Cavaliers, General

On Mark Cuban, Locker Room Access and the Internet

Editor’s note: What follows are some thoughts on journalism that Rick mentioned earlier today. If you’re looking for thoughts on Cleveland sports, you’re not going to want to read the next 1400 words.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is allegedly done with Internet-based coverage of his team.  Cuban, a man who has made billions of dollars with said medium – and is typically considered to be a forward-thinker – has decided to verbally scrap all that is heterogeneous with regard to electronic dissemination of sports coverage, instead opting to group it all together and deem it as worthless on a going forward basis.

In his latest blog post, Cuban essentially declares that newspaper and television/radio “beat writers” are allowed in his locker room, but only because they have to be.  He understands that, despite the decline in relative readership and increased competition, there is still a large segment of people who choose to obtain their team-specific news via print and sports talk stations.  He then says that unpaid writers of the web – specifically those who make money – are, when boiled down to the roots, characteristically TMZ (a website that has become the Kleenex for all that is terrible among web-based facial tissue).  The Bleacher Report feels snubbed, I’m sure.

Cuban’s assertions are mostly based on Public Relations and that Internet journalists – by proxy – generate the more rumor-based headlines as compared to their older, considerably more set-in-their-ways print brethren.  He even goes as far as to say that “Internet writers have so little creativity and originality,” that they’re forced to merely make things up to generate web hits, ultimately leading to what he deems as compensation.

The issues with Cuban’s latest and greatest are multi-layered.  First, of all people, the owner many would deem to be the most cutting edge in sports (he blogs, yells at referees, knows social software) has taken the lowest common denominator approach with the Internet.  Yes, as an inhabitant of this broad space, I understand that not all Internet reporting (including, but not limited to blogs, MSM – as Cuban does cite Yahoo! and ESPN – and various networks) is what he would consider to be “fair.”  But in the same, the battle that most craft-focused bloggers have been fighting for years is that we are not all the same.

At any select Cavaliers home game, many Internet dwellers can be seen in the hallway, locker room or media sections.  And at the same time, there are countless bloggers who are not granted access because the Cavs PR staff decides who they feel are professional (or “fair”) enough to be afforded the privilege of getting to ask their own questions.  And yes, there are always going to be questionable admissions, but for the most part, those people just meander about and do not really cause harm.  But, as long as it took me and the rest of my WFNY colleagues to be granted access to teams, I am fully understanding of why there is concern.

It’s a nebulous medium and the more individuals of said space that a team lets into their locker room, the more monitoring the team has to do. And boy, do they ever – rare is it that anyone can have an exclusive with a player or coach without a PR member near by.  But, when I place that blue Cavalier media pass around my neck, I’m aware of the two-way street of respect that is in place.  If I reported (via blog or Twitter) every private conversation I overheard between players – and trust me, there have been countless discussions that make me smile and shake my head – I would not expect access from that point forward.  It’s a mutual understanding and a level of professionalism; one I wish more bloggers undertook, but one that continues to – in my opinion – keep WFNY in the position we have worked very hard to maintain.

This also gets into the fact that the vast majority of sensationalistic work (name-calling, baseless op-ed) is done by those who do not have access to the team.  Unfortunately, restricting access to those who are good/fair/professional would merely defeat the purpose with a broad brush of counter-intuitive decree.  Would US Weekly or The National Inquirer get a pass because they are “print?”  Is Cleveland’s 19 Action News not a tad on the sensational side? Sure, the barrier to entry in print and television/radio is a bit thicker than that of the web, but this fact doesn’t dictate that a line be drawn in the sand of one medium and not the others.

Another issue in Cuban’s remarks falls in the definition of “payment.”  None of the WFNY contributors use this site as a means to live.  That little advertisement in the right hand corner of this post?  Yes, that generates a few cents per day.  Those few cents then get split up once or twice a year between the 10 of us that labor season to season.  Are we “paid” Internet writers?  Truthfully, I prefer to consider us of the unpaid variety, at least as defined by the Mavericks owner.  “Unpaid writers typically do it as a labor of love and IMHO far exceed the influence and impact of their paid counterparts,” Cuban states.  Has WFNY had its fair share of rumors published on these pages in the last three years?  I won’t deny that.  But what I will deny is that any rumor that we have published, at any point in time, was for page-views sake and not for dissemination/discussion with our readership.  Believe it or not, 100 percent of what we do here is in the interest of the audience, taking into account the ever-changing landscape.

