It seemed like a good idea at the time. On a mid-September day in 2007, Toronto Star reporter Kevin McGran walked into the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room to file his daily story, but, along with a notebook, he carried a hand-held video camera. The paper, as part of its push into the digital marketplace, had recently added video to its online edition, and McGran took the sports section’s first assignment. When he arrived at Ricoh Coliseum, the first print reporter with a video camera, other journalists flashed knowing smiles. The implication was obvious: soon they would need cameras too. For happy-go-lucky McGran, the medium didn’t matter. Video simply offered another way to tell a story. Go to the arena, talk to a few players, shoot some tape. TSN, Sportsnet and the CBC did it all the time-why couldn’t he?
McGran bounced from player to player, pointing his camera and asking, tongue planted in cheek, “What’s it take, beyond anything else, to be an NHLer?” Most spewed back a laundry list of sports clichés: hard work, dedication, talent. But Wade Belak, then a bruising Toronto right-winger, answered with a playful smirk, “Lots of kissing ass.” It was the kind of quirky, personality-driven material McGran wanted. A short, crudely edited clip went live on thestar.com in the following days, the first of its kind for Toronto sports sections. McGran thought the piece was funny, an unconventional take that went beyond standard game summaries. Leafs management, however, had a different opinion. Less than three weeks later-without consultation or warning-Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment banned the use of all hand-held video cameras in the dressing room, both at home and on the road. Although McGran assumed Belak’s language set off the organization, MLSE senior vice president John Lashway said the ban addressed privacy issues: the organization didn’t want nude clips of its players ending up on the internet.
Journalists at The Canadian Press and major Toronto dailies reacted immediately, outraged by what they perceived as a red herring. TV crews did interviews in the dressing room every day without exposing naked Maple Leafs on the net. Veteran columnist David Shoalts, breaking the news on The Globe and Mail‘s hockey blog, accused MLSE of attempting to limit the newspapers’ online presence. Chris Zelkovich, the Star’s sports media reporter, followed with an angry column describing the ongoing turf war between pro sports teams and the press. In it, Lashway admitted the ban was more about protecting MLSE’s commercial interests than protecting players’ privacy. “We should have a natural advantage in terms of developing our website,” he told Zelkovich. “It’s a competitive marketplace and we have to make our web content more attractive to people.”
But what initially seemed to be a pissing match between local journalists and the Leafs over a minor policy quickly morphed into a pivotal struggle in a much larger battle. Newspapers, watching as their revenues decline and their audiences dwindle, are looking to reinvent themselves on the internet, in what is, perhaps, a last-ditch effort to remain viable. At the same time, billion-dollar enterprises like MLSE are expanding their own media operations, racing to grab a share of the untapped and potentially lucrative online market. But in the last five years, The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse have faced heavy-handed restrictions levied by powerful sports bodies in France, Germany and Australia, resulting in a bitter tug of war over the control of information. In the fight for position on this new playing field, journalists fear cash-rich sports franchises might shut down access entirely, putting at peril the very practice of objective sports journalism.
In the wake of the ban on video cameras, CP editor-in-chief Scott White issued a call to arms. White, at 50, is a veteran news editor and a bona fide sports nut. His office is a makeshift shrine of sports memorabilia, with Blue Jays bobble heads perched over his desk, random ball caps scattered throughout the room and a bulletin board tacked full of mementoes-a framed playing card of Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, a black-and-white Sparky Anderson photo pulled from the CP archives and a Toronto Sun clip on his daughter Maddie, the first girl to pitch for the York Mills high school baseball team. White claims his reaction to MLSE’s ban was not fueled by his love of sports but his commitment to good journalism. “It was a very strict editorial thing for me,” he says two years later. “Every time there’s a new technology, a tighter restriction is imposed. But I think it’s fundamentally wrong for them to decide what way we tell our story.”
