If there's one idea that seemed to dominate sports journalism discussions in 2015, it was access.
The year began with Marshawn Lynch's "I am Groot" routine after the NFC championship game and at Super Bowl Media Day. It ended with Kobe Bryant retiring from the NBA via a poem in the Player's Tribune. Both stories - as well as scattered one throughout the year - raised the issue of sports journalists' access to sources. Lynch's refusal to answer post-game questions from reporters led people to question how useful those post-game scrums really are. Bryant's retiring not via traditional media but on a website owned and operated by pro athletes led to a round of questions about whether or not sports journalists are needed anymore.
(Note: This was supposed to be the case 10 years ago with players' websites. Then with team-based journalists. Then social media. It's slowly happening, but not nearly as dramatically as so many people seem to think.)
So many of these discussions seem to revolve around the notion that this idea this is new, even though the relationship between journalists and sources has been a part of media sociology study for 50 years. They also often carry an undercurrent of disrespect toward sports journalism, as if political journalists don't have the same issues with source relationships. It's true that sports and sports media often have a symbiotic relationship, more than other areas of journalism. But when Herbert Gans wrote that the central relationship of journalism is between journalist and source, and that it's a dance that the source always leads, he was referring to "real" journalism, not sports.
It's also important to distinguish between access and "access journalism." Access is one of the core elements of journalism as traditionally practiced. Reporters go places readers can't go, talk to people readers can't talk to, and write about what they've learned. That's the job, and that's good. We want reporters to have access to games, practices, coaches, players, to build relationships, to learn and uncover information. "Access journalism" is when reporters trade on their relationships to get vanity transactional "scoops" which often advance the point of view of the source and are reported in part so the journalist can keep his or her access to said source. (These are often the reporters who get upset about things like The Players Tribune). Access journalism stinks. Access journalism gave us Deflategate.
Access in journalism is good.
Access is also shrinking. The amount of time reporters are able to spend with players and coaches is limited at the pro and college level. This is problematic for reporters doing sports journalism as traditionally constructed.
Note that last phrase. As traditionally constructed.
Access matters in sports journalism because it's an institutionalized norm. For the non-organizational sociologists out there, which means it's a practice that has become part of the industry's DNA. It's "the way things are done." It's a norm that reflects institutional isomorphism - that is, media outlets follow similar practices to each other. One paper's in the locker room, everyone follows. This isn't done out of laziness. Norms become institutionalized because they bring an organizational stability. For sports journalism, these norms serve as "being the voice of the fan." Lately, as blogs became more important, the norms serve as a way to differentiate sports journalists from bloggers.
Looking ahead to 2016 (in the spirit of the Nieman Lab's ongoing series), we're moving into a time of sports journalism without access. Usually, this evokes thoughts of Deadspin with its famous slogan "without access, favor or discretion." But there's something more to this idea. If access is being limited, maybe it's time for reporters to find other ways to report, to tell different kinds of stories that don't necessarily require a lot of time in the locker room. Or at the very least, using your time in the locker room better rather than doing the same old stories that get the same old quotes.
A sports editor I interviewed for my dissertation spoke about this at length. From my interview:
Particularly colleges, private universities, they limit access. They want to control the narrative as much as they can, and they recognize some value that we have but they also recognize the idea that they can provide their own content ... It's unthinkable to think 'Oh how can you cover a game when your not there?' Well there's a lot of things you can do from a game when you're not there. ... If you think of it as useful to the reader, then you're open to doing all of that stuff. ... I’m not saying it’s not important to be at the game or have access, it certainly is. But theres a lot of different things that you can do, and sites like Deadspin and Bill Simmons have proven that you certainly don't have to be in the locker room and don't have to be at the game to write about sports in an interesting way.
In 2016, I think we're going to continue this conversation about the importance of access. It's certainly important to sports journalists. But the more we talk about it, maybe we'll see that there are other ways to cover sports than the way it's always been done. We'll be able to see the profession in ways other than as it's traditionally constructed.