We are in a new era for journalism. Sure, this blog may seem like a new media force, setting the tone of NBA discussion with posts on Lil Wayne's charitable efforts and photos of players making weird faces, but in truth we are as uncertain about the future of our profession as anyone. Will blogs become the dominant form in sportswriting? Will teams employ most reporters and commentators themselves? Or will some other system pop up to reign supreme?
New Jersey Nets All-Star point guard Deron Williams is experimenting with a new form, one where analysis and news gets filtered through a very specific prism. With the help of the marketing firm Athlete Interactive, Williams has his very own beat reporters on his personal website, DeronWilliams.com. From Scott Cacciola for The Wall Street Journal:
Taking all that into account, DeronWilliams.com is cutting edge. Operated by a company called Athlete Interactive, the site has Williams-centric game stories, Williams-centric features and Williams-centric photo galleries. The site's editors shoehorn "Williams" or "D-Will" into roughly 90% of their headlines, which, to be fair, is sort of the point. The headline of one particularly exhaustive 1,850-word game story last week: "D-Will Stars as Nets Topple Knicks." "They do a great job of making sure it's personalized," Williams said.
This isn't muckrake journalism—Williams and his representatives at Excel Sports Management get to vet everything that goes live on the site—but they feel it serves a purpose. Launched not long after the Jazz traded Williams to the Nets in 2011, it was originally conceived as a way to enhance his appeal to sponsors in a new market. Jaymee Messler, the senior vice president for marketing at Excel, described it as "creating a larger brand portfolio" for him. [...]
Williams is now the rare NBA player who has his very own reporter at many of the team's home games. The Nets, for the second straight season, have credentialed Devon Jeffreys, the content coordinator for Athlete Interactive, as a member of the working press. At Barclays Center, his lanyard reads: DeronWilliams.com. The Nets want to keep their point guard happy. "He's always been willing to give me access," Jeffreys said. [...]
Once the lockout ended, and the Nets began to slog their way through their final season in Newark, the activity on DeronWilliams.com cooled by design. "We sort of stopped for a while," said David Neiman, the president of Athlete Interactive, "just because of the issues that they were having with regards to winning."
By comparison, there is a smorgasbord of content available on DeronWilliams.com this season. Winning is good for business, and the Nets are 11-5 ahead of Tuesday's game against the visiting Thunder. Want Williams's take on last week's near-brawl in Boston? Curious about his recent appearance on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon"? Looking for instructions on how to vote for Williams as an NBA All-Star? The site has you covered.
There are several issues at play in this story, some of which are troubling and some of which are natural extensions of this particular media climate. The first, and likely least controversial, involves Jeffreys' choice to forgo more traditional journalism and take a job as part of Williams' marketing team. In the past few years, it's become fairly standard for newspaper beat writers to seek out new opportunities for employment as past options fade away. In truth, working for a player's website isn't that much different than acting as a beat writer for a team's official website, at least in theory. If it's available work, writers are going to take it. Before I started writing for BDL, I was actually on the verge of taking a similar job for another star player's website, although the form would have been more team-oriented than player-specific.
The more interesting issue here is how that writer-employer relationship defines the reporting and commentary. In the case of DeronWilliams.com, it seems odd that content would just stop whenever the Nets play poorly. While a player's personal website serves a different purpose than a newspaper, a publication can still only be a viable outlet when its readers can depend on it for useful commentary.
A biased website doesn't necessarily have to ignore particular stories. DeronWilliams.com is obviously going to support Deron Williams, but there's a way to do that while remaining a useful spot for news and information even when the Nets are playing badly. Readers aren't dumb, and they don't want to feel like a publication's reason for being causes it to ignore the realities of the stories it covers. Bias is one thing — willful obfuscation is another.
Quasi-journalistic endeavors like DeronWilliams.com are going to be more common, but the key to making them more useful will be in melding the two approaches that constitute them. There's a way to market a player while meeting the negative head on.
UPDATE: I exchanged a few emails with David Neiman of Athlete Interactive, who clarified their approach to Williams's website:
As you rightly pointed out, having a web site that presents only some shiny, propaganda-driven version of events wouldn't be of much interest to anyone. We make sure to cover wins and losses, the positive and negative, on Deron's web site (and on the sites of other clients we work with); DeronWilliams.com actually has pretty thorough news coverage of last season.
In the Wall Street Journal article, I was speaking specifically about Deron's blog, which we had been maintaining with him fairly actively during his time in Turkey, but which we stopped working on during much of last year while the Nets were struggling. While on the one hand, it would be interesting to hear an athlete's thoughts when times are tough, it's also understandable that an athlete might find the idea of blogging self-indulgent, distracting and/or inappropriate when their team isn't winning.
It's good to know that Athlete Interactive has this approach in mind for DeronWilliams.com, because it's the key to differentiating a useful website from a piece of propaganda.
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