Media Denied Sporting Chance: College Conferences Seek to Control Online Reports, Images

By: JOE STRUPP The skirmish began in mid- August when the Southeastern Conference (SEC), one of college football's powerhouses, set new credential restrictions that limited everything from blogging to the use of video and photo images on the Web. It also required news outlets to let the SEC license any photos taken during its events.

The new rules immediately sparked a backlash from papers that cover SEC teams, as well as the Associated Press Sports Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors and American Society of News Editors. Although the SEC later relented and revised the rules to allow more leeway on some photo, video and blogging issues, many still fear that more restrictive rules from other conferences are coming. Sports editors from Oregon to Alabama say they are bracing for the worst as conferences see a way to control both their revenue streams and the coverage of their teams.

"The first volleys have been launched," says Rusty Hampton, sports editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., which covers two SEC teams, Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi. "There's going to be an attempt to control the news." He adds that SEC photo limits would have stopped him from posting photo galleries, which are a top draw.

Adds Sports Editor Tom Arenberg of The Birmingham (Ala.) News, "It is a trend that potentially could [cause much] interference in our reporting. It could also be harmful for the conferences and the fans, because they benefit from coverage we provide."

It does not appear that other major conferences such as the PAC-10, Big 10, Big 12 and Big East will institute such harsh restrictions. But editors say the SEC attempt means more schools will likely follow. "Ultimately, some of this will probably be decided in court," predicts Mark Hester, sports editor of The Oregonian in Portland, which covers the Pac-10's teams at Oregon State and the University of Oregon. "It looks like some are trying to set the precedent that the Internet is like TV, where you sell rights. Obviously, we don't think that is right."

Hester says the PAC-10 has not changed its restrictions on credentials this year, but notes that when his paper requested permission to run live video of a coach's press conference, it was denied. He also recalls a 2007 baseball playoff dispute in which the NCAA barred newspapers from blogging during games. "It ended that you could post end-of-inning updates, but not play-by-play," he says. "It was also done with very short notice."

College football, however, is a bigger money-maker and has a larger fan base than college baseball. The SEC just last year signed a $2.25 billion, 15-year contract with ESPN. With conferences seeing the ability to make money on their own Web sites by providing exclusive photos, content, and video, increased restrictions are almost inevitable.

"It does not give the reader a chance to have non-biased coverage of games," warns Garry Howard, APSE president and sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The concern is that the only things you will read about those events is from those who put on those events. Journalism will take a beating." He adds that the SEC effort has energized both journalism associations and sports editors not to back down as restrictions likely come up in the future: "I believe we will have to fight every front. A lot of colleges and conferences are trying to do it like the professional sports ? own their own content."

The bypassing of newspapers by college programs is not limited to the games, either. Hampton says both Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi now post sports press releases on their Web sites without even sending them to beat reporters. He adds that when Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon was arrested on a DUI charge in July, the only public comment his coach made was via his Twitter account.

At The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, which covers Oklahoma State and University of Oklahoma sports, Assistant Sports Editor Ryan Sharp says he doesn't expect it will be easy obtaining credentials as time goes on: "I am sure it will get to where there are more and more restrictions."

Dan Tomlin, an assistant general counsel for AP, has been working on the issue of credential restrictions nationwide since the SEC fight began. He has found that early drafts of the rules ? many of which are still being finalized ? for obtaining credentials in other conferences are just as restrictive as the SEC's. One problem he cites is that the NCAA does not oversee media credentialing, allowing each conference ? and in some cases each team ? to come up with its own. "Individual newspapers are furious," he says. "Some are considering litigation."

John Cherwa, chair of the APSE legal affairs committee and special sports projects editor for The Orlando Sentinel, says, "The leagues have been studying the worst things about the pro credentials. All of this is happening as we struggle with new media, and no one seems sure how to handle it."

Even high school coverage is getting more difficult, editors say. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association last December sued Gannett and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association to block Gannett's Post-Crescent in Appleton from streaming live video and audio of games, blogging during games and posting some images. Such coverage, says Post-Crescent Executive Editor Dan Flannery, "is the essence of what we do." He adds that with high school and college teams, the rights that professional teams can claim should not apply: "We are dealing with tax-supported schools playing in tax-supported facilities. It is really bothersome."


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