Newspapers increasingly have to fight for access with sports organizations that have their own agendas concerning money and control of their messaging, an APME panel said today.
John Cherwa, deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times, shared a story about how his reporter covering the Lakers was given less access than Time Warner Cable on the NBA team's trip to China this month.
"The reason you take these trips is to gain more access to the players," Cherwa said.
He said that when the Times wanted access to Kobe Bryant, however, the Lakers declined to make their star as available to the newspaper as they did for Time Warner Cable.
Cherwa said Lakers spokesman John Black told him, " 'I can give you five billion reasons why we did it that way,' " referring to the $5 billion, 25-year television contract between the Lakers and Time Warner Cable.
The panel, "Staying in the Game: Sports coverage and access in the digital era," was the opening session in the Associated Press Media Editors 2013 National Conference in Indianapolis on Monday.
The panel was moderated by Gerry Ahern, director of news content for USA Today Sports Media Group, and included Cherwa, David Worlock of the NCAA and Barry Arthur of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The "five billion" reasons aside, Cherwa said teams have other motivations for controlling access besides money.
"I think now it's all about controlling the message because we've all sort of figured out that the monetization of the Web is just not that easy," Cherwa said.
Worlock, director of media coordination and statistics for the NCAA Championships and Alliances, was asked about major cuts in the number of courtside seats available to the media for the 2013 men's basketball tournament.
The NCAA said the change was necessary to improve television sightlines for the broadcasts.
Worlock admitted that although this reason was considered, there were other factors.
"We were following the lead of what we have seen in other sporting events, specifically basketball in terms of the Olympic games and the college model. Court-side seats have been used as fan seats."
The Associated Press Sports Editors complained, and Worlock said the NCAA has decided to add 168 more seats for writers on the floor level for next year's Final Four.
"We are happy to announce that we will have more writers courtside."
Panel members said the independence of newspaper newsrooms – including the willingness to write critical stories about teams - was a distinct service for readers.
"They know that if a coach needs to be fired, we'll say that," Cherwa said. "As long as we remain that independent voice, the people will always come to us."
In July, Ahern helped form a media advisory committee to improve communication between sports editors and the NCAA.
"We're at the stage right now of setting up those meetings with the conference commissioners and our staffs through the NCAA with the help of David (Worlock) and Erik Christianson," Ahern said.
"For the first time we are starting to make some incremental progress."