Columnists: They Write and Rant, but Are They Right to Root?

First published in The War Eagle Reader.  You can find it here.

Last week, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy laid it down for Boston sports fans in a column titled, “Your Sports Columnist Is Here to Write, Not to Root.” (Read it quick; Globe links have a shorter life than fruit flies.)

In the column, Shaughnessy makes the following statement about Boston sports teams: “I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose. I love sports. … I love the story.”

It’s a good opportunity to talk about what Auburn fans should expect from their sports journalists, especially their columnists — and maybe to call Shaughnessy on his statement above, though just a little.

What Shaughnessy is stating might be an idealistic standard more than daily practice for columnists, of whom Shaughnessy is definitely one of the best.  When times are bad, particularly, that statement is their North Star.

What prompted Shaughnessy’s column, clearly, is Globe readers’ anger that he has been so critical of the New England Patriots recently, during what has been a difficult season for them.  So he issued his declaration of principles above.

But I would also argue that Shaughnessy and his colleagues do care if the home teams win or lose. And, I would add, that’s OK.

While it’s possible and commendable for a columnist to be objective, it is also undoubtedly true that even an objective columnist recognizes that a home team doing well is a good thing for the community, and he or she (too often he) can reflect that in columns.

State opinion on Auburn’s miraculous run has been positive, especially as it relates to the state’s BCS streak.  You didn’t see post-Georgia columns with the headline “Disastrous 4th-Q Collapse” or post-Iron Bowl columns decrying, “Embarrassing 2nd Q!”

The same is true of Shaughnessy’s columns, especially during Boston’s pro sports teams’ recent run of good results.  And Shaughnessy’s extensive bibliography of Boston sports books are not filled with angry venom, either.

When Boston won the World Series, he didn’t grouse about poor trades or roster moves.  But you can also be sure that during the Bobby Valentine season of chaos, he was just as critical.

Side issue: I should warn you that reading Shaughnessy’s past columns could cost you all of 99 cents for four weeks.  The Globe has its archives shut up tighter than a college football practice session.  Even academic sources on Auburn’s library site do not offer the Globe.  At a time when news outlets are struggling to generate revenue, I say good for them. But back to the topic.

In my Sports Reporting class, I give three standards for a good column — and to Spring 2014 class members: You are still required to show up for this lecture.

A column informs. The columnist introduces new information and reporting, along with intelligent analysis of info and stats.  It should not be merely a rehash of fan comments or pushing of buttons.

A column engages.  A good columnist develops a long-term relationship with his readers — not just by angering or reinforcing them, but by establishing an interactive, intelligent (on the columnist’s side) and sometimes emotional discussion. Shaughnessy is an expert at this.

A column upholds.  Much like good political commentary should look out for the voters (not just one political party), good sports commentary looks out for the fans and for the purity of sport — to give them the best for their valuable attention and financial investment.

But Shaughnessy is correct that sometimes that means taking the fans on — to challenge them to consider information that is not 100 percent positive about the teams they cheer for.

When all three of the above standards are met, the readers develop a trust in the columnist to look out for them — even when the home team, by performance or by policy, does not.

I will leave it to readers to discuss whether columnists on the local, state, regional and national level do that.  To see Shaughnessy’s philosophy in action, why not spend 99 cents and see how he does it?  You’ll be helping out a media outlet whose work during the Boston Marathon bombings shows a continued commitment to bring together the best of journalism.

And you’ll get a good take on a columnist who knows when (and how) to write and when to root — even if just a little.

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Auburn is Writing its Own Stories

First published by The War Eagle Reader. Link to it here.

The Auburn Athletic Department’s hiring of former Birmingham News sportswriter Charles Goldberg and former Huntsville Times/AuburnUndercover writer Phillip Marshall was a surprise.

The trend, however, is nothing new.  Many major college athletic departments are doing the same thing.  Having relied on newspapers and Web sites in the past, they are taking their messages straight to their publics.

That adds a lot of new wrinkles at every point of the relationship between fans, athletic programs and media.  The term “media” might be derived from the Latin for “between,” but the World Wide Web and social media are empowering organizations to shoulder the traditional media out of the way and speak directly to audiences effectively.

For the Auburn Athletic Department, that means using Facebook and Twitter to direct fans to its website, AuburnTigers.com.  Jack Smith, senior associate athletic director for communications, oversees the project.

