A panel of sports team owners, executives and the Los Angeles Times sports editor spoke candidly about the future of team ownership and new media’s impact on the industry at a USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society event held on Nov. 8.
The discussion was the third installment of the Sports and Social Change Speakers Series, funded by a grant from Nike, which brings together professionals and scholars to discuss issues that focus on sports and media.
Panelists included Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, Los Angeles Sparks owner Paula Madison, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim senior vice president of finance and administration Molly Jolly, Fox Sports vice chairman Ed Goren and Los Angeles Times sports editor Mike James.
The panelists debated the impact of today’s immediacy of news and whether traditional media can still be the arbiters of truth now that some newspapers and broadcast outlets cite tabloids and celebrity gossip sites in one-source stories.
“In my business, we can’t get away from truth,” said James, adding that Times policy does not allow journalists to use sites such as TMZ as an exclusive source. “If we begin to start spitballing and seeing if they stick, we’ve lost credibility. That’s the only thing that keeps us going in an economic time with contraction and consolidation. If we get away from presenting accurate, thoughtful information, then we have nothing to sell at all.”
Madison, a former NBCUniversal chief diversity officer and also a former KNBC-TV Channel 4 general manager, said she saw legacy news policy change during the media frenzy surrounding the Tiger Woods scandal. National media such as CNN used, among other sources, an unconfirmed voicemail from what gossip sites said was Woods. It was a time when major news outlets ditched standard newsgathering techniques to keep up with aggressive – yet often inaccurate – tabloid reporting.
Madison said pressure on news organizations has risen because of their increased competition.
“Information is information whether you characterize it as journalism or not,” she said. “It’s not in silos – it’s all information. It’ll be up to an educated public to determine whether or not to give as much credence to a blogger as the L.A. Times.”
She said some bloggers now have such an enormous following that teams must give them press credentials once reserved exclusively for print and broadcast journalists.
“We talk about bloggers the same way we talk about columnists,” Madison said. “Today, bloggers get whatever access they want.”
Jolly said that from a front-office perspective, the rise of blogs and social media has been welcome, but it also has created questions about how to handle wrong information.
“Some blogs and tweets are not always fully accurate,” Jolly said. “How does that ripple into the marketplace? Time is important to protect your brand and the image you want portrayed. That’s what’s complicated about the environment we’re in. As a brand, what lengths do you go to protect misinformation? Do you try to fight down every piece?”
Goren said it’s a difficult issue to figure out at any news outlet, including Fox Sports.
“I’d rather be second and accurate than first and wrong,” Goren said. “My guys tell me, ‘If I wait to get a second source, someone will already have the story.’ It gets very complicated for what you run with and what you say.”
James said sites such as TMZ do some good reporting, but they don’t always get the story right. However, he said the site presents work that organizations such as the Times and Fox Sports cannot. TMZ sends reporters out to find stories that are not yet stories, such as the Woods scandal.
“It’s really expensive to gather news,” he said. “We do that when we think there’s going to be a payoff. We can’t just have people starting searches without knowing where we’re going.”
Sarver said his Phoenix Suns organization has embraced social media because it gives his employees the opportunity to generate additional interest from fans. The Suns have about 40 employees who tweet video clips, stories and behind-the-scene news that fans crave. They also sell tickets through Facebook and Twitter, and they recently created a Google+ page. They also hired, for the first time, a social media sideline reporter who will interact with Suns fans during the game.
“Social media has changed the whole way we operate, even during games,” Sarver said. “It’s not enough to just be on TV watching a game, but everyone is watching social media. It’s almost like an online sports bar during a game. Our whole approach has changed over the last 18 months.”
Jolly said she is excited about the future of sports and their interaction in a new media landscape.
“I see it as a way to grow the leagues and sports domestically and internationally,” she said. “We’re exploring digital ticketing and how we can interact with individuals attending games so their experience is improved. We can improve customer service and make fans feel part of the organization. I see technology and social media as an excellent way of doing that.”