A few weeks ago, the LA Kings (that’s professional hockey for those of you wondering) did something that caught our attention: they hired their own beat reporter/columnist, veteran sports journalist Rich Hammond.
Hammond, who has written about the Kings in a full or part-time capacity for more than eight years, accepted the position. In addition to providing news coverage for both home and away games (the gig will allow Hammond to travel with the team), Hammond moved his popular Los Angeles Daily News blog, “Inside the Kings,” to the team’s website, LAKings.com.
Although the majority of the more than 200 comments on Hammond’s final “Inside the Kings” post (in which he announced the move) were positive, he tried to head off skeptics, writing, “I will draw a salary from the Kings, but none of the stories and/or blogs I write will be reviewed for approval by any member of the Kings’ staff. Topics will not need approval and interviews will not have any additional supervision.”
In fact, some of Hammond’s colleagues seemed excited by the prospect of a new avenue for sports journalism, particularly for coverage of less popular sports, like hockey, which don’t garner as much national attention. And as newspapers continue to bleed staff, sports journalists facing the same uncertain future as any other reporter, seem open to new and unexpected arrangments.
Writing at his own blog, former San Bernadino Sun sports columnist Paul Oberjuege (who blogged about being laid off in March 2008 when his position was “eliminated“) called Hammond’s hire a “milestone” that could be “the start of a trend.” Oberjuege goes into a detailed account of the many sports teams that have been left without regular coverage due to cutbacks and the changing media landscape, and notes that “newspaper coverage always has been a critical source of exposure for professional sports teams.
“Even if the coverage was negative (and for the struggling Kings, it generally has been), it kept the club in the news and provided basic grist for the blogosphere. (Bloggers don’t go to road games; few of them can get credentialed for home games.) Professional reporters were the guys who went inside the locker room to see what the players had to say, and when no reporters went with a team … information on that team just dried up.”
But Oberjuege is a journalist and raises the questions that Hammond knew would be asked. “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?”
Oberjuege also wonders if Hammond will be able to keep from developing personal relationships with his new fellow-employees — relationships that might cloud his ability to write objectively.
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Writing at Socialmediatoday.com, Amy Mengel is similarly apprehensive, asking, “If Hammond’s stories are too complimentary or give the Kings a pass too frequently, will readers write him off as ‘working for the man’ and simply regurgitating the party line? Is he really going to feel comfortable taking a hard tack against the organization that provides his paycheck each week? What happens if Hammond uncovers evidence of cheating, doping or other foul play within the organization? Will readers trust that he’s reporting the full story and not covering up details at the behest of the organization that pays him?”
This weekend, On the Media host Bob Garfield spoke with Hammond and addressed these concerns head on.
Recognizing that Hammond could easily be confused as a public relations employee, Garfield asked, “Are you still a journalist? What beast are you now?” Hammond described his role as he did in his final Daily News blog post. “They have hired me with the authority to be a journalist, to do the exact same job that I’ve always done.” He added that because he’s been covering the team for so long, the organization was able to assess his work and decide whether they’d be willing to pay for it without asserting editorial control. “I’ve been doing this now for one week, haven’t heard a peep out of anybody and don’t anticipate doing so.”
Garfield presses Hammond on the issue, asking how the setup is different from a pharmaceuticals compnay hiring a reporter to write the company blog. “I report on things on games that are seen by thousands of millions of people,” Hammond said. “If I’m trying to hide anything or downplay stories, it’s all going to be out there in the public and this isn’t going to work. For there to be some type of change in tone or change in coverage, somebody has to be motivated for it not to work. And i don’t think either side is. We started with the understanding that it was going to be independent. If there wasn’t that understanding to begin with, there wouldn’t have been any need for further conversation.”
Garfield’s response was apt. “Understanding, under-schmanding. Do you have a contractual agreement?” Hammond responded with a simple, “Yes.”
In the end, Hammond lives up to his reputation as a respected reporter. “If people weren’t skeptical, I’d be disappointed in them. We should be looking at this critically. But all I’ve said to anybody, whether its colleagues or readers, just give it a read. The proof is going to be in the product. if you read it for a while and you think it works, then I hope you’ll continue reading.”
Listen to the entire On the Media interview here.