In journalism circles, access gets a bad name these days.
For 10 years now, Deadspin has promoted and prided itself as being a sports media site "Without Access." Barry Petchesky of Deadspin called access journalism "a scourge" in a recent piece about Cris Carter and coverage of the NFL Rookie Symposium. From Deflategate, to Ray Rice, to Jason Paul Pierre, access journalism is an easy target these days. Any criticism of Peter King, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter or any national journalists tends to revolve around issues of access.
The criticism is valid. When you write stories that sources want planted in the media in order to preserve your access to said source (and other people in an organization), that's wrong. When you pull your punches on reporting because you don't want to access to get limited in the future, that's wrong*
(And that was one of my greatest and most fatal flaws as a reporter.)
But "access" as a concept isn't always a bad thing. Access matters. Access to information and source is what makes a journalist. It's what turns a story from OK to good, from good to great.
An example of this came from The Buffalo News this weekend, with Tim Graham's excellent feature on Fred Jackson signing with Seattle. Graham didn't mearly speak with Jackson. He didn't even just go to Seattle to see Jackson's first day of campus. He flew on the plane with Jackson and his family to Seattle. The story starts with the amazing dateline of "Somewhere over Montana."
It's a story that's richer and better because of Graham's access to Jackson and his family. Access makes this story better. You can't tell this story this well "without access, discretion or favor."
It's not a puff piece, either. That's the inherent danger in access journalism - you get too close to the source, so close that you can't tell a fair story. Graham, who has profiled Jackson in the past, discusses all the reasons why the Bills would get rid of the popular running back. The salary hit. His age. The presence of other running backs. The idea that Jackson, though popular, represented a pretty crappy and forgettable era in Bills football and that the organization saw value in moving on. That's all in the story.
Access is dangerous to a journalist, because it can make you too close to a source, or lead you to compromise your news judgment and make you focus too much on your sources and not the reader.
Access is valuable to a journalist, because with it, you're on the plane as a popular player and his family, taking readers deeper into a story they care about.
It's all in how you use it.