Welcome to the Jungle!

Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar has been watching the uproar over the NFL's new media policies with a raised eyebrow and a deep chuckle. It is the height of irony when those same individuals who have been allowed to play both ends against the middle are finally restricted from free reign, especially when the burdens on "unofficial" media have been so inequitable for so long.

If only I had known.

If only I had known that the best way to distinguish myself as a Professional Sports Journalist would be to cry like a jilted debutante when the NFL took some of my “rights” away.

How could I have been aware that those fine members of the Fourth Estate who have been living on both sides of the media fence – the traditional “ethical weight” of the newspaper combined with the technological and time advances of the internet – would lose one of their prime advantages at the hands of the very league-created entities that had allowed them to play both ends against the middle for so long, while deserving but unsanctioned writers scrambled for any possible foothold?

For the first time since the internet became the great enabler in the NFL’s constant need to Baby Huey its way across the landscape, said league has applied the “it’s mine, and you can’t have it!” policy to accredited media in a major way. And as a writer who has been seeking, legitimately but unsuccessfully, to break through the access barrier for a good long time, I couldn’t possibly find this any more ironic. Because now, those journos who have been gliding down a greased racetrack just got a hard dose of road tar.

The good news for them (and I know this first-hand), is that the roads are still navigable, even with the increased traffic beside you.

The NFL’s new media policies, announced in Mid-May, took a great advantage away from any accredited media accustomed to using interview video and audio clips on their independent (non-NFL) sites. The press release announced in part:

News media outlets have … benefited from their NFL coverage, as NFL news and commentary attracts fans to all forms of media, including emerging distribution platforms. The NFL recognizes the importance of the Internet to traditional media organizations in expanding their news reporting and distribution operations.

In recognition of the growth and development of the Internet as a news distribution platform, the NFL last season expanded its policy on the use of NFL nongame content by newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations on their Internet sites. Our 2006 policy allowed unlimited online audio/video standups (“talking heads”) by reporters at NFL stadiums and team facilities, both on weekdays and gamedays. Game action video remained – and will continue to remain in 2007 – exclusively available through NFL.com.

The NFL is making the following additional changes this season regarding online use of audio and video interviews and press conference content on gamedays and weekdays. These rules are designed to enable news organization websites to “illustrate” their coverage of the NFL with daily audio/video soundbites that supplement and complement the work of their reporters and columnists:

• Up to 45 seconds per day of audio and/or video of interviews or press conferences with NFL employees (including, but not limited to, players and coaches) or of team practice footage may be used on the Internet by credentialed news organizations. The content may not be used live and may be archived for 24 hours. This applies to both weekdays and gamedays.

• Up to 90 seconds of this online footage may be used by news organizations that cover multiple clubs, such as Jets and Giants in New York, Redskins and Ravens in Washington and Baltimore, and 49ers and Raiders in San Francisco/Oakland, provided no more than 45 seconds is used for a single club.

Further, as noted above and reflected in the 2006 policy, video/audio material comprised entirely of a credentialed media organization employee providing commentary or analysis, including postgame stand-up video/audio material shot on the field or at other stadium or club facility locations (subject to generally applicable safety and venue management restrictions or shooting locations and times), may be distributed via media organizations’ Internet sites.

In short, the NFL has decided to severely restrict any access previously given to independent but accredited reporters as it applies to online content. Blurbs with coaches and players will be just that – blurbs. No longer than 45 seconds at a time (unless you happen to cover two teams!), and no archives allowed. If you want raw audio or video from training camp or postgame; if you want to see your favorite coach or franchise player talk about his team’s recent playoff win, you’ll go to the league’s official site, the team’s official site, or nowhere at all. In addition, the NFL is now insisting that any use of said content requires the following conditions:

• The page featuring the audio/video must provide links to NFL.com and the corresponding club site. For example: For more info, go to www.nfl.com and www.(teamname).com;

• The content may be used only in an editorial context (such as in links that illustrate stories or in multimedia news sections) and may not be presented in stand-alone multimedia entertainment sections of third-party websites;

• No integrated advertising is permitted. Footage may appear on pages with banners and contextual ads, but the ads may not be specifically related to the NFL audio/video content.

And THAT’S where it gets interesting. When the league not only restricts access, but dares to presume that subliminal shilling for the official sites be part of the terms of use, you can understand why those reporters who have enjoyed agreeable relationships with the media departments of the teams they cover are looking around for air to breathe. Those howls of protest seem perfectly reasonable.

And if the rules had been fair all along, the complainants would have a solid point.

But this action is merely the first shot aboveboard for the NFL. Those unfortunate internet-only writers who have risen to prominence despite their permanent residence below deck have been taking torpedoes in their butts for years. And not just from the league’s own dismissive, unfair and unethical policies, but from the words and actions brought forth by select members of their accredited “brethren” – words and actions that have also been dismissive, unfair and unethical.