White closely follows access-related issues in other countries, and he feared the MLSE ban might be the first step toward more serious restrictions in Canada. A month before the Leafs’ move, at the World Cup of Rugby in France, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters, along with nearly 40 other media organizations, organized a two-day boycott over online photo limitations. That followed a similar uproar in 2006, when the Fédération Internationale de Football Association instituted photo embargoes on World Cup soccer matches. But the most troubling example involved Cricket Australia, which incensed international media when it attempted to control print, online and mobile content through its accreditation terms, prompting Agence France-Presse chairman Pierre Louette to charge that the organization is “making it impossible for news agencies to achieve the impartial and independent coverage that is our mission.” In comparison, North American sports media enjoy relative freedom-but White saw a slippery slope ahead. Says CP sports editor Neil Davidson, “Scott really led the way in recognizing this was a danger to media outlets. Whereas perhaps some people saw it as just a little step down the road, Scott realized it was going to limit what we could do.”
White believed that calling out MLSE in print simply wasn’t enough: to protect its traditional rights, the media needed to take real action. As the editor-in-chief of a news-gathering agency that doesn’t have its own print or online commercial operation, he occupied a unique position-the neutral party that could bring a group of erstwhile competitors together. He started working the phones, calling on Toronto newspaper editorial executives to create that united front. Fred Kuntz, then the Toronto Star‘s editor-in-chief, received one of those calls. “Scott reached out to everybody and it was a lot of work for him. It’s not anywhere in his job description, but I think he saw it as an opportunity to show the value of Canadian Press, that it can be the mortar between the bricks of Canadian media.”
By mid-October, after a series of e-mails and conference calls, White had assembled an impromptu coalition of eight local editors: Kuntz and sports editor Mike Simpson from the Star, Globe executive editor Neil A. Campbell, Globe online sports editor Steve McAllister, Toronto Sun editor-in-chief Lou Clancy, Sun sports editor Dave Fuller, and Davidson, CP’s sports editor. They met in CP’s newsroom to discuss tactics. One editor argued for an outright boycott on Leafs coverage. But White, more diplomat than rabble-rouser, advocated dialogue over direct confrontation, opting to send a friendly but firmly worded dispatch to MLSE president Richard Peddie and executive vice president Tom Anselmi. Everyone in the room agreed on the principle: in a democratic society, the free flow of information is critical. Says Kuntz: “Journalists and newspapers need to be able to report on whatever they want, whether it’s culture, politics, war or sports. In general, the whole social discourse needs to be free and open. It’s our intellectual content, news as we tell it, and if people set limits on what you can post on your website, it seems oppressive. It’s like erasing journalism, erasing history.” But the Leafs are a private enterprise, and, unlike Parliament or the courts, the media don’t have a legal right to access-the coalition understood that only an appeal to goodwill and shared economic interests might sway MLSE to lift its ban. Dated October 30, 2007, the group’s letter stressed that “restrictions would harm all of our interests-including the Leafs…. Our goal is to provide the best possible reporting on the Leafs, for the sake of our readers both in print and online. Your goal is likely to increase excitement and interest in the Leafs. If you are able to see how our separate goals are in sync, then you will understand the importance of leaving the widest possible latitude for all media to do the best job possible in their reporting.”
Then they waited for the Leafs’ brass to respond.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s broadcast headquarters are housed in a small, two-storey building tucked under the Gardiner Expressway at the dreary corner of Lake Shore Boulevard and Parliament Street, nine blocks from the Air Canada Centre. Despite the uninspiring location, there is a sense of excitement inside, indicative of high hopes for the organization’s digital enterprises. Here, MLSE’s senior vice president, broadcast, Chris Hebb, is in charge, overseeing the company’s main media operations-MapleLeafs.com, Raptors.com, Leafs TV, Raptors NBA TV. Tall, charming and sporting a pair of funky specs, Hebb joined the Leafs in 2006, after 11 years with the Vancouver Canucks in a similar role. And just a few months into the job, he was sent over the boards by Leafs executives to craft a response to the coalition’s missive, without, they hoped, provoking a major skirmish. Hebb maintains the Leafs were not trying to “muzzle the media.” Rather, he says, “We were saying, ‘Hold on a second. We don’t know where this stuff is going or how it’s being used, so we’re uncomfortable with it just flying out the door.’ It wasn’t whether or not we had a problem with the newspaper having video on its online site. It was the capture and control of it. With digital, it’s harder to keep track.”
