction.

Obviously it’s still an issue in flux, and, despite warnings of draconian rules governing everything right down to your picture of the winning score on the scoreboard, it probably won’t affect your life that much on game day. But restrictions that impact how you follow your favorite team are likely to remain in place. Sources of news having that much control over outlets for that news is rarely a formula for quality coverage.

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