Is Hartford Courant catering to UConn coach by paying blogger daughter?

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23-year-old Alysa Auriemma, on left, is the New York-based daughter of Coach Geno Auriemma, who took the Lady Huskies to victory in last year’s NCAA National Championship Tournament. She has been hired by The Hartford Courant to write about her father and his team as a "celebrity blogger." [Image from Facebook].

Coming off the heels of a plagiarism admission, The Hartford Courant finds itself facing more harsh criticism over its decision to enlist the daughter of Geno Auriemma, the coach of the University of Connecticut’s defending championship basketball team, as a celebrity blogger.

Just this week the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Ethics Committee’s decided that the journalistic bastion Hartford Courant newspaper plagiarized many stories. The paper confessed to publishing material without crediting the original sources and vowed to not let it happen again.

Now it appears another questionable move may shoot the paper in the other foot. Twenty-three-year-old Alysa Auriemma is the New York-based daughter of Coach Geno Auriemma, who took the Lady Huskies to victory in last year’s NCAA National Championship Tournament.

According to The Associated Press, Auriemma is not a journalist but an alumn of the University of Connecticut who graduated with a degree in dramatic arts in 2007. The Courant will pay her to post blog entries about her father.

Courant Sports Editor Jeff Otterbein posted a note on the newspaper’s website that responded to the naturally occurring fallout from such a move. He denied that there was any nepotism or alternative quid pro quo motives at play.

“The intent was never to curry favor with Geno Auriemma. We have had our battles over the years and fully expect to have more when we write something he disagrees with,” wrote Otterbein.

He further added that Auriemma’s duties were devised to slap together fun monthly fodder from an insider, not to kick up dirt.

“I knew full well she would not write anything controversial about her father. That is for us to do. I knew full well she would provide no breaking news. That is our job.”

“Our job” meaning “the real reporters”? How many are left over there? The Courant, whose parent Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection last year, has initiated a number of layoffs of longtime staff members, including some of the best, and most respected, journalists in the state.

Otterbein prefaced earlier, “The Courant never expected that Auriemma could or would cover the team as a reporter.”

It’s fine and dandy to tap the folks who have instant access–as sources. Could it be that the intent here was to get “back of the bus” features on the coach and his players gunning for a seventh title from the eyes and ears of someone who knows him dressed down in a T-shirt, nursing a beer?

From Alysa’s camp, she posted on her Twitter page that she is not a reporter covering the Lady Huskies.

“For the last time, people…I was never going to COVER the team. I’m BLOGGING about the team. Fun vignettes from the bus! MY GOD.”

Ms. Auriemma further ranted on her Life Beyond The Postseason blog that calling into question her ethics is completely off-base. “One thing I have never been accused of is being unethical.”

She describes her duties in a Q&A published by the paper. Her blogging is a “fun hobby”. But she soon wanted to get paid for the writing about her father’s team on her blog, and The Courant agreed to her terms. It was agreed her random ‘celebrity’ blogging was to be paid for and linked to the paper.

“I thought nothing of this,” she wrote. “After all, I wouldn’t be going into the press room to interview the team, or writing traditional beats.  My blogs would be the same format they always are.”

To wit, her online blog, which touches on a fair amount of subjects outside hoops. According to Ms. Auriemma, she’d be getting paid only for Lady Huskie-themed posts by the newspaper. However, AP reports the dutiful daughter said: ” ‘ There’s a lot of false press about my father,’ she said. ‘ This is a good format to kind of clear up some things and kind of get the truth out there.’ “

But until there is some explanation as to why the paper is paying a descendant to the top Husky dog without some disclaimer–or at least a better explanation than that she’s going to just write positive stories and nothing controversial about dad–the public is going to think they’re getting nothing but empty-calorie journalism. (The only thing worse StinkyJournalism can think of is the newspaper paying the coach’s PR flack to blog about him. More breaking news, I mean more fun….).

The primary issue at-hand is what does it means to be a “Celebrity Blogger” paid for publishing work in the newspaper, be it online or hard copy? Clearly, the Courant relies on its “reporters” to blog as is evidenced on its Blog page. So does the Celebrity Blogger get a pass and only have to write favorable pieces? Do any or all the ethical values the Courant requires of reporters still apply?

To Sports Editor Jeff Otterbein’s credit, he acknowledges that adding Ms. Auriemma into the line-up of contributors has stirred enough raised eyebrows to warrant revisiting the decision.

“The question remains if paying the daughter of the coach to contribute to the website is a sound decision. I thought we were giving the UConn fans a slice of something they could not get elsewhere – a unique view, an entertaining view. We will re-evaluate the relationship going forward and are interested in our readers’ opinions.”

The response in the Courant’s Comment Section found when scrolling below Otterbein’s note reveal a mixed bag.

A man named Russ Steinberg supports the paper’s controversial endorsement. “I think as long as Auriemma is contributing as a “celebrity blogger”, there is nothing wrong with that. There is a huge difference between writing a monthly blog and being a beat writer…”

Mo Moriarty, who claims to have been a former contributor to the sports section said he thinks the coach’s daughter’s monthly offerings shows a disparity but doesn’t think the ethics are being compromised. “As a one-time contributor when Geno didn’t want to write the article himself? I don’t like it, it still comes off as pandering, but it probably wasn’t a huge ethical problem.”

A post submitted by Rich calls into question the daughter’s access and suspects something fishy is going on a wider scale.

“I take it she would be paid for having some kind of special access to the coach and team which would make her stories unusual–but is that really true? Does she go to most of the games and get to hang around in the locker room or the coaches’ office? Does she talk to her dad regularly over the breakfast table, or is her contact with her family, like most of us adults out of the house and on our own, limited? And while it’s not the Courant’s problem to worry about, shouldn’t UConn be concerned about the obvious nepotism involved in this pay-for-play arrangement? When UConn professors aren’t even allowed to use textbooks they’ve written in their own classrooms without having to donate the income to charity, how can this arrangement pass the smell test?”

StinkyJournalism emailed the beleaguered Sports Editor Otterbein questions:

“You’ve asked for ideas and discussion and I am eager to know what direction you plan on taking? Does Miss Auriemma stay on as blogger for the season as a trial run?

“What I think needs to be addressed is if The Courant considers or assigns different standards to bloggers versus the rest of the reporters freelance or otherwise (who clearly blog themselves). The title of Celebrity Blogger could carry completely different criteria than say On The Tee or To Wit. If so then there needs to be a disclaimer stating as much. Wouldn’t it be fair for readers to assume that whatever falls under the paper’s ink mark be classically defined as journalism unless it’s an OpEd or a special section/column? Otherwise there will be many who consider the recruitment of the coach’s daughter as nothing else but an act of nepotism.”

We received an email response from Otterbein yesterday afternoon: “Will reply to you when we know what we’re doing going forward, which should be tomorrow [Friday].”

Updates on this story will be posted here.

UPDATE:  09/11/09 : 2:36:PM EST:  We just received another email from the Otterbein at the Courant. He wrote: ” Email me Monday. We should have a resolution.”

UPDATE: 09/14/09: 1:14 PM EST:  Otterbein just emailed us again in response to our asking him for an update : ” We’re working on it.”

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Is Hartford Courant catering to UConn coach Geno Auriemma by paying blogger daughter?

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