Friday, August 14, 2009

The SEC's new media (and new-media) rules

I had not heard or read much about the SEC's new media rules (Update: see revised rules and comment at the end of this) until I saw a little squib on the newspaper video group pointing to this short story from Birmingham via AP via Biloxi (ain't the Web great?).

Ah, leave it to college and professional sports (there's a difference?) to put the hammer down and nicely spotlight some really persnickety issues and realities that are staring a lot of TV and newspaper sports departments in the face.

According to the AP, "It only allows TV stations to show highlights for 72 hours after a game ends. The policy also prohibits the media from posting video from practices and news conferences online." And reporters have to sign the contract - or no look-see.

So let's see, at a time when newsrooms seemingly everywhere are rushing to create destination sites for various teams' fans, and when video is a major part of those efforts - the SEC just said, in essence, "screw you."

The SEC is open in what it wants -- to drive traffic to SEC and affiliate sites. And it has every right to be as draconian as it can get away with.*

Spare the anguished freedom of the press cries. So far, at least, the law seems to generally side with the idea that when teams or other groups form private associations, they get wide latitude to control the goods, even if the games, concerts, etc., are on public property or use other public facilities -- and even when government is spending questionable amounts of money providing traffic control and security.

So if we are to believe the memes that the Web is becoming more and more telegenic, and the SEC intends to strangle the video baby for all but its own and affiliated sites, what does that tell us?
  • Well, first, of course, it opens the debate on priorities. Is pro (and that includes most major college) sports really worth covering in a time of shrinking resources? Or should we put the resources into those sports (or other) areas that,for many reporters are not especially glamorous but are truly woven into the community's fabric (high school, rec leagues, club leagues, non-traditional sports). Yes, yes. I know lots of places do lots of good things with high schools, for instance (though take a look around -- that generally applies only to the "major" sports), but this is still a baseline question that needs discussion. Oh, you'll never answer it to everyone's satisfaction, but it gives an excuse to quaff a few beers to get lubricated for some of the tougher stuff ahead.
  • Should we launch an all-out assault on the legality of private or quasi-private associations being able to use public facilities but restrict access? OK, if they can, should we seek to require that they effectively "rent" the facility and pay the cost of all government-funded support services?
  • So if you can't use video, can you use stills and audio? (You'll probably be busted on that, too, if the sponsoring organization decides you're sucking traffic from its site.)
  • Which leaves us with what? The intrepid scribe (a general term for all reporters, please)? But where does that leave the scribes. All due respect, but much of sports reporting, like the staged events it leads up to, is staged itself. The obligatory and lightly revealing after-game or midweek news conferences, the after-practice sessions, the precleared meetings with players.
  • Look, I did it from time to time for AP. No, I don't claim to be a veteran sports reporter, but I did it enough and supervised others who had to do it that I know the trenches. Yes, there is good stuff being done out there, but even more so on sports (and lord knows, it can get bad on the "government" side too) we tend to suck the teat of the hand that feeds us (no letters, please; I meant to write it that way).
So the intrepid sports editor facing that nest of fanlings he or she desperately wants to attract away from the more established fan sites (ones that tend to have gotten the idea of online social communities early) is left with what? Reporting? OMG.

Because now, no matter how good your reporter is, in fact the better she is, the more she's likely to piss off someone in the home office. Go find a DVD of "The Paper," for instance, and watch how Penn State's sports department ostracizes a reporter who takes it on her own initiative to actually go get a story instead of waiting to have it handed to her or have it "cleared." ("We don't do things that way" (not an exact quote, but close) is the pompous pronouncement she says she got from the SID's sports information director's office.)

So, at a time when staffs have been cut sharply -- even in sports -- and now that you don't have the eye candy, do you leave your staffing as is and hope he, she or they come up with the occasional nugget and can outwrite the hell out of the competition? (The Don Quixote approach.)

Do you assign another staffer as the sacrificial lamb, throwing caution (and deference to the SID) to the wind and use that person to go track the stories and those players and coaches down outside their protective cocoons? The reporter doing this is likely to have limited shelf life before he or she is effectively cut off, so you'll probably have to rotate people through -- and of course, there's always the chance the offended parties could cut your whole organization off.

In short, in an era when there is all this talk about pay for content, we have here a budding petri dish in which to examine this idea of value. How do you react and what really is your value proposition when your main source politely tells you to get lost and take your tinsel with you? Oh, and when what's left is being done in decent measure by many of your competitors?

Sports, and the legal ability to take control of the event-related news, just highlights these challenges in an online world. Don't get too smug, Mr. or Ms. City Hall or Statehouse reporter. Yeah, the pols can't throw you out or keep you from recording. But they can ignore you, and they increasingly are with blogs, Facebook, digital governance initiatives, etc. But we're the only ones who can go beyond that surface feed of the City Council meeting and make it make sense, put it in some context, you say? OK, do it, but just like on the sports beat, too often we remain tightly tied to the hands that feed us. (Go tally up sometime the amount coming from press releases, government reports, police blotters, etc.)

"But no one loves us anymore, and they should, because we do this vital public service," goes the cry. Reality check -- most of them, and that includes the public, never loved us. They tolerated us because we were the only or one of the few games in town. But now, in the digital age, when everyone is a publisher and getting that eye candy and finding that other "unique" content is more important than ever, your suppliers are cutting you off. How will you respond?

Leave it to sports - and the SEC, it's greed on full display - to nicely frame things.

*The AP reports that SEC spokesman Charles Bloom "said changes could be made to the 72-hour window, the ban of online video and the definition of an event that currently includes practices and news conferences. He said the league had received complaints from 35-40 news outlets."

UPDATE: The Greenville News' take on all this. Legislators are dismayed. Discussion at the GamecockCentral site.