Smith said about 20 FBS-level schools have hired popular, experienced beat writers for that purpose, following the lead of NFL teams.  He points to the University of Florida, which hired Chris Harry, who covered the Gators for 13 years with the Orlando Sentinel, to be senior staff writer for GatorZone.com.

And the University of Oregon just announced the hiring of Rob Moseley, who covered Ducks football for the Eugene Register-Guard for the past six years, as editor-in-chief of goducks.com.

The goal, Smith said, is to engage the Auburn community — fans, alumni, students and donors — on all platforms.  That includes the above strategies and a new project, Tiger Roar Digital, an online version of the quarterly magazine sent to Tigers Unlimited donors.  The online magazine will launch in mid-August, featuring articles by Goldberg and Marshall, photos by Todd Van Emst, and embedded videos, Smith said.

It’s a recent project, but it has been in the works for a while.  Marshall, long-time Auburn beat writer for the Huntsville Times(1994-2008) and AuburnUndercover.com (2008-2013), said Smith originally approached him last summer, long before the Selena Roberts article on Mike McNeil and the ESPN report on Dakota Mosley, in case you were wondering.

Marshall, however, declined the opportunity.  Earlier this year, the Athletic Department hired Goldberg.  When they approached Marshall again in June, he was ready for the change.

“The move to 24/7 was really good,” he said, referring to the parent company of the AuburnUndercover site.  The site had grown in his time there, fueled by the 2010 national championship and two coaching transitions.

Two aspects of the job, however, grew difficult.  The first was administration of message boards and answering fan questions.  ”For a long time I didn’t mind it, but it was wearing on me at the time,” he said.

The second was the increased emphasis on recruiting.  Fan sites like AuburnUndercover draw and keep their subscribers with aggressive recruiting news, and while Bryan Matthews does excellent work for AuburnUndercover, Marshall said he won’t mind leaving that behind.

Because it is affiliated with the Athletic Department, AuburnTigers.com is not allowed to report on the recruiting of specific athletes.  So at least from that perspective, the other sports media retain at least one advantage, besides editorial independence.

The audience is there.  Auburn’s official Facebook page has more than 256,000 likes.  Marshall has almost 10,000 Twitter followers (though he admits to mainly linking and retweeting).  Goldberg — also a retweeter and linker — has 18,000 followers and the Auburn football has about 64,000.  Even counting for overlap, that is a lot of potential eyes for Marshall’s and Goldberg’s articles.

Fans familiar with Goldberg and Marshall know what to expect.  They channel Grantland Rice more than Deadspin, and while they are reliable information sources — an Auburn football news tip, good or bad, was not considered solid until one of them confirmed it — they are well-suited to the articles intended for the site.

Marshall said the most attractive part of the job is “telling stories of Auburn athletes and coaches.  I like doing those kind of in-depth profile stories.”

Smith said that Goldberg and Marshall are expected to write objective stories.  At the same time, Smith, avoiding references to current sports, said, “If we had a cricket team, and it were to get destroyed in a game, and the coach says, ‘That’s as bad as my team has played all year,’ they are going to quote the coach.  At the same time, they are not going to write a column that the cricket coach should be fired.”

Marshall concurred with Smith’s example.  ”I’m not going to write a column that’s saying someone ought to be fired,” he said, “but the truth of the matter is, I’ve never done that anyway.”

So where does that leave the traditional media folks and relatively newer fan sites? Piece of cake. The AuburnTigers.com strategy might take some attention and media time from the audience, but as we’re finding, the saturation point is a constant speck on the horizon.  This ain’t the 1970s, when the market was driven by scarcity.

The main advantage — and it’s neither small nor minor — for Goldberg and Marshall is access. The Athletic Department can have them break news on official announcements, embargoing the external news sources.  That would also enhance the AuburnTigers.com site, making it seem more useful as a news source.

That’s a tough head start for their colleagues to overcome.  Still, the Jay Tates and Brandon Marcellos will have plenty of opportunities to provide the kind of information fans won’t find on the AuburnTigers.com site, and they are definitely up to the challenge.

Sports fans are information-hungry and information-savvy — whether the information comes from the media or from the organization itself.  They know what kind of info they like and they know where to get it and how to find new sources.  In that sense, there is still plenty of attention to go around.

Steve Spurrier and the Media Mess

There is so much not to like with this Steve Spurrier-Ron Morris dust-up in Columbia, S.C.  It’s hard to find anyone doing the right thing.

1. Start with Spurrier.  His remarks seemed directly not only at Ron Morris, the offending sports columnist for The State in Columbia, but also at any sports journalist who would be tempted to take on the Old Ball Coach.

