Guest Post: A Veteran Sports Reporter Laments the Decline in Access for NW Journalists Today

by Bud Withers

[Bud Withers covered sports for decades in Eugene and Seattle. You’ll find his full bio at the end of this post, including information on his latest book, Mad Hoops. This writing is copyrighted and used by permission of the author.]

The other day, on the anniversary of the New York Jets’ ringing upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami, ESPN showed a familiar video clip of Joe Namath lounging by the pool in the days before the game.

As an old journalist, I was inclined to assimilate that in old-journalist fashion: marveling at the access a TV cameraman had in 1969 to get a loose-and-easy shot of Namath.

When we think of today’s journalism compared to what I knew when I was coming up as a young reporter in 1970s Eugene, the difference is often about access, which is sort of the lifeblood of the business.

 Of course, newspapers had more cachet then. They were a bigger deal. There was no online competition, so, if only by number of outlets, the local paper stood out.

I covered University of Oregon football in those days, and to further our insights into the Ducks, my sports editor and I finagled a weekly lunch session with the UO football staff. Every fall Wednesday at noon, we’d pick up sandwiches and an assistant coach would show us game film, talking candidly – and off-the-record – about players and big-picture strategy. Occasionally, the head coach did it.

 Do you think Chris Petersen, the Washington coach a few years back, would have been party to something like this?

Closed practices? Practice was always open. Even Dick Harter, the Bobby Knight-like taskmaster who coached the Oregon basketball team, allowed media people into practice on the second level of old McArthur Court. In football, it was assumed you wouldn’t write about the double-reverse pass they were practicing, and the matter of practice injuries was something to be negotiated. But practices were open, unfailingly.

I covered the Hall of Fame curmudgeon Ralph Miller when he coached Oregon State basketball. Practice went from 2 to 4 p.m., and on multiple occasions, I was in his office interviewing him at 1:30. Two o’clock would come, 2:02, 2:03, before he’d pull himself away, knowing he hadn’t missed anything.

 Not only in the ‘70s, but for decades later, access remained relatively easy. The University of Washington had football media lunches and afterwards, coaches like Jim Lambright and Rick Neuheisel would routinely hang around, entertaining the one-on-one questions you didn’t want to ask in the group session.

In the 1990s, I worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which didn’t have a Sunday paper (anathema to a guy covering Saturday’s college-football game). So I convinced Lambright and the Washington publicist that we needed a Sunday-evening call from the coach to update the day-after view of the game for the Monday-morning paper, simply because we were disadvantaged. It wasn’t Lambright’s favorite thing, and he sometimes missed it, but he usually came through.

We struck deals with coaches. I don’t say that with pride, but we did it. I’d like to think it was mostly because of the paucity of news outlets–and a belief that a greater good was being served–than any shady relationship with the teams we were covering.

One time, an announcement came that a coach’s contract had been extended. I sought reaction, and to my surprise, several players issued a no-comment response. All of them were African American. It couldn’t be coincidence.

It would have been perfectly justifiable simply to report this reaction. But my boss decided that would raise more questions than it answered (I agreed). And it probably would have been a career killer for the coach. So we arranged a meeting with him that night and confronted him with the details. I don’t recall how we finessed writing the story, but it didn’t center on Black aversion to the contract extension. Our stance was that we knew something important that could be of use later – and yes, the coach now owed us one.

The propriety of our approach is debatable, but my point is that today, I don’t think the story unfolds that way. The landscape is too competitive.

Two things have dramatically cut into access, changing journalism forever. First, the camera phone. Everything can now be proven, and anything is subject to revelation, including a team’s secretive switch to a different defense.

Second, the number of news outlets. Fueled by online sites, that number has doubled, tripled and quadrupled the amount of coverage. In my little sports realm, where a coach might once have had a healthy relationship with a veteran beat writer, he’s surrounded today by people he may not know. People with camera phones. It’s the path of least resistance simply to shut it down, so closed practices are now the norm.

You can trace the trend by the evolution of post-game interviews. Once, the locker room was open–a steamy, smelly place that yielded an unvarnished look at the game. Over the years, the locker room gave way to a meeting room or hallway where you could move from player to player. Now, increasingly, players are brought to a podium or interview table and, knowing they’re speaking to everyone, provide sterile responses that reveal little. Naturally, this pleases team management, which sets things up this way to control the message.

We could debate endlessly how much diminished access has hurt journalism. Just know that when you see an exceptional newspaper story or an exemplary piece on TV today, it’s usually in spite of access, not because of it.

Bud Withers wrote for three Northwest dailies during a 45-year career in the newspaper business. A member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, he has authored five books. The latest, Mad Hoops, on the frenzied seven-year run of University of Oregon basketball’s “Kamikaze Kids,” is available at Amazon and Bookshop.org.

Click here for a Portland Tribune review of Mad Hoops.

What Happens to Our Knowledge of a Place–Past or Present–When Daily Newspapers Face No Real Competition in Reporting the “News”?