Further: Came across this wonderful speech by the editor-in-chief at Reuters basically telling the Olympic folks in June that it's a new-media world for them and their rights deals, too. The SEC might want to pass this around HQ.

The Tampa Trib also weighs in with thoughts that fans with their multimedia cell phones might be the biggest threat. Prediction on my part: Before long we will see "leave your cell phone at the door" policies attempted. That should be fun.

The Tuscaloosa News had one of the first stories and has a PDF (6 Mb) of the draft policy.

Here is the SEC's revised policy (PDF). One of its main points appears to be allowing media outlets to have a video player fed from the SEC.
Some other points:
  • The new policy defines an "event" only as a game, instead of including practices and news conferences, as the original did.
  • No longer restricts access to full-time employees (recognizing that many operations use stringers, freelancers, etc.)
  • Media must use the broadcast feed for video, if one is provided. Clips from that feed, limited to three minutes can be used up to seven days, instead of the previous 72 hours. There is no time restriction on video the media outlet shoots itself. The video also can be used for one online simulcast.
  • However, here's the kicker: None of the simulcasts may be archived. And the video can be used only for "television" newscasts. Everyone else - papers, fan sites, etc., has to make a separate agreement with the SEC for Internet use, using that player mentioned above. That goes for any digital device. The feed is free, but let's just say I'm uneasy when any one entity controls everything. What about that disputed call for which the broadcast feed might have been out of position, but the TV station's (or these days, newspaper's) videographer had the perfect view? I suppose the outlet could sell the video to the SEC, but it still loses control.
  • Here's the odd wording of the day: "Still photographs of the Event (including Bearer Generated Photographs) may be posted on the internet only in connection with and as part of regular print news coverage, including internet print news coverage." Ineternet print news coverage? What the heck is that?
  • There's also wording that makes clear local news shops can distribute photos to "accredited media agencies" - a big plus for the AP and other services.
The revised policy does not include the ticket wording that may cause heartburn for many cell phone-equipped fans. I assume that's proceeding as it was in the original. On the Buzz Manager blog, Associate Commissioner for Media Relations Charles Bloom says that when it comes to social media, video is the primary thing the conference will crack down on -- that it doesn't intend to hinder Twitter, Facebook entries or photos. (Thanks Bryan Murley for the outpoint.)

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At 8/18/09, 1:03 AM, Blogger Stan Spire said...

Acronyms make me acrimonious.

API. What’s that? I’m reading an online article that doesn’t spell out the term. Time to Google. Is it Associated Press International? Nope, not in the context of the article. Academic Performance Index? American Petroleum Institute? Academic Programs International? No, they don’t fit. Auntie Pollyanna’s Indigestion? Wait, here we go: Application Programming Interface. Now I can read up about it.

Another online article. SEO. Has something to do with search engines but what does the O mean? Google reveals it means Search Engine Optimization (or Optimizer).

At least SEC wasn’t too bad Googling. I knew you weren’t talking about the Securities and Exchange Commission. (If I was on the ball, I should’ve clicked on the link to the news article and found out it stood for Southeastern Conference, but I read over the link the first time). I’m not familiar with that abbreviation because I’m not into professional sports tribalism.

OK, a minor point. But shouldn’t acronyms be spelled out, especially if there a few ways they can be formed? The full name or title doesn’t take up that much room, does it? For example, would it hurt to say Southeastern Conference and then refer to it as SEC thereafter?

I’m getting severe strain in my index finger with this plethora of unneeded clicking. And that makes me grumpier.

What does the AP Stylebook say about this? And for that matter, the API Stylebook? (Which API do I mean? You can figure it out…)

Stan Spire, HLMWR

PS: And who’s this SID guy? He deserves deference because he spells in first name all in caps?

At 8/18/09, 1:55 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Sorry to make you search there, Stan.

But I'm not writing pure AP style here. I will get conversational with abbreviations because much of my audience, I think, knows what they mean or, as you did, can look them up if they so choose.

If I am writing a sports piece directed to sports journalists and professionals, then SEC is pretty much a no-brainer, especially in the current context. SID? OK, give you that one, though most folks I'm aiming for with this are going to have a pretty good idea.

SEO was fine in the context it was used. I don't claim to be a general-interest news outlet. When I write and edit for those, I do things differently, just as I do when I write academic papers.

I might have missed it, but I don't see an "API" in this post. As for AP, well, you'll just have to live with that. I write enough about the venerable wire service -- and so do others these days -- that AP isn't a mystery, especially in context.


At 8/18/09, 4:52 PM, Blogger Stan Spire said...

Apparently I wasn't concise enough in my intro. What I should have added was: "Previous to your SEC post, I had encountered other articles that didn't spell out acronyms." Later, after the API and SEO examples, I should have said: "Recovering from those troublesome posts, I can across yours about the SEC controversy."

I don't mind adding a few extra words to be clearer. Also, I try to choose the right ones. For example, the other day the local paper had an article about some sports figure with the surname of Gay. The headline read:

Gay Feeling Healthy

I don't follow AP style myself but I do spell out acronyms that might confuse readers. If I mentioned PIA, I spell it out for readers not from this region (Plattsburgh International Airport). Online you can have readers from anywhere.

I read your piece not for the sports angle but because it dealt with two other issues I follow, journalism and copyright issues.

You did a good job discussing those issues, despite my quirk with SEC not being spelled out.


At 8/19/09, 12:04 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Yeah, but if I'm reading an airline-oriented blog, PIA may well show up and be understood from context.

What can I say, Stan? Thanks for reading and for the kind comment, but if this stuff bothers you that much, then all I can say is the famous movie line: "Move along, nothing to see here."


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