September 28, 2009
In today's media culture, conflict of interest is perhaps the easiest accusation for a disgruntled or distrusting viewer/reader/consumer to make. They say television news is filtered by its corporate overlords, or that newspapers bend to the whims of their advertisers. Guilt by association plagues any writer attempting to claim an unbiased view on any given subject.
Rich Hammond is having to answer charges of editorial censorship, partiality and conflict of interest before ever having written a word for his new employer, the Los Angeles Kings.
That's because Hammond is going to be a beat writer for the team while also being on the Kings' payroll -- a team he used to cover better than anyone on the beat while working with the Los Angeles Daily News. Now, having crossed over to "the other side," the cynical assumption is that the integrity of the work will suffer.
"There's no filter on it. It's not going through anybody to be edited. It's not subject to any review. I'm not filing to any person; I'm filing to the Internet," said Hammond, who broke the news to the sizable audience on his much-lauded blog Inside the Kings last week.
"There are only so many ways you can tell people. They're either going to believe it, or they're not. The proof is going to be in the work. If you have doubts, just read it. It's not going to cost you anything. It's not going to hurt."
If it works, it'll be the latest example of a professional sports team hiring its own beat writer from the ranks of those who covered the franchise. But from a hockey perspective, it could change the way fans follow their teams in markets with shrinking -- or historically puck-disinterested -- traditional media.
We spoke with Hammond to figure out if this is a good thing.
Hammond had been with the Daily News for the last 10 years, covering the Kings fulltime since 2006. Inside the Kings was born from that coverage and his time as a Deputy Sports Editor, and has grown into one of the most respected mainstream media team-specific blogs in the NHL.
His said his job with the Kings will turn his blog into a micro-site of independent coverage off of LAKings.com. "They basically wanted to hire a beat writer, like a newspaper/Web site would at this point," he said. "Covering every game, including road trips. Writing game stories, notebooks, blogging. Beyond that, it's a new frontier. Podcasting, video stuff, Twitter."
For the Kings, having their own reporter on the road not only guarantees coverage of those games that had been increasingly sparse in the media but, more importantly, it promises coverage that focuses on LA, providing an alternative to AP stories on (for example) Kings/Islanders games back east that focus on John Tavares(notes) and pay perfunctory attention to the Kings.
Hammond said that talks with the Kings had been ongoing after the team predicted the creation of this job earlier in the year, but intensified over the summer. He said it was the team that suggested the job would be that of an independent, unfiltered observer.
It's something the New York Islanders tried with former VP of media relations Chris Botta last season on NYI Point Blank, with frequently great results. Team sponsorship wasn't renewed this year for Point Blank, but Botta wrote that the Kings asked for his input and he told them "the NHL needs this."
Unless you were a reader of Inside The Kings, it's easy to assume that something will be lost in translation. Hammond didn't use his blog as a soapbox to rail against players or management; he wasn't a columnist and editorializing was never his style. The blog rose to prominence partly because Hammond would publish lengthy, unfiltered Q&A's with Kings players, general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Terry Murray. If you think that made him a mouthpiece for the team anyway, that's your call.
"In every case, I'd like to be more of a window for the fans. You don't need me to form an opinion for you. Does that mean I'll never give my own opinion? Of course not. I'm not afraid to give my own opinion on something. I'm just not the guy outside banging a drum saying 'You must believe what I believe,'" he said.
The biggest change in coverage for Hammond is being back on the road with the Kings, as the Daily News joined several dozen U.S. papers in cutting back the travel for its hockey beat writer. Hammond said the relationships forged by joining a team on the road, as well as the on-site reporting on road games, is invaluable for proving solid coverage.
Still, there are doubts about how effective and independent Hammond can be with the Kings. An anonymous commenter on SportsJournalists.com, an influential sports media board, called the gig "a PR job without being an actual PR job, and a reporting job without being an actual reporting job." Sports journalism veteran and blogger Paul Oberjuerge was skeptical:
If/when the club starts stinking it up, will the coaches and front office live up to this hands-off agreement when Hammond files critical stories on them? Will he never hear a peep when he speculates -- on the club's own Web site -- that a coach is about to be fired or a player about to be traded. Or suggests the GM neeeds to go? That is going to be very, very hard for a pro club to do, especially when they keep coming back to this: "That guy works for us."
Also, Hammond may soon find himself becoming such a key part of the organization - and so fond of continued employment - that he begins to slide into treating his sources as co-workers. Will he find himself practicing self-censorship? Will he even realize it when he does?
Hammond claims the aims and integrity of his coverage won't be altered by the new name on the paycheck.
"I guess that's why I'm having a hard time grasping this," Hammond said of those questioning his independence, "because nothing's really changed for me."
Oberjuerge wondered if this was a start of a larger trend in sports, and it's actually the next evolution of one. Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals have dipped into the sportswriter ranks for team editorial staffers, and MLB.com has a small army of former writers from other publications with the league they cover underneath their bylines.
What makes Hammond different -- thanks to cutbacks and apathy in other local media -- is that the Kings have essentially hired one of the team's best beat writers while at the same time acquiring its most popular blog.
There's a built-in audience for Hammond that trusts him as a news source and supports him as a commenting community. In almost every NHL city in the U.S., there's a writer/blogger like him: Michael Russo of the Star Tribune (Minn.), Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News and Damian Cristodero of the St. Pete Times immediately spring to mind.
In a business with travel cutbacks and newspaper furloughs and general concern for the future of print media, could Hammond be the first of many beat writers who join "the other team" under the guise of independent coverage?
"It has to be the right fit. It has to be a team or a site that isn't going to hedge its bets," said Hammond.
In the end, I agree with Oberjuerge that a creeping self-censorship is a legitimate concern for a journalist covering his own employer -- even newspaper ombudsman aren't above that. And while I don't view this as a public relations job, there's no question that it's part of the Kings' "fan outreach" efforts in building a community and disseminating information to an underserved fan base.
In some ways, it's like Ted Leonsis broadening the blogosphere when the Capitals weren't being covered by Washington, DC media: Help create your own press corps when there isn't one interested in your product. (Even if they weren't on the payroll like Hammond.) Whether those blogs have remained fiercely independent with increased access has always been a matter of some debate.
This isn't to say that Hammond will be compromised as a journalist. His experience and professionalism are unquestioned. His coverage of the team was always more investigative and comprehensive than confrontational. His readers will ultimately decide whether that coverage improves with carte blanche access to the team -- or diminishes because he's too close to it.
Hammond said he's eager to prove any doubters wrong. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't think it was going to work."