by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. Wishing everyone a safe return to covering and watching live sports. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.
The biggest sports media news this week was the announcement that journalists would not be allowed inside the NHL bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. Three writers from the league’s marketing website, NHL.com, will provide information about the games and players, and a social media creator from each team will contribute more individualized content for fans. Writers from the major outlets and networks will either watch the games on TV like everyone else or from the press box.
The NHL’s reasoning is that more media inside the bubble equals more risk to everyone, but especially the players. Without the players there can be no games to televise, and so it is reasonable that the league is being especially protective of their most important assets. Further, non-bubble media will still be able to access players via postgame virtual scrums.
I just can't even fathom writing this without acknowledging that the NHL is straining these "prudent health measures" by placing 24 content creators and 3 of its own writers in the bubble. Or that the NBA has allowed 17 journalists into its bubble. https://t.co/2PVqdgto5L
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) July 24, 2020
The criticism of the NHL’s plan centres on a few different points. First, see the Boston Globe’s Matt Porter:
“No face-to-face interactions, which are the lifeblood of good story telling. No first-hand account of what the plans and diagrams the NHL released late this past week actually look like in person. No view of anything but the games of the teams they cover, then a timely exit from the rink and more Zoom calls.”
“Three writers from NHL.com and one social media member per team are “required” in the hub. In other words, league or team employees.That means any news, reports, feeds, pictures, stories from Hotel X or the Fairmont Royal York or behind the scenes at the Scotiabank Arena will be sanitized, NHL- or team-approved versions. So, not real news.The NHL has actively discouraged the rest of the media from even coming to Edmonton or Toronto. The best access we can hope for is to watch the game – one media person per outlet – from the stands. Not all games. Just the team we cover.”
To focus the discussion let’s break down the substance of these observations into a few categories. The first issue seems to be about the quality of reporting that will take place. By being denied in-person access to players, locker rooms, and the inner workings of the hub, the argument is that important stories will fall through the cracks. The second issue relates to transparency. By only allowing league employees to have full access there is a concern that key events may go unreported or only emerge in a sanitized version.
McGran ends his piece with the following disclaimer:
“Don’t get me wrong: This access isn’t about us. It’s about you. The reader. We do this job for our readers. We want to do it the best we can, and now the NHL is not letting us. They are shortchanging you, their fans.”
Media are often guilty of overestimating their importance.
What the NHL media thinks they are vs. What they really are pic.twitter.com/ovPA5DbZc4
— Leah Kessel (@leahflame) July 24, 2020
In the days before social media and email players and management had to rely on media to get their side of the story out. This led to an awkward but commonly accepted partnership between subjects and journalists. Players and coaches would drink and gamble with reporters after games. We still see media sit on stories to protect their sources or tell specific narratives as a way of gaining preferential access. None of this should be shocking and it is up to readers to decide for themselves whom they trust based on the body of work.
(In the interest of disclosure, Jonah and I are often fed stories by people in the industry and we need to decide whether to publish them here or not. Speaking personally, I have lost sources over things I have written here. I have also pulled punches to preserve existing relationships.)
The big difference between now and the legacy era of media is that players don’t need journalists as much as they once did. They have a direct way to communicate with fans. In some cases they even have to use social media to fact check media:
Nah fam ion think I did https://t.co/o6bkWmhmdw
— 🅾️ (@TerenceDavisJr) July 25, 2020
With all of that said, McGran’s comment that access is about the reader not the writer is true. The great Covid Cup experiment is a really complex undertaking and covering all the newsworthy angles of the tournament is going to take a lot of eyes. So, on the point about quality of reporting it is clear that three writers is not enough. There are too many details from testing, to broadcasting, to injuries, to strategy, and so on.
On the matter of transparency, the NHL’s decision to ban outside media looks terrible:
– you couldn't use the word concussion unless the team uses it directly. You also aren't allowed to write about fights. One time I put a fight in game copy and got an email back from copy editor reminding me how I was breaking the rules.
— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) July 24, 2020
You. Couldn’t. Use. The. Word. Concussion.
We have covered at length how the NHL has consistently mishandled the issue of concussions, including putting pressure on its rights-holders not to cover the story. In 2016 when the league’s internal emails on the subject were released, Sportsnet barely mentioned it until a week later. By contrast, TSN sent Rick Westhead chasing after Gary Bettman for comment.
Again here, no one should be shocked that rights-holders will cover a league less critically than others. Media have always had partnerships with their subjects. Thankfully there are enough outlets who can pick up the unspoken remainders and fill in the gaps for the audience.
And this is why the NHL’s “no journalists” policy is troubling. Real journalists won’t write stories they can’t verify. NHL.com writers are not allowed to write about certain topics. So if stories involving those topics occur within the bubble no one will be empowered to get the word out.
