U.S. Open Getting More Open to Online Writers

By: Steve Outing The U.S. Open tennis championship is coming up at the end of August, and this is a major sports event that hundreds of journalists and sports organizations want to cover. Some online sports writers will be covering the event this year, and U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) officials who control press credentialing say that this is one major world sporting event that welcomes online journalists.

Still, there are some significant restrictions in how the tournament can be covered by online media, designed largely to protect USTA's interest in its own official site of the U.S. Open, which is being produced in partnership with IBM (for the fourth straight year).

According to USTA broadcast promotions manager Brian Beglane, he and his staff have not turned down any applications from legitimate online media organizations that qualified as wanting to produce daily coverage of the tournament. The U.S. Open got a new facility last year, with ample room for the press. In the stadium are 170 press seats, which are like regular fan seats except with flip-up tables. Throughout the facility also are just under 300 press workstations with TV monitors to watch the court action. All this replaced an old, cramped press box in use during previous years.

Surprisingly, Beglane says he has not seen a particularly large number of requests from online sports organizations requesting Open credentials. Most Web sites that cover sports are affiliated with traditional media companies and repurpose print coverage, so the online sports media are asking for credentials in numbers small enough to be accommodated. Tennis.com, the Web site for Tennis Magazine, has been approved, so Tennis will be sending both online and print writers to the tournament.

This isn't to say that getting credentials is a snap. Beglane says that online media are judged by the same criteria as traditional media. Weekly newspapers do not get credentials, and nor do dailies, radio or TV stations that don't plan to provide daily coverage of the two-week tournament. If someone wants only to cover the finals, they won't get credentials. Otherwise, it's "a waste of resources" to devote a press slot when there are so many media from around the U.S. and world willing to cover the tournament every day.

Beglane says he generally hears only from legitimate tennis and sports online media sites. "We don't hear from Joe's tennis Web site," even though there are dozens of "Joes" on the Web. He does check out Web sites that apply, and typically wants to talk to an editor when a writer applies for credentials.

'Like a newspaper'

Some writers and editors will complain about the USTA's restrictions on online media. "Basically, you may cover the event as if you worked for a 'print' newspaper," Beglane says. That means: no video of match play or on the event grounds may be taken; no audio recordings can be produced on or transmitted from the event grounds; no original photography is permitted; no live or direct online transmissions from the grounds are allowed; and no sponsorship of online coverage is permitted.

Actually, that's a little more restrictive than for a newspaper. The New York Times, for example, can get a separate photographer's credential, but online media must rely on Associated Press wire photos if they want to run photography on their Web sites. The rationale: USTA doesn't want a Web site producing a daily photo gallery from the Open, since that's what the official U.S. Open site does. "We invest a lot of money in photos for our Web site" and want to protect that, he says.

The restrictions on live online coverage of the tournament is not surprising; most professional sports enforce such restrictions on media that cover them, for the obvious reason of protecting their sanctioned live-game broadcast relationships. It can be argued that restrictions on an online journalist recording an audio or video interview with a player (something other than live coverage of a match) is unfair; after all, online is not a text-only medium and audio and video can be said to be integral to the Web. Still, the USTA can call these shots and there's little that online journalists can do about it other than complain -- and make the case that such coverage would benefit the tournament and bring more fan attention to it.

Unlike some other major sporting events, such as the NCAA basketball championships, USTA "does view online media as a true media," says Beglane. "It would be short-sighted of us" to block online journalists from credentials, as other sports have done, "in order to protect our Web site," he says. "We have been in the Web site business for three years, and we want to protect that. But we also want to generate PR and we want to be fair" to online media.

Strategies to gain credentials

Some online sports sites didn't even bother applying for U.S. Open credentials this year, believing that they probably wouldn't have gotten them anyway. Jim Williams, editor of SportsFeed, a year-old online-only sports service, says that in general, online sports sites need to devise strategies that will help them win over sports information directors and sports PR managers. While U.S. Open tennis is open to qualifying online writers, many other big sports events have not opened any doors to online journalists. The Wimbledon tennis championship, for instance, has a policy of not credentialing online journalists.

Williams, a broadcaster with a long career of sports coverage who moved into the online world, says that online sports sites need to demonstrate that they have substantial traffic if they are to be taken seriously when seeking event credentials. Only when a sports site can boast of visitor numbers that are greater than a newspaper's will the online site win a coveted credential slot instead of the paper's reporter, he says.

