So here’s a soccer story from the English Premier League that could eventually apply to sports coverage around the globe. Newcastle United wants to charge newspapers and other print media for access with the club, such as interacting with players. There would be tiered packages, so in theory the more you pay the more you’ll get.
English journalist Oliver Todd tweeted out this image detailing the club’s plan, which is alarming for anyone with a journalism background:
There are a lot of ways to look at this. It’s one thing for a tabloid site like TMZ to pay for images of a drunken celebrity, but for a local newspaper to have to pony up cash in order to get a few boilerplate quotations from a player like Yohan Cabaye seems unsavory. Once a newspaper or media outlet starts paying for access it’s a slippery slope. How can the public expect fair, balanced coverage? Conceivably all it would take is one negative article for the club to revoke access. In a perfect world a journalist is beholden by the public, not the personal whims of the owner of a soccer club.
And in this case the club is Newcastle United, which is owned by Mike Ashley a man routinly mocked and hired Joe Kinnear as director of football. Last month Kinnear tried to sign a player already at the club. In the summer he infamously referred to the aforementioned Cabaye as “Kebab” among other gaffes.
In short, the braintrust at St. James Park isn’t quite as savvy as, say, the one running a team like the Tampa Bay Rays.
What’s interesting is why, in late 2013 with so many media budgets continuing to be slashed, the club would go down this route. Many clubs in England have their own in-house television channel available for supporters. There’s also the club’s official website. If a team like Newcastle United wants to cultivate positive press, it could always go down that route rather than trying to go into bed with the local newspapers. The club could invest in social media and self-publish positive stories or spin things there way on Twitter or Facebook, where thousands if not millions of fans will see the story. Trying to control the local press is short-sighted and reeks of paranoia. Even Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t this bad.
Access, as far as it goes for most Premier League clubs, is limited to begin with. Stuff taken for granted in America, like locker room access and daily interaction around the batting cage or at a shootaround or even the NFL’s weekly media availability is almost unheard of when it comes to the EPL.
Still you have to wonder, under the hypothetical idea that a American sports team barred access unless it was paid for, how much would coverage suffer? The traditional AP-style game story is becoming increasingly anachronistic. Quality journalism can still be achieved without standing next to a half-naked man being asked, “could you talk about …?” following a game. There’s more analytical-based reporting than the traditional narrative type stuff with each passing day.
Even so, forcing teams to pay in order to maintain the access that’s been free for over a century feels wrong on principle alone.