Monday, September 10, 2007

Legal scrum: Media win important battle vs. oppression

I learned the power of the press at a pretty early age. As a teen working for the Fort Myers News-Press, I covered a lot of football and watched a lot of talented players, like the always explosive Deion Sanders. Rarely, did anybody cause any problems. Once, though, a woman at the gate at Cypress Lake High School refused to allow me into a game, perhaps believing I was some high school senior trying to sneak in for free. She said I would have to pay. I repeated that I was a reporter and showed her my notebooks and legal pads. She said I would have to pay like everybody else. I told her not to expect any coverage in the next morning's editions.

Fortunately, a track coach at the gate who knew me, told her to let me in. I'd like to think that coach reamed her out, but this woman probably never gave it a second thought. The press, she believed, should not get any special privileges. But, you know, sports reporters are not there eating hot dogs, downing popcorn, and sipping sodas as we watch our teams march down the field. Instead, we are busy keeping stats, taking notes, and hoping like hell we do not miss any key plays because there are no darned replays in high school football (at least, not in most schools.)

Reporters serve the public's interests. At times, that also helps business interests. We cover mall openings not because we want to promote a business but because we want to let the public know about another shopping opportunity. We cover a college football game for the same reason, to offer information to readers who could not attend. Sure, sports help sell single-copy editions of the newspaper, but the school board also gets something in return, its message sent to thousands of people. The reader, meanwhile, learns more about local schools.

No businesses have a more symbiotic relationship than sports and journalism. They need one another to thrive. News stories create fans who attend games and buy merchandise, and sports help sell many, many copies in print (and send many more to a paper's online site.)

Yet, some sports organizations don't get it. That is forcing news agencies to fight back. The world's top news agencies won a very important battle yesterday in Paris, a day before rugby's world cup was set to begin. The sport's international governing body had tried to control coverage of the event, much like the NCAA had tried to prevent blogging in last spring's college world series.

This is another example of a sports governing body believing it can control everything, including a free press. These sports bodies forget how they found success, through free media coverage. Without media coverage, a sport will lose fans. Without fans, a sport will lose advertisers. Without advertisers, the sport will go out of business. There's really only one reason these things happen: Greed. Pure desire to squeeze every last penny out of their ventures.

In this case, the IRB tried to limit the number of photos a news agency could post on its site to 20 per half, or 40 overall. That would be like the NFL limiting the number of photos a news agency could post on its website. (The NFL has prevented newspapers from running video longer than 45 seconds.) So the news agencies responded by boycotting all events sponsored by the IRB, including a news conference staged by Visa International. The empty room was too much for the event's prime sponsor, which forced the IRB to negotiate.

The IRB is probably concerned that news agencies and papers will usurp its own web sites by posting dozens and dozens of pictures of the matches. They are fearful they will lose control of the sports. But, in reality, sports are really owned by fans -- who should be able to receive their news from as many places as possible. The IRB would like fans to flock to its own website, not to L'Equippe, France's leading sports magazine, or to publications served by the Associated Press, Reuters and the Agence France-Presse. But that's the price of business. This additional coverage will create more fans who, in turn, will watch the sport and respond to advertisers. More may even go the IRB website. That's the way of the sports world.

How important is media exposure? Ask the beleaguered NHL, a league fighting obscurity after some lengthy labor disputes. The league's ratings (and national media coverage) are barely discernible. The league is doing whatever it can to create interest, even allowing Google Video to put them on YouTube.

"When web users are searching for diverse video content, Google Video is the first place they go, just as NHL.com is the first place hockey fans go when they want NHL video," Keith Ritter, President of NHL ICE said last winter. "The combination of our content and Google's massive reach is a terrific pairing, and we're excited to add fan-generated content to the mix."

The NFL, on the other hand, forced Google to remove thousands of video clips last winter. Earlier this summer, the NFL also told news agencies online game video can be no longer than 45 seconds and cannot be archived, reduced sideline credential by 20 percent, and tried to require all photographers to wear vests with advertising logos.

Success dims one's memory, or so it seems.

In any case, we need to fight against the greedy nature of organizations like the IRB, who are glad to get coverage when it serves them, and equally glad to push aside other news agencies when the going gets good. (Any ad exec will tell you that a company should advertise even more when business is good to play off its name recognition. I don't see McDonald's or Coca-Cola cutting back on advertising. The same goes for media coverage.)

So, bravo, to those news agencies who battled for freedom of the press. Fans (and journalists) across the globe thank you.

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