The NHL has always tried to obsessively control the media narrative by restricting or granting access. This is not a player safety issue, it’s a pretext that will backfire. This kind of backward thinking continually holds the NHL back. https://t.co/rUci3p4We4
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) July 24, 2020
It did not have to be this way. The NBA chose to allow a restricted number of media inside the Disney bubble, provided they could afford to pay for room and board. This raises different issues, but at least real journalists will be covering that tournament. In a statement to its members the PHWA said the following:
“The only helpful confirmation that came from these proceedings was the NHL’s admission — once and for all — that NHL.com writers are not “media” but rather “league employees.” That admission will be crucial the next time the NHL attempts to thrust NHL.com writers into independent PHWA voting processes for NHL Awards. […] The NHL clearly does not share the PHWA’s long-held stance that there is a partnership between the league and the independent media that covers it. This makes the NHL unique when compared to other major leagues, so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that only the NHL will deny its hundreds of participating players and millions of fans unfiltered on-site reporting on a return that encompasses everything from professional hockey, taxpayers’ interests and in this case, public health.”
As you can see there is a mounting tension playing out in public view between league affiliated writers and independent media. I have discussed this issue with many people over the years. How do you compare what Arash Madani does on Blue Jays broadcasts with what Steve Simmons does for TSN? This is a genuine question to which I don’t have a clear answer. Both are working for networks with league and team affiliations. I consider both of them to be journalists as opposed to “league employees” in the NHL.com sense, but there are subtle differences of degree at work here. In a perfect world no journalists would cash cheques from the same people they are covering. Especially in Toronto, that is an increasingly impossible standard.
At the end of the day, the NHL blew it. There are so many credible hockey reporters in Canada that it would have been easy for them to hand pick three per bubble to make this problem go away. It would have even made sense for them to choose six Sportsnet reporters, given that the network is the official rights-holder. This would have led to related complaints but would have been slightly better than barring everyone.
Over to you: 1) Are the hockey media throwing a tantrum? 2) Is this, as the PHWA suggests, an ominous sign of things to come? 3) What’s your favourite cupcake?
Low Hanging Fruit
- Pierre LeBrun is quietly becoming the best hockey insider on the continent. The more I read and hear from him the more I want to read and hear from him.
- This is how you own a mistake. Nice job by Eric. The twitter anger directed his way was completely out of proportion to the original error.
This was a sloppy job of paraphrasing on my part. He said in warmups, he felt like it was first time they had everyone available, and that depth certainly helps. Apologies for the confusion. https://t.co/RymHI84XCm
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) July 25, 2020
- Damien Cox sounded off on the NHL media bubble issue in his usual vague way. As someone who has been on both sides of this fence I wish he would write something concrete and comprehensive on the subject. I would love to read it, and he has nothing to lose at this point.
This accessibility issue is going to separate the real NHL media from those working directly or indirectly for the league. Sadly, the real/independent media is now in the minority. Most of NHL “media” today is really about promoting the league.
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) July 25, 2020
- Best interview of the week was Carlos Delgado on Writers Bloc. Jeff Blair still managed to derail it by using questions as an opportunity to soak up all the air in the room. Listen to this clip and pause at 18 seconds, or 27 seconds, and then see if anything that comes after adds anything to the question. He has another 90 second question later on.
- The Negative Nancy award for the week goes to The Star’s Gregor Chisholm who wrote about how the pandemic will make it even harder for the Jays to attract free agents.
- Steve Simmons wrote: “I sometimes get the impression that if Sportsnet owned a football team and signed Tom Brady as a free agent, it would use somebody else as its starting quarterback.” Anyone know what he is talking about? I’m guess it’s Chris Cuthbert related?
- This is a terrible statement by someone who has occupied positions of power in sports media for a long time:
I'm sorry, I can't comment on something I didn't see or hear.
— John Shannon (@JShannonhl) July 20, 2020
- Lastly, if you have not listened to Jonah’s podcast with Dirk Hayhurst you’re missing out on something special. Dirk is totally honest about why he was let go from both TSN and SN. He also talks about how he was told by his boss not to raise a sexual harassment complaint against a co-worker for watching porn on the job. I’m willing to bet that boss also can’t comment on things he didn’t see or hear.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)
header image credit: CHARLES KRUPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Added After Original post
Following Mike’s awesome post above I interviewed Kevin McGran.
Kevin McGran has been covering the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Toronto Star since Mitch Marner was two years old! There is not much he hasn’t seen over his years on the beat. While the NBA has made admittance to its Corona Hub expensive, the NHL has chocked off the NHL media from covering practices or games entirely. Numerous members of the media who are used to covering practices and games are banned from doing so with the NHL controlling those who do leading many experts to believe the NHL is attempting to control the message. Kevins talks about that, the difference between the younger media and the old guard, norma life on the hockey beat and what to expect when the NHL plays again soon!
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