The real impetus for the ban rested on that one key principle: control. Though preserving the players’ privacy was a concern, the driving issue was that the Leafs didn’t know what to make of newspapers moving into the digital realm. “When we instituted the video restriction, we knew it would have to change, that it was only temporary,” John Lashway, then MLSE’s head of communications conceded. “We didn’t know how to maximize the economics of the web yet and that’s why we moved to create limitations on what newspapers could run on their sites. A team’s assets are its players, its coaches and its access to them. We didn’t know exactly what to do with those things yet, but we also didn’t necessarily want to give that access up.” Lashway says MLSE brass discussed the issue extensively before imposing the ban-the media’s response simply accelerated the need for a quick resolution. However, addressing the problem demanded a certain amount of nuance: the Leafs needed to protect their property but they didn’t want to alienate the press in the process.
Playing in Canada’s largest media market has made the Leafs one of the most recognized and richest sports franchises in North America and management is loathe to upset what it sees as a symbiotic relationship. The press provides effective, free publicity for the team; the Leafs offer content that newspaper audiences desire. “It’s a good thing for the Toronto Maple Leafs to be covered by the media,” emphasizes Hebb. “We don’t try to corner the market, we don’t say this is our exclusive property. It’s not about us trying to shut down outlets in order to get eyeballs. That would ultimately hurt our product.” The Leafs insist that the ban on video, prompted by McGran’s foray into the dressing room, allowed a brief respite to assess the new playing field unfolding before them. But the coalition’s response forced them to address the issue head-on. With that in mind, Lashway invited White and company to a lunchtime tête-à-tête at the Air Canada Centre set for November 22, 2007.
When newspapers began to cover sports in earnest in the 1920s and ’30s, the sports pages were playfully referred to as the “toy department,” a moniker still occasionally bandied about newsrooms today. Though these sections often nurtured talented wordsmiths (The New Yorker ran an article in 1925 declaring “the quality of writing in the sporting pages is, in the large, much superior-wittier, more emotional, more dramatic and more accurate-to the quality of writing that flows through the news columns”), reporters served more as boosters than watchdogs, rarely writing anything critical or investigative. George Solomon, a sports editor atThe Washington Post for 28 years and now visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, says the relationship between reporters and athletes used to be much chummier than it is today. Writers and athletes earned similar incomes, travelled together and talked openly over post-game cocktails. “If you ask hockey players from that generation,” he says, “many of their friends were journalists.”
But sports coverage changed significantly in the 1960s. Instead of reporting strictly on a team’s performance and personalities, newspapers started pursuing stories about the organizations themselves. According to Joe Gisondi, an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University and a contributor to the Journal of Sports Mediablog, increased competition sparked the metamorphosis. Where print journalists previously enjoyed a monopoly on local coverage, radio and later television coverage forced them to be more aggressive. “But back in the day it wasn’t the way it is today,” says Gisondi. “Over the years, the coverage has grown dramatically and it’s also become much more critical.” That, in turn, prompted teams to become more media savvy, ultimately trying to control or even restrict coverage by holding the press at arm’s length through press conferences and public relations personnel.
But the emergence of the web presents more than a technological blip on the continuum. For the first time, newspapers and pro teams are on the same platform, competing to tell the same stories and attract the same audience. But the two camps, struggling to stake claims in a marketplace rich with potential, are wildly mismatched. In one corner: the cash-cow MLSE fighting for more dollars, more control. In the other: ever-shrinking Toronto sports sections, fighting for their very survival.
A recent Deloitte Technology, Media and Telecommunications study predicts that in 2009, one in 10 papers will either have to reduce print frequency, move to digital only or, worse yet, shut down entirely. To stay alive, newspapers are becoming content companies, replicating their print editions online with additional web-exclusive content-breaking news, blogs and multimedia. Whether that proves to be a viable business model, however, is deeply uncertain. “When it comes to the internet we’re grasping at straws, we don’t really know what we’re supposed to be doing,” admits the Star’s Chris Zelkovich. “I think we have to look at the new landscape and ask ourselves what our role is here. We want to access the YouTube generation, so we come up with this idea of putting video on our sites-but that’s not really what we do. We’re supposed to be the source of information; we’re supposed to be the source of analysis.”
