What’s a journalist? (Sports-related)

The funny thing I found about MMA journalism — most of the sport’s coverage up until the very late 2000s was in the hands of independent journalists who started sites with funny names (Sherdog, Bloody Elbow, MMA Junkie) who are more professional than the organization they’ve covered.

They toss aside the Playboy issues with an Octagon Girl that the UFC is trying to hand out. They hold the UFC accountable to the point of having their access revoked. Josh Gross and Loretta Hunt were both tossed out for asking questions that made Dana White and company uncomfortable. So was Ariel Helwani, however briefly.

And a lot of them have moved into major news organizations. USA TODAY bought MMA Junkie, basically outsourcing its MMA coverage. (That also meant the end of my freelance work for USA TODAY, which had continued after I left the full-time staff, but what really bothered me was that USAT’s new and inexperienced — and short-tenured — sports leadership tossed out a terrific full-time staff reporter.) Bloody Elbow has grown with its parent organization, SB Nation. Luke Thomas has a terrific show at SiriusXM.

I’m glad — because these folks are damn good.

A few soccer folks have done well independently or in the SB Nation fold. But the MMA folks took it to another level. Bloody Elbow has always had brilliant technical analysis along with history and some legal analysis, and it has gone into strong investigative work as well. Most MMA blogs with an audience are rarely, if ever, the province of the fanboy.

With the UFC strong-arming journalists, those journalists have done some careful thinking about the price of access. The UFC tossed Helwani out of the building along with a photographer and videographer who just happened to work for the same site. Dana White backed down on that, despite insisting he wouldn’t, but he has never relented on bringing back Josh Gross and Loretta Hunt, who did nothing more than raise questions that were uncomfortable for White and company.

So a few people in the MMA media have done what we’ve tried to do in soccer with varying success. They formed a journalists’ association. This week, that association spoke up after some mixed messages about whether journalists would be allowed to ask about, say, Greg Hardy and domestic violence. (Here’s the background.)

Luke Thomas offered up a thoughtful take about the association and journalism in general. He didn’t join the former because he thinks he doesn’t do the latter.

I think Luke is setting a very high bar for what’s considered journalism. He does analysis. I’d argue that’s journalism, probably more than I did in a ton of my stories at USA TODAY. We weren’t exactly FRONTLINE in my day. We did aggravate the UFC when my big cover-story splash about the sport led with Kimbo Slice, who was fighting for another organization at the time and leading the way into prime time, but I didn’t uncover a deep, dark secret with the help of anonymous sources. (Post-Jack Kelley, USA TODAY wasn’t big on anonymous sources.) I did original interviews, as he does. I pulled information from those interviews and other readily accessible things to put together stories that were unique, but so does he.

So, Luke, I for one think you’re a journalist.

And yet I understand the reluctance in joining an association, having been in two. I was president of one, and I’m probably at least partially responsible for it falling apart, mostly because I never really figured out what we were supposed to do. Exactly once in my tenure did I have a situation in which I needed to hash things out with an MLS team, and it was ridiculously minor. As Luke says here, a reporter’s editor should be the one doing that.

And yet I have full respect for Josh Gross being an officer of the MMA association. His presence sends a nice message that the members of the group are going to do their jobs whether the UFC likes it or not.

It’s also good to see some unity there. When I was in MMA journalism, I always sensed that many MMA fans figured those of us on the “inside” were compromised. I made every effort to demonstrate that I wasn’t, to the point of taking a gift the UFC had sent me all the way to Vegas to return it in person at UFC 100. The people working the desk surely still think I’m crazy.

(Yeah, they say credentialed reporters are compromised in soccer, too, but that’s because soccer attracts a lot of professional whiners. As I posted to a mailing list this week: “A lot of reporters are accused of not challenging MLS, and the people who raise such accusations won’t be happy until they see a lede like, ‘In a game that doesn’t matter because MLS doesn’t have promotion/relegation and once received a marketing boost from Chuck Blazer, Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers 4-3 in an MLS Cup final featuring hat tricks by Josef Martinez and Diego Valeri, neither of whom would score that many goals in La Liga.'”)

So just having a variety of names attached is a good thing. I often wished I could show some solidarity with those on the “outside,” and a group like this helps.

Maybe they could do some things to raise their visibility. The UFC rankings (no offense to the one former co-worker and longtime friend of mine who takes his vote very seriously) aren’t particularly credible. What if the MMAJA did their own? The only glue that held together the soccer associations was voting on weekly awards.

Still, what matters more is that the media understand what they’re doing and the ramifications of all of it. Press conferences are often just for show, in MMA especially but sometimes in soccer as well.

And it’s important to pick one’s battles. One time I diverged from my soccer colleagues was when MLS decided to give us some information before MLS Cup but asked us to withhold it until halftime. I had no issue with it, and it gave us time to prepare what we were going to do with it. Others immediately tweeted it out. So what happened? MLS never did that again, so now you get the same info at halftime, and you have to scramble to respond to it while you’re trying to cover a game. Was that “scoop” worth it?

The MMA media have more difficult fights. If I’m being asked not to ask certain questions at a press conference, I’d be inclined not to go, and then I’ll ask the questions elsewhere. We’d have to see if my editors backed that up.

They grasp these issues. They have intelligent discussions on them. It’s impressive. And a lot of us could learn from it.

 

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1 Response to What’s a journalist? (Sports-related)

  1. Pingback: I’ve looked at life from both sides now (IOW, more access journalism) | Mostly Modern Media

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