It has been written countless times before: we are no longer in an age where we have “or” decisions to make regarding information and consumption of such.  It’s not us versus them, or print versus Internet.  The beauty of it all is that it’s now an “and” environment, where one can read an excellent Terry Pluto Sunday morning column and then check that day’s While We’re Waiting… to see what else may be out there.  Sure, that WWW may not have anything we obtained via our access, but I don’t feel that it makes said access any less valuable to the team or our audience.

Do I think that access to a team is the be all-end all?  Not one bit.  Jon Steiner and TD pen – what I feel to be – some of the best Indians-based writing on the web and they have never stepped foot in the Cleveland Indians locker room.  But do I feel that access has made me a better professional while allowing more insight to a Cleveland team for our amazingly loyal audience?  Undeniably.

Cuban hints that he could leverage the team’s site and Twitter feed to disseminate news – something that I feel most teams will be doing within the next five years.  Lineups, injury news and the rest of the generic minutiae will all be shared at once.  And while this may take some of the wind out of the beat writer sails, it will ultimately be a good thing for the entire landscape; it will force those that have been a part of the machine for years and have grown accustomed to auto-piloting their way through an evening at a stadium or arena to actually ask insightful, forward-thinking questions.  By all means, Mr. Cuban, take those reigns.

Just don’t think this would render writing useless.  There will still be stories and thoughtful angles.  Rather than writing about Ryan Hollins in the starting lineup or Daniel Gibson leaving the team for personal reasons, there will be more depiction of point guard interaction; there will more exclusive one-on-ones about Jack Nicholson; there will still be more talks about the NBA landscape and today’s NBA player.  Limiting this also limits a place for educated, passionate sports fans to be engaged, discussing their favorite teams (past, present and future) in one place.  Strong communities of fans can only be seen as good for the team, regardless of where this community is.

Cuban asks, “Do we really need to ask Dwight Howard and Deron Williams where they think they will be going in TWO YEARS?” Do we need to ask players “are you upset about the loss?”

Trust me when I tell you that there is a very, very strong chance that those two questions above are asked by someone NOT writing for an Internet-based platform.  Leading questions permeate locker rooms worse than the scent of the game-worn clothes and post-shower baby powder that infiltrate the air.  And while these questions are undeniably banal, and asked merely to fill an upcoming deadline lede, they are not about to disappear if Internet journalists are left outside to watch postgame chats on a flagship feed.

Cuban later questions, “by leaving them out of the locker room and organization, do we reduce their ability to have a negative impact on players?”  I would answer this with a resounding “Perhaps.”  By shear volume, there will be less of a chance that a players feelings get hurt by criticism.  But it would also be a dangerous precedent that rewards positive, subjectively-biased reporting.  It could help “sell” the Mavericks to fans, but only if what he’s aiming to sell is dishonesty.  But hey, as long as none of the players in the locker room get their feelings hurt by occasional (and hopefully fair, supported) criticism, then by all means.

As Chris Jones stated earlier this month, the “best writers love what they do, [they] love it so much that they want to do it absolute and perfect justice.”  I would wager that the some us Internet folks who write for spare change each and every year do what we do out of passion, out of love for the team and the desire to connect to the rest of the fan base by sharing our thoughts, our insight and our access-provided learnings.  Are some of us unfair? Of course. But penalizing those that do provide great stories and insight will only add to those that have to resort to the negligible.

Judging by Cuban’s piece, it sounds like he takes umbrage with a select few individuals – something that only further supports what is said above.  If he feels that specific users of the Internet are being unfair, he has the full authority to do something about it.  But to cast a light on all “beat writers” from ESPN and Yahoo! Sports on down to Dallas’ version of WFNY is not only misguided, but makes him sound woefully misinformed; something that is a very sad pill to swallow given his background and general reputation among fans.