Increasingly, the major problem for the sports pages is staying relevant. Fans don’t have to wait for a local newspaper to land on the doorstep for the latest scores. They can get breaking news from online sports juggernauts ESPN and SI.com, flip to TSN, Sportsnet or The Score for up-to-the-minute highlights, or even have the team deliver results to their e-mail inbox moments after they happen. Globe online sports editor Steve McAllister says the onslaught of information is great for sports fans; the onus is now on newspapers to develop value-added coverage to court an audience. But that’s hard to do when teams shut them out, and many journalists worry that franchises will start to question why they should accommodate pesky reporters at all if they can connect to their fan base without them. Star columnist Damien Cox, a veteran Leafs reporter and ardent critic of MLSE management, believes that question underlies the current battle. “You’re in an ever-changing media situation where the old rules don’t apply and I think pro sports teams are deciding if they need us anymore. They talk about controlling their information, their message, their product, but it goes beyond that. If they were honest, I think they would tell you they’re thinking about a day when they don’t have to have a press box.”
A brief tour of MSLE’s media headquarters quickly reveals that if the Leafs want to get information out, they don’t need newspapers to do it anymore. Their website, MapleLeafs.com, is the centrepiece of their digital information delivery system. Dressed in Leafs colours-metallic grey, dark blue and midnight black-it provides scores, statistics and game highlights and features a multimedia centre, Leafs TV on demand, video interviews and Steve Dangle’s irreverent video blog, delivered from the “studio” of his bedroom.
MLSE’s TV operations are also moving online-four TV producers recently joined five full-time web producers. Leafs TV, with a standard “screen” image occupying the top right corner, looks more like a web page. Standings and statistics flash on a sidebar to the left and the day’s weather forecast is tucked in the bottom right. The model is CP24, only all-Leafs info, all the time. Hebb plans to move in-house content onto every platform he can, connecting with fans on whatever digital device they choose: TV, online and even mobile. “We’re making some major leaps in the direction of the computer generation being able to access our content,” he says. “Instead of ignoring the next generation, we’re feeding them what they want.” MLSE is not leaving anything behind, either. To ramp up newspaper-style coverage, MLSE hired former Toronto Sun columnist Mike Ulmer to report for the website. He may not write scathing columns about Leafs management, but his copy is just as critical of the squad’s on-ice performance. One example: in early February, he wrote, “The Maple Leafs are not a very talented team. Don’t take my word, ask the coach, ask the general manager.”
MLSE execs argue these developments shouldn’t threaten the mainstream media and that their buffed-up site is not hauling in the big bucks-yet-but that’s certainly the intention. Says Lashway: “Do you want your audience getting information about your team from a newspaper or your website?” He quickly answers his own question. “You want them to come to your site because you want to increase revenue. Teams exist to make money-they’re a business.”
When White led his ad hoc coalition of eight Toronto editors into the Air Canada Centre in late November 2007, neither the journalists nor the Leafs knew exactly what to expect. Though each side entered somewhat suspicious of the other, by the end of the 90-minute discussion a tentative consensus had emerged. The press required unfettered access; the Leafs wanted their website to grow. But both parties agreed on one critical point: coverage, in any form, is good for business. “You want to maximize your own business, but you don’t want to hurt anybody else’s,” says Lashway, who left MLSE to start his own communications firm last November. “We do business every day and everybody wants to have a good relationship. These were really bright people that were in the room with us. Frankly, we came out of it and changed our view significantly.”
