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College-controlled content collides with traditional media coverage

For years, collegiate athletic departments, conferences, professional sports teams and leagues have worked to communicate directly with their fans. The advent of new media, buoyed by the immediacy of social media, allowed each school, team and league to be its own media.

So what happens when a school takes the “we are the media” approach seriously? And how do the schools’ broadcast rights fit in when it comes to social media?

That collision is something many schools and leagues will eventually have to face. The University of Washington has chosen to tackle these issues now and it is drawing lots of attention.

It started earlier this month when a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, Todd Dybas, tweeted that he was reprimanded by the University of Washington athletics department staff for “tweeting too much during a live event.”

Turns out Washington had implemented a Twitter policy at the start of this academic year that placed a limit on the amount of tweets a credentialed media member could post during home football and basketball games.

Washington set the limits at 45 tweets during a football game and 20 during a basketball game. The policy sets the limit as part of its definition of live coverage policy: “Periodic updates of scores, statistics or other brief descriptions of the competition throughout the event are acceptable, as long as they do not exceed the recommended frequency (20 total in-game updates for basketball, 45 total in-game updates for football).  Credential Holder agrees that the determination of whether an outlet is posting a real-time description shall be in UW’s sole discretion.”

Dybas did not want to talk about the issue.

He has adhered to the policy – but not during road games (the policy only applies to home games).  During Washington’s game against Ohio State, Dybas posted more than 70 tweets during the game – more than three times the Washington defined limit.

University of Washington officials have not commented publicly about the policy. Socialnewsdaily.com said it talked to an unidentified “source” at Washington who explained the rationale behind the policy:

“The source explained it to me this way: the Twitter restrictions policy is exclusive to credentialed members of the press. Fans? Feel free to live-tweet all you like. But press members who must seek accreditation from the university to cover their sporting events must abide by a set of rules, whether they show up with a film crew to shoot a live report or with recording equipment to do a live radio show.

Those mediums have long been covered by similar policies. A DJ can’t just come in off the street and hold a radio show in the middle of the game without the proper permissions, and this is never questioned.

UW sees social media as no different.”

Broadcast rights are one thing, but some in the media think it may be more about old-fashioned competition. Seattle Times sports editor Don Shelton told shermanreport.com his paper’s relationship with the University of Washington as antagonistic and “it’s not a partnership at all.”

Washington employs its own writer who tweets on his own account during games and the school hosts live chats during the week – something a Seattle Times reporter was doing until the school said such activities infringed on its broadcast rights.

“We started doing live chats almost every day at noon and had beat reporters do it, and the University of Washington liked it, so they did it themselves then stopped the Seattle Times, [saying] it infringed on broadcasting rights,” Shelton told shermanreport.com. “It’s not a partnership at all; it’s definitely an antagonistic relationship.”

New media has redefined that relationship between traditional media outlets and the teams they cover. They are both seeking to reach their audiences with exclusive content on their own platforms. The “need” for schools to get media coverage – which formed that original partnership – is obsolete.

Dybas, the Tacoma News Tribune reporter, takes his in-game tweets and posts them as a “gamecast” as soon as the game ends. His tweets are repurposed as a blog post.  If Washington limits his tweets, it limits his ability to repurpose them online.

In many ways, they are competitors, seeking unique content for their audiences. Washington has its own reporting tweeting during the game.  Whose tweets do they want fans to follow?  Viewed in this context, it is not surprising that the relationship can be seen as as antagonistic.

The challenge for traditional media outlets is not to rely on teams to let them cover the team, to let them tweet during games from a press box, to let them host live chats from the team facility.

They should find ways to but find ways to bring unique value to their audiences. They should leverage their credibility, analysis and in-depth reporting. Fans want multiple perspectives and seek information valuable to them.

I’m not sure the answer is lots of tweets from a press box, competing with a team employee who can do the same thing.

Ronnie Ramos is the web director for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the NCAA. Follow him on Twitter.

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