Since many sports sites are new and have yet to build up significant user traffic, Williams recommends that online sites join forces with other media. An online site might join with a radio station to do a joint online chat around a major sports event, for example. The combined reach of both online and broadcast entities might be enough to convince a sports information director to grant a press credential where individually neither would get it.

Williams says that his organization, which owns and co-owns several other sports Web sites around the world (including an auto racing site in South Africa, a soccer site in Italy, and a worldwide sports calendar site based in the UK), generally is treated well by sports organizations it covers. He says he knows many of the information directors for major sports well after a long broadcast sports career, and generally gets good cooperation when he asks to be set up with an interview with a player or coach. But when it comes to needing a press credential to cover, say, the Stanley Cup hockey championships, "I know I'm not going to get it" as an online-only sports site, he says. That's not because SportsFeed isn't perceived by the information directors as a credible site, but simply because many major sports events have a limited amount of credentials available. "We have to be realistic."

While Williams didn't apply for U.S. Open press credentials, he says that SportsFeed writers have been able to get credentialed for some other sports tournaments without problem. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and Ladies Professional Golf Association, for example, have a reputation for being willing to credential online media. They want whatever media coverage they can get.

Leveraging print's influence

At USA Today Online, sports editor Steve Klein says he too did not apply for U.S. Open credentials this year, since the site will rely on reports from print-side writers for that event. For major world sporting events that are likely to be tight with press credentials, Klein says that when he wants some original online coverage, he'll typically team up with USA Today's print sports reporters in asking for credentials. An application will indicate that the credentials will be used to produce a combination of print and online coverage, which is more likely to win over a credentialing official than if he went in alone asking for a credential for an online-only writer.

Of course, for smaller online sports organizations, the credentialing process can be difficult. The Tennis Server, an online-only tennis Web site that's been in business for four years, has had trouble getting the attention of USTA officials, according to publisher and editor-in-chief Cliff Kurtzman. He says that beginning in early June, he began requesting forms to apply for U.S. Open credentials for a freelancer who would cover the tournament for Tennis Server, but he never got them despite repeated attempts. After July 1, he was told he'd missed the deadline. (However, USTA's Beglane says he wasn't aware of Tennis Server's requests and is looking in to the matter.)

The Tennis Server is typical of the new online media sites appearing on the scene and seeking press credentials. Kurtzman claims to be the No. 2 tennis information and news site on the Web behind Tennis.com; Tennis Server gets about 60,000 visits per month and has a 30,000-subscriber tennis e-mail newsletter. The site started out as a demonstration project for the Tenagra Corporation, an Internet marketing and publishing company. The site filled a need for tennis information and quickly became popular. It includes mostly instructional features and primarily links to other tennis news sites on the Web, though it occasionally does provide news coverage of tournaments via freelance writers, and Kurtzman says he hopes to expand the original coverage of tennis events. He says The Tennis Server has successfully gotten credentials to cover other tournaments put on by other organizations, such as the WTA.

Kurtzman says he recognizes that sports information directors have an increasingly difficult job in deciding which online sports media, since they are so new, are legitimate and worthy of press credentials. What may be needed is an organization within the online sports journalism community to accredit or endorse legitimate online sports media sites to help sports information directors and tournament communications officials when they have to choose among competing media for limited press credential slots.

In the tennis world, the U.S. Tennis Writers Association is doing some work to encourage all tournament officials to grant online journalists the same privileges as other media.


In my column last week about newspaper real estate advertising and how online real estate services are affecting it, I misquoted NAA vice president of advertising Tony Marsella on a key point. Marsella believes it certainly is possible and likely that people will search Web real estate databases and walk into a real estate agent's office with a list of several homes that they'd like to look at. But it's "ludicrous," he says, to believe that except in a very tiny percentage of cases, that they will end up buying a house that they found through such a Web search.

He thinks that this will be similar to a potential buyer circling a home ad in a newspaper and bringing it in to an agent's office; it's highly unlikely that the buyer will purchase one of those properties. Marsella, a former realtor, says that in the vast majority of cases, either newspaper ads or listings from online real estate databases will just bring in the customer to the agent's office and the agent will help the buyer find the house he/she ultimately purchases. Ergo, Web real estate databases do not serve to disintermediate the real estate agent from the process -- and thus agents will continue to provide newspapers with significant amounts of home for sale advertising, in Marsella's view.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at:steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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