Despite the talk and good will, the meeting produced little more than an uneasy peace. The Leafs didn’t rescind the ban, but they agreed not to enforce it. MLSE claims it drafted a new policy, but the Toronto press corps hasn’t seen it. White calls the situation a “temporary truce,” and last fall Kuntz said the group was in a period of détente where “nobody really wants to start the war.” Yet an even bigger battle looms. After the Leafs instituted their restrictions on video, the National Hockey League developed league-wide restrictions on online content. Designed as “guidelines” and written into each team’s accreditation agreement, the policy stipulates “reasonable amounts of audio or video content … may be posted to the internet.” But that means only 120 seconds of content per day and a 72-hour archive limit. As well, any online audio or video must provide links to nhl.com and the featured team’s website. Undeterred, the Star continued to post video in direct violation of the league’s restrictions, but neither MLSE nor the NHL has complained. “We’re just doing whatever we want on our websites,” said Kuntz, who spoke on the issue before his tenure with the Starended. “We’re not wiping our archives. We’re not doing anything on the basis of their rules. We’re going to games, to the locker room. We’re following our own practices for what works for our websites. The Leafs aren’t saying anything about it.” But White can’t escape one nagging question: If the teams have rules they aren’t going to enforce, then why do they need them?
Toronto sports journalists believe there’s a clear and critical difference between the information newspapers deliver and what in-house organs disseminate, and, if readers understand that, they will appreciate the role of traditional media. According to Sun sports columnist Lance Hornby, that role is to hold multibillion-dollar franchises like the Leafs accountable. “We ask the questions the fans can’t,” he says. “The Leafs, in many ways, are a public trust. They’re not one man’s or one corporation’s to own. Generations of fans have invested a lot in the team. I think it’s our duty to keep all that in perspective.” But journalists like Star sports editor Mike Simpson and Star reporter Damien Cox are concerned that the way sports teams are mimicking news media is warping the public’s perception of what the press is supposed to provide. Says Simpson: “We worry that the lines get blurry, especially with younger readers who have only ever got their news from the internet.” And Cox is even more blunt: “They don’t do what I do,” he says. “They’re there to fellate, not to be journalists.”
The media can scream “We’re relevant!” and wave the banner of journalism all they want, but sooner or later it begins to sound like a hockey player saying he’s going to give 110 percent-the sports pages can’t just proclaim their value, they need to prove it. In the January/February 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Gary Andrew Poole argued that if sports sections are going to remain relevant, they need to revisit their past. Poole, who freelances for Time, GQ, Wired, The New York Times and The Globe and Mail, believes that sports journalists spend too much time fixated on the almighty scoop instead of doing what they actually do best-tell stories. “I think we’ve come to this point where we’re trying to get information out there so rapidly, but without much interpretation,” he says. “We need to start writing again instead of just regurgitating stats. That kind of stuff defeats the whole purpose of good journalism. It takes away newspapers’ competitive advantage.” He says good sports reporting provides context, nuance, narrative and insight-the stuff of legendary sports writers like Red Smith, W.C. Heinz and Grandtland Rice (who, according to that 1925 New Yorker piece, “can give a methodical and rather stupid baseball game all the glamour and vivid flame of a gladiatorial combat”). By focusing on constantly breaking news at the expense of deep analysis and investigation, journalists today are missing their raison d’être. Evidence? A sports article hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize in nearly 20 years. “In marketing parlance, sports sections have degraded their brand,” Poole writes in his essay. “The sports pages used to hold the honour as one of the best-written and best-reported sections in the newspaper. It’s important for sports, for newspapers and for our society that they recapture that mantle.”
Meanwhile, in Toronto, local media and the Leafs continue to coexist online, neither side willing to upset the delicate détente in these uncertain times. But the man who led the coalition against the Leafs, Scott White, harbours no illusions that things will go back to the good ol’ days. At the 61st World Newspaper Congress in June 2008, the World Association of Newspapers issued a resolution expressing its concern over sports organizations attempting to control editorial coverage. Closer to home, the National Football League adopted stringent video and audio restrictions, limiting any content that might undermine its digital operations. White knows the battle for online supremacy is still simmering. Though he believes the two sides can move forward together, each staking out its turf in the digital market, he also knows where he stands if they don’t. “The thing I keep saying is, ‘Give a little, give a lot.’ You have to fight. If you give in once, you establish a new line that people keep pushing and pushing. It’s a dangerous game, but serious news organizations are always going to stand up to it. You don’t always win, but you always have to fight the fight.”