• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A WAKE-UP CALL TO GET INVOLVED

“What’s in it for me?”

That’s the answer I got from a prominent newspaper reporter when I approached him in the California Speedway media center and said he should become a member of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (aarwba.org). Sadly, his attitude perfectly symbolizes the state of our society, circa 2006. (By the way, when I told him about the prize money to be won in the annual journalism contest, he quickly signed-up – and has cashed-in.)

Well, it’s time for certain press and PR people to wake-up to certain issues in the larger media world, and realize getting involved is in their own self-interest.

A few years ago, NASCAR tried to change the wording in the document journalists sign to obtain a season-long “hard card” credential. Numerous news organizations found the new language unacceptable. AARWBA, the National Motorsports Press Association and – surprise! – lawyers soon got involved. Ultimately, the matter was satisfactorily resolved, although suspicions lingered among the hard-liners.

Unfortunately, this lesson wasn’t learned by others. At the start of this year’s ladies’ golf season, the LPGA tried something similar, and found it didn’t make the cut when it came to coverage. Revised credential language was set forth, restricting use of tournament news stories and photographs, and granting the tour rights to use such materials for its own promotional purposes. The dispute resulted in what was effectively a boycott by the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, Golf World and several newspapers and local broadcasters. A resolution was reached once the LPGA discovered its press tent was as vacant as a Key West hotel during a hurricane. If I didn’t know any better, though, I’d swear new LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens had consulted with Bernie Ecclestone before saying: "When media assert their rights, I don't think that means fans aren't going to come out and see or attend the tournaments or the games. I don't think to the average consumer this makes any difference." I assure you Bivens hadn’t asked her event organizers or sponsors before uttering that precious bit of intelligence!

Now, as the all-conquering media giant NFL season is upon us, comes word local TV cameras will no longer be permitted on the sidelines. According to the Arizona Republic, this is the result of a 32-0 vote by franchise owners, so the League can “clamp down on unauthorized uses of its game footage -- meaning, in other words, that the NFL wishes to control video for the sake of exploiting additional revenue streams.” Here in the Valley of the Sun, taxpayers have added to the NFL’s revenue stream courtesy of almost $300 million for a new domed stadium. Home to the Cardinals, historically, one of the worst teams in football.

As of this posting, locally produced video for newscasts would be limited to one "pool" camera -- and that's if the home club approves! Stations will have fewer coverage options if the only available images are from the network telecast. They might not consider it worthwhile to travel to away games, because to TV, no pictures means no story. Stadium advertisers are sure to lose in-market visibility.

Racing has generally been considered a media friendly environment since sponsors want – and need – the exposure to justify multi-million dollar investments. That’s true only to a point. Despite improvements at the major speedways, work facilities too-often badly trail the stick-and-ball stadium standards, especially for photographers and radio reporters. And, it says here, journalists should not expect much help from IRL or Champ Car officials if treated unprofessionally by a participant. Both groups sweat it out daily about losing yet another team; thus, neither is likely to take action against a driver or owner over any media misconduct for fear they might switch series.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of AARWBA, the country’s oldest and largest organization of motorsports media pros, for 35 years. I was eastern vice president when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News. I had the honor of serving as chairman of the 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005. My final task, in that role, was to help create the Ombudsman. (I’m a permanent Ombudsman committee member and Valvoline is the founding sponsor.) The program's Mission Statement says it exists: “To provide AARWBA members who have legitimate concerns (regarding issues such as credentials, access, and treatment by drivers, owners, officials, track and sanctioning organization personnel and other media sources), which affect their ability to perform their work assignments, an intermediary through which to address and attempt to resolve those concerns.”

As chairman, I spoke at the All-America Team dinner last December at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Indianapolis, and emphasized how important a strong and effective media organization is for the industry. I explained that, while at the Daily News, I had been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “If you have any doubt just how influential the Baseball Writers group is,” I said, “I suggest you ask Pete Rose, who I covered during part of his historic 44-game hitting streak in 1978.”

When I began my career, most legitimate reporters – and public relations representatives – joined AARWBA. By doing so, they showed respect for the sport, and formally became a part of the community. How sad this generation’s “What’s in it for me?” crowd is blind to the obvious answer.


[ more next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]