If college teams don’t provide access, let’s report without it

Mississippi’s biggest newspaper will stop covering its hometown team until it gets access to players and assistant coaches.

After Jackson State University fired its football coach this month, the interim coach has been the only voice available to media for the last three weeks. It’s his choice, the school says, to restrict access, and that’s what he wants to do in order to keep his players focused. That’s not OK with The Clarion-Ledger, which is located in Jackson, Miss.

“This kind of restriction keeps a reporter from properly doing his or her job,” The Clarion-Ledger sports editor David Bean said in a story announcing the Gannett paper’s decision to move its JSU beat writer onto other coverage.

My two divergent thoughts:

1.) Kudos to The Clarion-Ledger for taking a stand. As journalists we should show solidarity in the fight for access.

2.) Access to a college football team is overrated.

While there’s great merit in journalists pushing for access, and while Jackson State is arrogant to squash interview opportunities, the restrictions shouldn’t handcuff The Clarion-Ledger.

Journalists must use their powers of observation — and more often than not, these observations are more interesting and revealing than tired platitudes from football players.

How many times have you read a story and skipped over the quotes because they’re so predictable and shallow?

Sure, interviewing is about more than gathering quotes. Experienced reporters use these sessions to develop an understanding for a situation, gain background information and verify facts. It’s a bit limiting if a newspaper is blocked from doing this. But it’s not crippling.

One of the best profiles ever written was completed without a single interview of the main character. Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” got to the soul of the famous crooner through observation and interviews with Sinatra’s entourage members.

A 50-year-old feature story and contemporary college football coverage aren’t synonymous, but both present strategies one can employ when stonewalled from access.

Want to write about a Jackson State linebacker?

Talk to recent opponents. Talk to family members. Often, tangential sources yield far better information than the people directly involved. If the team doesn’t want to provide context from its own point of view, that’s a missed opportunity for the team.

Antonio Morales, who was hired in July to be the Jackson State/SWAC reporter, said he will cover the Southwestern Athletic Conference game between Mississippi Valley State and host Grambling State this weekend. The Clarion Ledger plans to not send a reporter to Jackson State’s homecoming game against Arkansas Pine Bluff.

Morales didn’t choose to leave his beat, but he understands why his editor wants to deploy him on a game where he can actually talk to players. He sees the restricted access as a lose-lose situation for everybody.

“We’re losing out on the coverage that we had. Fans are losing out on the stories, players are losing out on exposure,” Morales said. “I don’t think this is a winning scenario. Everybody’s losing out on something.”

Once upon a time, athletic programs needed newspapers to remain relevant. Reporters got access because, well, what other option did a team have to be noticed, sell tickets and lure recruits?

Now, every team has its own web page with its own subjective reporting. A program can frame stories however it wants, make players available for in-house promos whenever it wants. With digital marketing tools, a team’s reach often is much larger than the newspaper that covers it (though probably not the case with Jackson State, which is why The Clarion Ledger, which also covers Ole Miss and Mississippi State, has some leverage here).

When I polled Southeastern Conference reporters about their access this summer, most were displeased but resigned to their less-than-ideal situations.

While team sites have the resources to produce and promote flashy content for their fans, traditional journalists convince themselves they’re valuable because they are watchdogs who disseminate the truth, without spin.

And they can be, with or without access to players and coaches who provide perfunctory quotes about focusing on the next game.

We should look past the obvious sources in search for the revelatory ones. If players only speak when a pack surrounds them, find related sources that are less in demand — be it high school coaches, relatives or friends. At public schools, we can request records that reveal the underbelly of an athletics department’s operations.

The result will be stories far more rich than ones filled with coachspeak and cliché.

Any self-respecting fan will pick newspapers over those flashy team sites.

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