  • Juice

    Well said! You guys are a daily stop for me, and I’m sure for hundreds if not thousands of other Cleveland Sports fans. Keep up the GREAT work, Cuban be damned!

  • The idea that the team can just as well put out it’s own information and don’t need other voices is ridiculous. They do that already, it’s called the PR department and it’s job is to help sell tickets.

    Of course they will still have television and radio, because those industries are tied to the team with broadcasts of games and ad revenue.

  • Greg

    I think Cuban has a point that reporting is becoming more rumor-based, and it’s hard to not see some kind of connection between that change and the emergence of internet reporting. But I think it’s true of ESPN on TV as much as it is of ESPN.com and Yahoo, and much more than it is of any of the blogs I read. Stories about Brett Favre or whether some reporter could cajole TO into making a selfish remark appeal to the lowest common denominator of fans in the same way Cuban is addressing the lowest of reporting. Reporting that mostly stays away from that, like I get from WFNY, if the solution, not the problem.

  • S-Dub

    BOOM! ROASTED!

  • Surprised that Cuban came out so heavy-handed on this, because he seems to have some validity in his points, they just get lost. I don’t think he was talking about fan sites or sites, like this one, that are trying to do good work. But as you point out, it does lump everyone in the same boat.

    If he is unhappy with a particular writer, he can just pull their press pass. That goes for anyone, regardless of where they work.

    Certainly there would be more backlash if it was the beat writer from the Dallas Morning News rather than a blogger, but he seems to be making a bigger deal out of this than warranted.

    If someone is just causing shenanigans or being a pain, don’t let them in.

  • Roosevelt

    Good article. Whenever paradigms change, the establishment gets reactionary. Instead of banning the writers of the future, i.e. bloggers, in favor of the outdated media; he should be figuring out ways to regulate blogging.

    People always assumed that newspaper writers had some sort of prestige by virtue of their employment, but WFNY and many other blogs have taught us that fans often have as intuituve an understanding of teams as writers do. By cutting off that access, Cuban will not defeat the future. He will just limit coverage of the Mavericks to randomly mediocre writers.

  • While it may not be fair to lump everyone together, at the absolute baseline level, does dumping every reporter from the locker room hurt his business?

    Probably not at all. He’s right. only the harder-core fans read most of the non-mainstream sites, and those people aren’t leaving sports no matter what.

    Not to bring this to LeBron for any other reason than I feel its relevant, but ESPN’s coverage of his free agency last summer – with Broussard, et al Tweeting and blogging as if it was play-by-play (“The Knicks just pulled into the lead…they showed him a picture of the Statue of Liberty!!”) pretty much destroyed NBA journalistic credibility.

    If the highest levels are garbage, that’s going to have a trickle-down effect to some extent in terms of perception.

    The other thing is that all these athletes are pretty much trained to say nothing of substance anymore. So what’s the loss on any side if there are no reporters in the locker room?

  • Brian – to your point, does the fault then exist at the feet of the byline or the company that said byline represents? Should ESPN (since you cited Broussard) – being the WWL and inherently deciding what is news – hire better, more inquisitive an audience-focused writers or is he merely doing what he’s told by the powers that be and is instead feeding the ire of Sir Cuban?

  • I assume it’s a combo of doing what he’s told and a bit of “this is the type of thing that will get a bigger spotlight on me”. Kind of a “this feels dirty and not like real journalism but I need a career”.

    I don’t know if I answered your question, but I don’t know that anyone is “at fault” – this is just the world we live in. I don’t even know if it’s better or worse than “the old days” – what was the real value in recaps and analysis? To give us insight into things we couldn’t see. And with so much of us able to see whatever we want now, is there still value in that?

    I really have no idea – original op-ed pieces with a unique voice and real investigative journalism has a measure of true value. The rest is pretty subjective as to whether we need it or not – it why headline aggregation (what started with Digg, et al) became so valuable.