It just seems a bit creepy when a coach turns his attention to the media who cover him and complains.  Most coaches don’t like the criticism that is written about them.  They are not expected to celebrate the First Amendment when they are on the receiving end of a blast.  But most coaches ignore it.

When Spurrier crossed that line, it was unfortunate and unnecessary.  It started with a refusal to answer questions both at a press conference and on a conference call.  It finished with a blunt statement on his weekly radio show.

2. Morris is not off the hook either.  The breaking point for many besides Spurrier came when Morris, in complaining about Spurrier’s high-handedness and the university’s unwillingness to rein him in, compared the situation to Penn State.  Throwing such analogies out require great care.  He was forced to apologize, but he should have known better.

As to whether Ron Morris is the journalistic buzz-saw Spurrier alleges, check out his recent column on Spurrier’s decision to play Connor Shaw against UAB.  I’ll be honest; I’ve read worse.  This doesn’t come close to what Skip Bayless would have said or what Jason Whitlock would have written in similar conditions.

But this is the article that Spurrier was referring to as “very negative, critical toward me, slandered my name, my integrity,” adding, “The guy’s trying to tarnish and ruin my reputation as a coach.”  Really, Coach?  He comes off sounding awfully thin-skinned.

True, much of the controversy surrounding Morris involves an article he wrote more than a year ago that accused Spurrier of “poaching” Bruce Ellington from the USC basketball team.  The facts for that are definitely in dispute.  But the more recent column is light years away from that.

3. WOLO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Columbia, also looks bad.  The station managers cancelled the “Mondays with Morris” segment in light of the controversies.  The timing of such a move looks bad enough, almost like pandering to Spurrier.

But WOLO general manager Chris Bailey compounded the mistake with a statement that includes the following gem: “Free speech … was originally put in place to protect media and writers from government censorship.  It does not, however, protect the writer from consequences in the realm of public opinion or the marketplace.”  Perhaps, Mr. Bailey, but that is because the assumption is that the media themselves will enforce high standards of free expression and debate in the public interest, rather than cutting and running when the heat is turned up.

With this line of thinking, the station would be justified in refusing to air controversial editorial comments on important political issues, because it is the station and not the government making the decision.  That is sad.

4. Finally, the other journalists covering the University of South Carolina are not looking too brave.  Their silence on the issue is disturbing.  The only protests against Spurrier’s words came from national media like Gregg Doyel at CBS Sports.  The onlylocal protest came from Dan Cook of the Free Times, a Columbia weekly.  Nothing yet from the daily sports media.

It seems like Spurrier is getting a free ride from the beat writers covering USC.  They are open to the accusation that they are allowing Spurrier to intimidate and manipulate them.  And, the argument continues, they are letting him get away with it because they know that, as a winning coach, he has the fans’ support regardless of the ethics of his actions.

It is similar to the situation in Alabama (disclaimer: I am an Auburn fan), where the press covering Nick Saban seem reluctant to criticize or even address his treatment of the media.  Before the Western Kentucky game, when Saban went off on the sportswriters for underestimating WKU, the writers mainly joked about it.  The national media again was left to take Saban to task for a truly strange rant.

In both cases, the sports writers know that the fans – their readers – support the coach.  When the coach directly criticizes the media, the fans might respond by canceling subscriptions, or clicking on other websites.  It seems like the sports writers would rather “play ball” with the coach then stand up to him when he crosses the line, as Spurrier did with Morris.  They are intimidated by their readers as much as the coach.

Obviously, the treatment is different for coaches who are not winning.  Can you imagine what would happen if John L. Smith at Arkansas or Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech complained about the media at this point in the season?  The local media would rise up and attack.

Now think about coaches like Mark Richt at the University of Georgia.  He receives his share of criticism and comment, but does he chastise and try to manipulate the media?  He deals with it and moves on.

A colleague brought up another point.  Communities like Columbia, S.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., have a more provincial feel to them where coaches like Spurrier and Saban can get away with such treatment of the local media.  But the larger the city, the harder it is to pull that off.

Lane Kiffin knows that he can’t get away with it at USC, try though he did.  Any coach, pro or college, who would try that in New York City, Chicago, Washington, and maybe even Atlanta (considering Richt’s approach) would only make a bad situation worse.

But win or lose, big town or small town, what Steve Spurrier is trying to accomplish with the media in Columbia is wrong.  And I wish that more journalists would have the courage to stand up to him on it.