Up until last August, I covered the Binghamton Mets, New York's Double-A affiliate. Two years ago, four players who began the season in Binghamton were playing for the big-league club (Nick Evans, Daniel Murphy, Bobby Parnell and Jon Niese). I was able to convince my bosses to let me go down to New York for two days, meet up with them and do a series of stories about them (it was a four-part, three-day series). The only way I was able to do this was the fact that the locker room (clubhouse in baseball speak) was open to the media.
If I had to rely on an interview room? Forget it. Remember, this was September. The Mets were in a playoff chase and playing the Cubs. In an interview room setting, I would have gotten 5-10 awkward minutes with each guy.
If I had to call up the PR guys to do interviews? No way. I actually tried that the year earlier and got shot down. There's no way the New York Mets would allow their players to do phone interviews in September with a guy from the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. And nor should they. If they did, then every reporter at every weekly paper/blog would be calling the team trying to get phone interviews.
Instead, I was able to walk into the locker room before the game and spend a lot of time with Niese, Evans and Parnell. I got to see the little pink backpack that Parnell, as the youngest guy in the bullpen, had to carry out to the pen every day (leading to the great quote "This one has a pretty little princess on it.") After the game, I got to wait until the media hoard left Murphy and got 20 minutes of time with him. I got to get a quick quote from David Wright about Murphy.
All of this made my stories possible. All of this made my stories better.
And all of this was made possible by the fact that I was in the locker room in Binghamton every day to begin with. They knew me, I knew them. I wasn't a stranger. I was the reporter they had seen 75 times that year.
One of the unfortunate outgrowths of the Ines Sainz-Jets debacle last week was the opining of national sports columnists that maybe locker rooms should be closed to all the media. We don't belong there, anyways. It's crowded, and smelly, and you never get a good quote there anyways.
Look, one of the secrets of being a sports reporter is that nobody really likes going into the locker room. It is dirty, crowded and smelly (the visiting locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium is an atrocity). But that's where the story is. If you believe that sports journalism should not be root-root-root for the home team but instead should provide a balanced, independent examination of a team's successes or failures, then locker room access is an imperative.
Maybe it's not important for the national writers. They can call up any PR guy and say "I need to talk to (blank) for my ESPN/CBS column." And that's fine. Any PR guy/gal should do what he can to accommodate the national guys. They work for the team and want the team to have the best national coverage. Also, a national columnist is paid for his or her opinion. Its his words that matter most, her thinking that matters most.
But for beat reporters, for those writers covering a team on a daily basis, it's the news that matters. The information. That's the stuff that's found in the locker room. You find out big stuff (who's hurt, who left the stadium early, who's mad at who) and little stuff. Is Bobby Parnell's little pink backpack news? Not really. But two years later, it's the one thing I clearly remember about that trip. It's a neat, fun little fact that, I think, made my story a whole lot better than just hearing about him adjusting his fastball to big-league hitters.
Reporting, at its heart, is based on relationships. You get to know people, they get to know you. It's not about friendship, it's about a working, professional relationship. You build trust, which is how you build sources, which is how you find out what is really going on. It's hard, if not impossible, to do that in a media room setting, where it's a "get in, get it done, get out" mindset. It's almost impossible to do that over the phone. It's almost impossible to do that in press conferences.
Like it or not, locker room access is important because that's where reporting happens.