Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.

I Used to Think That It Was So Easy

See if you can guess which ESPN personality made the following statement:

“[The] principles and the integrity associated with [print journalism] serve as the backbone for all that I’m about and hope to be professionally.”

Anyone guess Stephen A. Smith?  Granted, the quote is from way back in 2007, in a textbook, Strategic Sport Communication.  Even so, my students are always amused to hear that.

Smith can still shows his reporting chops.  He beat everyone (including his fellow ESPN-er Chris Broussard) on the Dwight Howard-to-Houston story.  But that’s not what he is known for today

But Stephen A. is not that bad.  Even he has to suffer through First Take with Skip Bayless.  Smith gets more substantial offerings from the chunks that plunge through the ceiling in his Oberto Beef Jerky commercials than he gets from Bayless.

No doubt, Bayless (who also started in newspapers) and Smith have found a profitable shtick. Apparently ESPN has.  But where does that leave sports journalism, particularly for the generation that will practice it in the next few decades?

We have been told that journalists must learn a variety of multimedia skills to survive.  Do we also need to bring a variety of writing styles — news, opinion and everything in between, often in the same article?  To what extent are we expected to sound like a smarter version of Bayless?

With social media, talk radio and traditional media, your favorite sportswriter has a lot thrown at him/her.  It creates a professional minefield, where words written quickly under deadline pressure, then taken out of context, can easily come back to haunt.

When I joined Twitter and started blogging, I did so as an extension of my teaching and research, which centers on sports journalism, particularly its history.

My blogs address issues in sports journalism, often to criticize, it might seem, but more to instruct.  I try not to drop random, pointless bombs, even when I’m harsh.

I could declare that on Twitter I do not troll, but given the response I got from some Auburn beat writers when I said that in class, I’ll amend it to, I do not intend to sound like an ESPN pundit, and I certainly don’t offer it as constant fare.  Sometimes my wording fails me, and yes, rarely I will just drop something because I find it amusing.

What some might assume to be trolling is often a sincere criticism of something I’ve read.  Often I’ll follow up by praising the writer the next time around, and folks will respond, “I thought you hated him/her.”  My response to them is that I criticize content, not individuals.

Overall my guiding principle is, “Don’t be that guy,” and I commend the same philosophy to my students and anyone who asks.  Even within the context of the previous grafs, I feel that I have upheld that principle.  And I feel no motivation to move into Trollville, just to get more followers and clicks.

I want the same from my students and every other future sports journalist.  I will always be a future sports journalism reader, and I want the content to be informative and analytical, without the rhetorical level of an Around the Horn fool-fest.

But those students coming up are getting mixed messages.  And they are writing to audiences that include those who cache their columns and scan their LinkedIn profiles for shriek fodder.

In my 1970s student days, it was easier. You either wanted to be a sports cultural essayist like Paul Hemphill, a columnist like Furman Bisher, or a beat reporter like the ones you grew up reading.  Now, students can aspire to be all three the same day.

And they do so serving a dangerously empowered audience.  Readers/viewers have more choices.  They know it, and the media outlets know it — particularly the local ones.  Offend readers with basic shoe-leather journalism, and they will cry “hater” and find another site.

Fans always have somewhere else to turn, more than in the past. And it’s just another complexity that today’s sports journalists must face.

It would seem glib and useless to say that each sports journalist must simply set his or her moral compass and stay true to it, but even that is more difficult today.  All of the choices were simpler back in the day, the moral options were clearer, and the profession — whether through ethics codes or our fellow professionals — helped keep us in line.

In that sense, Twitter has provided an unintended benefit.  As Ty Duffy noted in his musings a couple of weeks ago, Twitter has brought journalists (perhaps more than other groups) together into a community that shares jokes, true, but also discusses issues.  Sometimes it’s by direct message, sometimes readers join in for better or worse, but at least the open discussions are there.

Even so, the Venn Diagram has so many circles that I don’t envy the coming generation.  They definitely have the technical skills to navigate the new media landscape.  Will the way be as sure for them ethically as it was for my generation?

Probably not. But good writing will continue and readers will read.  With that foundation, the craziness of everything else will have a harder time taking hold, as the long-term value of “that guy” and his drivel becomes clearer.

Matters of Law and Matters of Conscience

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

It seems that as soon as the first part of Sports Illustrated’s series on the Oklahoma State football program was released, the criticism began.

And quickly following the criticism were the SI defenders. In defending SI, they assured everyone that the articles were well-vetted and legally in the clear.

In today’s media climate, the SI approach to defending its series, much like the series itself, reflects a dated approach.

As many have pointed out, the article itself is fast food — a tired menu served repeatedly.  The “gotcha” articles on NCAA violations have been criticized for ignoring the larger systemic problems while distracting everyone’s attention with hard-to-prove allegations.

SI can make much of its legal vetting and discussions.  But I wonder if, early in the planning process, anyone at the decision-making level sighed and said, “Do we really have to do another of these?  Do they perform a public service in 2013?”

As such, the articles seem to be causing more of a yawn than SI could have anticipated.  Given the struggles facing SI and other magazines, it might not have been the best strategy.

But just as outmoded is SI’s “it’s legal!” strategy.  Maybe back in the day of fewer media outlets, that might have worked.  Considering the multiple outlets fans can choose from today, SI might be again miscalculating.

Perhaps Thayer Evans once again actually did keep just to this side of legal and nonactionable behavior.  Good for him.

But Evans’ approach to ethics has been clear from his actions in the past.  There, it is obvious that his goal is professional success, and anyone involved — sources or subjects — is a means to that end.  And that approach might cost SI more readers than the results would generate.

From his embellished reporting of Texas recruit Jamarkus McFarland to his encouragement of the breaking of federal privacy law in his reporting of Cam Newton at Florida (saved only by Florida’s lack of interest in prosecuting the case) to the cultural bigotry that he and Pete Thamel showed in their reporting on Tyrann Mathieu, Evans has portrayed few of the tenets of ethical journalism.

And in this situation, Evans has practiced his specialty of carpet-bomb interviews.  He approaches a slew of sources with no warning, neglects to say he is conducting an interview (though I always warn anyone that when you are talking to a journalist, you are being interviewed), and slaps the results together with zero concern for the interview subject.

(Disclosure: I am a faculty member at Auburn University.  I will claim my concern is based on ethics, not content.  But that is for the reader to judge.)

Today, when a writer’s past is transparent, regardless of his own ethics, Evans’ record is there to judge.  So that when sources claim that he deceived, or did not fully disclose, or misquoted, readers have a lot of evidence at their disposal.

For some reason, Thayer Evans is a sports journalism Lane Kiffin, falling upward after consistent ethical fumbles.  Apparently SI likes him because he “gets the story;” I almost expect his SI editors to be wearing green eyeshades in smoke-filled rooms.  A former SI staffer had his own theories as to why Evans and Pete Thamel were hired, along with concerns.

And maybe they paired him with George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to add a respectable veneer to his reporting tactics.  Like expecting a clean dog to scare the fleas off its mangy companion.

The Oklahoma State series might not result in any successful lawsuits.  But the journalism being practiced and endorsed — in both its ethics and its perspective — belongs to another age.  Its statute of limitations has long run out.

To my students and other journalism students, a reminder: The subjects you interview and write about are human beings, not objects.

And you are a human being as well.  Act like one.