Let’s not be naive about this controlling-the-message business.
We all do it. Or at least we attempt to do it. Government does it. Coca-Cola does it. McDonald’s does it. General Motors does it. The Catholic church does it. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills do it. Parents do it. Professional sports franchises do it.
And—I hope this doesn’t come as a bulletin—newspapers do it, too. Every day.
What do you think is happening in most newsrooms in North America this very day? I’ll tell you what: Editors are gathering around a large table (or small, depending on the size of the sheet) and, either in person or via conference call, they’re deciding what message(s) to send to the great unwashed. Not only that, they are deciding how to torque said message, depending on the whims and biases of the editorial board and/or ownership.
A member of the Winnipeg Jets has a slight brush with the law?
“Who’s the player?” a managing editor demands to know.
“Patrik Laine,” the sports editor advises him.
“Oh. We like him. He has 20 goals. We can’t bury a nice kid like Laine. We’ll bury the story instead. Report the facts but, remember, he’s just a kid. Kids make mistakes. Be gentle with him.”
“There’s one more thing…Ondrej Pavelec was with Laine. They both got arrested.”
“Perfect. Pavelec is in the minors now, so we don’t give a damn about him. There’s your lede—’Young, impressionable Laine being led astray by former Jets goaltender who once spent a night in jail on a drunk driving charge and kept it a secret from the club while negotiating a multi-million-dollar contract.’ We’ll bury Pavs.”
Yes, newspapers can be that deceitful and conniving, and the faster they get that click bait on their website the better.
Newspapers control the content in the Letters to the Editor section. They control the online comments that accompany articles to the point of censorship. The Winnipeg Free Press is forever running propaganda pieces about rising readership and circulation, even as print newspapers and their ink-stained employees throughout North America are falling like bowling pins. The Winnipeg Sun will do the same if the numbers are favorable.
Spin. It’s all about spin. Promoting and protecting the brand.
So, can newspapers tsk-tsk the Jets or Winnipeg Blue Bombers for dictating club spin and vigorously controlling the club message if the dailies are doing that very thing? Seems to me it’s a goose and gander situation.
In our 140-character, dot.com, Snapchat, Instagram world, the divorce rate between pro sports outfits and newspapers has advanced rapidly, and breaking up is not hard to do for the clubs. They have devised a method of spreading their gospel that is brilliant in its simplicity: Poach the best available print journalists from local rags and pay them to do the their official bidding on the team website. Presto! You’ve strengthened your product and lessened your reliance on theirs.
They won’t stop there, either. Pro sports franchises will find fresh ways to increase the disconnect between press row and their inner sanctums, thus making it more difficult for news scavengers to perform their duties.
What must newspapers do to combat this? Well, bitching won’t help. They can caterwaul about lack of access as much as Jets’ coach Paul Maurice whinges about the National Hockey League schedule, but that doesn’t solve anything. They have to be innovative.
The way the Sun and Freep work the Jets and Bombers beats is dog-eared. Dated. They still cover the two clubs the way we did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It seemingly hasn’t occurred to them that the traditional game story died the moment a fan could reach into a pocket or purse and place a breaking news story in the palm of her or his hand. Really, is anyone waiting for a newspaper to land on their doorstep in the morning so they can read about something they watched and heard on a hand-held gadget 12 hours earlier?
Same old, same old doesn’t work in this push-the-send-button climate. Coverage needs to be more off-beat and upbeat, with more personality and cheek. Snappier and snazzier. More bloggish, if you will. Hit ’em with hot takes rather than an antiquated reliance on monotone, rehearsed quotes in a comatose post-game story that drones on. Have some fun with it, even if it puts noses in ivory towers out of joint.
And newspapers must remember that they have the greatest weapon of all in their arsenal—harsh truths.
Truth sells. Ditto opinion. Not the kind of lap-dog opinion that Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman or Bombers CEO Wade Miller want to read. We’re talking opinion that readers among the rabble want. Unvarnished, unharnessed and honest truths that you’ll never find on a club website.
Newspapers must stop choking on their indignation and feeling sorry for themselves. It isn’t up to pro sports franchises to revert to the old ways of doing business, it’s up to the newspapers to discover new and better ways of doing their business.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.
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