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NFL decides not to be sporting about journalists at pro events

Saturday, July 28, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

Dear Reader:

Watch out, sports fans. The press is in a tussle with the NFL.

The big leaguers in the newspaper industry — associations with acronyms and memberships of top editors — have been sending letters of protest to the NFL this summer.

The fuss: new rules. Now, according to the NFL, newspapers can have no more than 45 seconds of video from a game. The video must be removed after 24 hours and is banned from a newspaper’s archives.

There’s more: Press photographers on the field must now wear red vests with the logos of Canon and Reebok.

I wanted to say it’s a real donnybrook between the press and the league, but I fear a blowout. The NFL can and will place limits on journalists at games. After all, the league owns the product.

Still, newspaper executives have this funny thing about the value of independent reporting.

“We feel that requiring our photographers to wear this equipment with logos clearly visible on them compromises our independence as working journalists,” says Karen Magnuson, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, in a letter to the NFL commissioner. “In effect, the photographers will become walking billboards for NFL sponsors.”

There has been friction between major sports and journalists forever. (OK, perhaps not that long. Since the invention of roundish balls?) But the relationship has always been based on mutual need: Journalists needed access to the games and players, and teams needed coverage to draw people into the stands and souvenir shops.

Enter the Internet.

Newspapers are rushing to provide more real-time coverage with more video and still photography. Sports leagues are rushing to create their own Web sites and coverage. In other words, they see real value in cutting out the press rather than cutting it in.

You can read about the Cards’ loss to the hated Cubs on stltoday.com, the online site of the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. Or you can go to mlb.com and read a similar game story. The difference? Mlb.com is owned by the people who put the teams on the fields.

The changes aren’t relegated to pro sports. Earlier this summer, the NCAA gave the boot to a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter for a “live” blog of a baseball game.

The Internet playing field is new. The arguments aren’t. Once again, pro and college leagues argue from the point of business practices. Journalists make their stand on principles.

Not much of a contest, unfortunately. But I’ll ask you: What independence worth to you, sports fans?


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