The rise of internet media has been a bit like the formation and development of an uncharted country. Those writers too “wild”, “undisciplined” or “uneducated” to take traditional media jobs and work their way up began building the Information Superhighway as soon as there was one. It was uncharted territory, there were a lot of trees to move, and it took a while. Without any strict guidelines, or anyone to enforce them, people could write whatever they wanted on a national scale for the first time. Scary thought, no? For a while, it was. There was so much information coming forward, and so much of it either sub-par or unreliable, that it was easy to take the ‘net lightly as a source of real information.

Over time, however, those official sources planted their flags and set their servers to “stun”. Bill Simmons, courtesy of ESPN.com, became the first of the new breed to combine the easy informality of the sports bar argument and the immediate gratification of the internet on a truly national scale. He spawned a horde of (mostly agonizing) imitators, but the die had been cast. You could write about the Boston Celtics in your boxer shorts AND be taken somewhat seriously by a large readership! Longtime newspaper and magazine writers such as Peter King, Paul Zimmerman and the late, great Ralph Wiley made the move to the internet so seamlessly, their previous ink-stained incarnations were largely forgotten.

It’s important to note, however, that Simmons didn’t have team access. His “man-in-the stands” voice was well-established, and he didn’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blew. He was that good. Those more established writers simply transferred their print credentials to the online world and opened entirely new vistas.

The next wave produced a far more complicated series of interests – people with serious ideas and ideals which would prove ill-fitting for any print medium. There was Mike Fiorio’s Profootballtalk.com, a non-stop rumor repository; Rotoworld,com, which crystallized the fantasy sports wonk’s need for ceaseless player information; and Footballoutsiders.com, the groundbreaking analytical and statistical website formed by Aaron Schatz. Like Bill James a generation before him, Schatz started his enterprise to refute questionable notions about the game he loved. Unlike James, he had a Brave New Internet with which to deliver his new numbers. He didn’t have to photocopy his first Abstracts one at a time; he took the databases he’d made and the numbers they spit out and put them on the web for all to see.

These renegade entities began to attract the interest of the Big Kids – when FoxSports.com began publishing Football Outsiders’ content on a regular basis, the new breed had found a comfortable affiliation with the old guard.

Or so it seemed.

Scout.com, in which satellite team sites reside under one roof as a group of independent contractors, posed a new problem: At what point does dedicated, internet-only coverage of a team find some level of league and team respect? Despite Seahawks.NET’s longtime association with Scout and Scout’s affiliation with FoxSports.com, and despite the fact that we are under the same sorts of editorial constraints that newspapers and other print publications find themselves, that respect, and the team access that comes with it, is nonexistent.

In truth, the conditions which would seem to bring that respect are more restrictive for us, because any misstep taken by an internet-only entity is bemoaned as an indictment of the entire process. If we step outside the lines, fail to attribute a quote or source, or lapse in our fact-checking for one second, it’s seen as “yet another” example of the lack of professionalism of those “fan sites”. Never mind that several Scout.com “fan sites” are led by reporters who also carry official press credentials from newspapers or team magazines; that fact is inconvenient and confusing. Therefore, it’s ignored.

Ignored for a number of reasons: Teams are comfortable in their relationships with existing accredited reporters and their own burgeoning internet interests. Official team sites (the primary purpose of which is to sell merchandise, not to dispense objective news and information) find themselves in direct competition with Scout-style sites. The work now done by an increasingly high percentage of those independent sites meets or exceeds the quality, reliability and consistency of the official and accredited organizations. Most disturbingly, there seems to be a growing notion that reporters and writers without credentials are not only undeserving of attribution, but fair game for plagiarism by those more “responsible” sources. Thus, there is a vested interest in holding those supposedly lesser entities down.

When Seahawks.NET breaks a story on a visit by a potential draft pick or free agent, you will not find mention of it in the subsequent stories on the same subjects in the local media. To my knowledge, we have been attributed once in our three years with Scout – by KJR-AM’s David Locke in April of 2006, when we broke the story that safety Oliver Celestin had signed with the team.

In the 2007 free-agency period, we broke as many stories about Seahawks visits, interests and signings as anyone else – probably more than anyone else – through our own hard work and the assistance of other Scout publishers and Scout.com NFL Expert Adam Caplan, who also happens to work for Sirius NFL Radio and has reported for the NFL Network. We received no attribution from anyone on any bit of free-agent news. I discovered the reason for this phenomenon when we first reported an injury to defensive tackle Russell Davis in August of 2006. When I politely pointed out to one local reporter via e-mail that his story on Davis did not mention the fact that we broke the story several hours before, his response betrayed a complete lack of awareness that attribution was even an option. You see, the reporter in question was vacationing on a remote property at the time. Otherwise, he most certainly would have had the story up first.

We’re used to that, just as we’re used to their stories, put up later than ours, leading with “The Seahawks have confirmed” or “As we first suspected” as ways to get around the need to credit us. Just as we’re used to snarky e-lectures from those same individuals when they feel we haven’t attributed them. More often than not, they’re barking up the wrong tree. There’s a fundamental disconnect here – some official reporters seem to believe that we have no sources and would not know how to work them if we did, therefore making those other local reports our only news sources. That we have built up a list of national colleagues who work in their capacities as accredited media members and trust us enough to exchange news with us? This is yet another inconvenient and confusing fact. Therefore, it’s also ignored.