Image from the Public Health Image Library, CDC / Minnesota Department Of Health; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A few days ago, Portland’s Willamette Week brought momentary life to the local journalism scene by critiquing a new venture launched by its older, larger, and richer rival, The Oregonian. The critique, by reporter Aaron Mesh, is mild as critiques go, especially when judged by the rousing wars Northwest newspapers once engaged in, but it raises important questions about journalism today. One of them (raised, in part, by the mildness alone) is: What happens to our knowledge of a place–past or present–when daily newspapers face no real competition in reporting the news?

The venture Mesh critiques is the Oregonian’s three-month-old “Here Is Oregon” campaign, an attempt, as the HIO website says, to offer “a mix of features centered around our mission, to lift and celebrate Oregon.” Here’s part of what Mesh writes:

For three months now, Here is Oregon—which the paper’s executives describe as a “lifestyle brand” published on a website separate from OregonLive.com [the Oregonian’s main website] and in designated features in The Oregonian’s print edition—has provided Oregonian readers with a version of reality free from violent death and political disputes. The stories that populate the new website dwell on hiking trails, gingerbread houses and downtown cleanups. They arrive on a website free from the pandemic, shootings and stories about the homeless.

That’s a dramatic break from the dire—and usually accurate—portrait of the city The Oregonian regularly presents to readers.

Your first thought might be: So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with the Oregonian publishing more positive stories at a time when so much of the news, as Mesh suggests, is unrelentingly “dire”? To which I (and Mesh as well, I imagine) would answer: Nothing…if those stories were woven into the newspaper’s regular offerings and kept separate from content offered by businesses and trade groups.

The problem is: they’re not. The HIO website says it is being produced “by Oregonian Media Group in collaboration with our newsroom and marketing departments.” [Emphasis mine.] And what is Oregonian Media Group? Click over to its website and you’ll find this description: “Oregonian Media Group is a media company that provides strategic marketing and advertising solutions to businesses locally, regionally and nationally.”

Here’s Mesh again:

The happy-news service is the brainchild of two Oregonian Media Group executives with close ties to the Portland Business Alliance, the city’s chamber of commerce. In a year when Portland’s reputation is circling the drain nationally, the newspaper, which is owned by the wealthy Newhouse family, is betting that readers want more stories dedicated to loyal geese and small-town heroes.

But as an election looms where Portland’s dismaying present and uncertain future are a top-of-mind issue for voters, The Oregonian’s new strategy could create two competing narratives: gritty reality versus an airbrushed version of a hip, happy and healthy Oregon that some wish existed.

In other words, the “happy-news service,” developed in conjunction with marketers, advertisers, and business people, is offering a myth, a fantasy, an alternate reality, and doing so with the imprimatur of Portland’s only daily newspaper (which makes it ipso facto Oregon’s newspaper of record).

Kudos to Willlamette Week (the only weekly to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism) for questioning the motives, the concept, and the content in the Oregonian’s new offering. At a time when corporations and commerce are extending their tentacles into every corner of American society, it’s important to ask what happens when our few remaining traditional news outlets divide the “news” into “negative” and “positive” in order to offer a sunnier view to help businesses. How long before marketing surveys and focus-group results cause the harder news—investigations of politicians and powerful business owners, reports of police abuse or neglect of crime, even community complaints—to simply fade away?

But, Pulitzer aside, a weekly is no match for a well-financed daily. For one thing, it can’t offer enough content to provide a counterpoint to whatever bent or bias the larger paper has. No matter how “objective” the Oregonian’s professional reporters and editors try to be, they will see and hear only what they see and hear, and they will always be influenced to some degree by the values and intentions of those who own and run their newspaper. Which means the city’s daily historical record contains only one primary point of view.

The same is true in Seattle, where the once-robust Post-Intelligencer has shrunk to an online-only publication, leaving the Seattle Times as the city’s only print daily.

The loss of America’s daily newspapers isn’t new anymore, of course. Nor is the question of where Americans can get reliable and relatively bias-free news about their communities today. My concern here is somewhat different. In doing research on Seattle in the earliest part of the 20th century, I’ve been able to form a fuller picture of the city, its people, and its concerns by reading the often-different accounts of events and issues in the Seattle Times, the Seattle P-I, the long-gone Seattle Star, and even an old weekly, the Argus.

Writers for those different papers, each with a different slant, often disagreed with each other, challenged each other, and strove to out-report and even out-reason each other. Because of that lively competition and difference, I’m able to get a truer sense of what a place and its people were like than I could if there had been only one newspaper of record or, God forbid, those papers had let marketers and business people persuade them to divide the news into “positive” and “negative.”

The questions that concerns me are: How will future writers and historians determine the true nature of the people, issues, and troubles of our time? In the nearer future, how will we measure how far our society has progressed or regressed in particular areas if we lack more than one written viewpoint on what we experienced, discussed, and fought about from day to day? These questions grow harder and darker when we let our perceptions of what is “positive” or “negative”—or the desires of marketers and business leaders—determine where and how we report and record the “news.”