This is not intended as a specific criticism of the Seattle sports media. Our appreciation of Locke’s accreditation, and his body of work, continues to this day. Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the Godfather of Northwest football reporting, but he’ll always answer a question from, or impart valued advice to, those members of the media who don’t have the benefit of his tenure. Mike Sando of the Tacoma News Tribune has become the 800-pound gorilla of Seahawks coverage with his award-winning blog, and his stellar coverage speaks to his professionalism and work ethic. It also makes us work harder, which is a good thing for us and our readers.

But what of those less professional and ethical members of the accredited media, both local and national? Are their missteps seen as reflections of their modes of coverage? When Seahawks.com steals diagrams from Football Outsiders for an article about the Cover 2 defense, and only credits the diagrams when they’re called on it, and does so without ever actually asking permission, does this mean that all official team sites are unprofessional and can’t be trusted? When Ron Borges of the Boston Globe gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and winds up getting suspended and eventually resigning over it, should we assume that all sportswriters employed by newspapers are plagiarists? When Mark Curnutte of the Cincinnati Enquirer goes with a story about Chris Henry’s alleged positive drug test that turns out to be incorrect, does this indict all beat writers as irresponsible heathens who are less concerned with right than right now?

Hardly, especially after Curnette subsequently apologized for the story, saying that “In this day of 30-second news cycles, I re-learned some basic lessons: The least and most I owe sources and readers is accuracy and fairness. At the other end of every story is another human being.”

Admirable. But you can bet your sweet bippy that if Curnette had been an internet-only writer, he’d be put up as a poster child for the Wild West school of journalism, and further mistrust would result. Most distressing was the recent work of NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, when it was discovered that his article about the methods by which college quarterbacks are ranked for NFL potential bore a striking similarly to an ESPN Draft Magazine article written by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, which was based on a Quarterback Projection System first put forth by FO’s David Lewin in 2006. The similarities have been public knowledge for quite a while, but Brandt refuses to acknowledge the issue, except to tell ESPN.com’s Gregg Easterbrook that he hasn’t seen FO’s work – a curiosity, to be sure.

However, Brandt did recently apologize for mistakenly using a list of the top 100 draft prospects put together by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. Presumably, Gosselin’s status as “a good friend, and … one of the most respected NFL writers in the country,” made this apology go down a bit easier. But there’s still another apology owed, and it’s unconscionable that a writer for the site of the very same league that seeks to limit access by others takes no issue with the outright theft of content from sources outside of the old-boy network.

Does this mean that NFL.com itself should not be taken seriously? Certainly not. Then why does that same standard not apply to the new wave of internet-only writers? Because it’s in the best interests of many for things to stay that way.

In the larger view, the NFL has made a grave mistake with the monopolization of access and content in a way that affects official reporters. It’s bad enough for them when the “unwashed masses” complain. Now, they’ve opened themselves up to all sorts of fair use questions from the very people who help to promote their product. I predict that at some point in the near future, this ridiculous rule will be overturned and those who have had access to this content will have it again. I can only hope that having had a small fraction of their advantage taken away for a while, they’ll have a bit more understanding for those who are simply, and legitimately, trying to find that same advantage.

In a TIME Magazine excerpt from his upcoming book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore speaks of the power of the internet, and the responsibility that power entails:

The Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework. It has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge. It's a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services. It's a platform, in other words, for reason.

But the Internet must be developed and protected, in the same way we develop and protect markets--through the establishment of fair rules of engagement and the exercise of the rule of law. The same ferocity that our Founders devoted to protect the freedom and independence of the press is now appropriate for our defense of the freedom of the Internet. The stakes are the same: the survival of our Republic. We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it, because of the threat of corporate consolidation and control over the Internet marketplace of ideas.

The danger arises because there is, in most markets, a very small number of broadband network operators. These operators have the structural capacity to determine the way in which information is transmitted over the Internet and the speed with which it is delivered. And the present Internet network operators--principally large telephone and cable companies--have an economic incentive to extend their control over the physical infrastructure of the network to leverage control of Internet content. If they went about it in the wrong way, these companies could institute changes that have the effect of limiting the free flow of information over the Internet in a number of troubling ways.

The democratization of knowledge by the print medium brought the Enlightenment. Now, broadband interconnection is supporting decentralized processes that reinvigorate democracy. We can see it happening before our eyes: As a society, we are getting smarter. Networked democracy is taking hold. You can feel it. We the people--as Lincoln put it, "even we here"--are collectively still the key to the survival of America's democracy.

Perhaps Gore should add the NFL to the increasing list of corporations he advises. This particular example of “corporate consolidation” will be remembered as one of two things – a harbinger or an anomaly. Which will occur? That depends, to a great extent, on the level of outrage put forth by those who have been affected. Beyond that, it’s abundantly clear that the NFL has no clue what to do with internet media, and that this fact is at the heart of the league’s desire to limit the ability of said media to report news outside of the NFL’s clutches.

It’s time to re-set the parameters, to re-determine who has truly earned access, and to re-sod the playing field.

It’s time to take a new look at the new media.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a regular contributor to FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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