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The Devils in the Details

Gannett and the New Jersey Devils found themselves at the center of a minor sports-journalism controversy last week, as the New York Times took a look at an unusual arrangement: Articles by Eric Marin, a New Jersey Devils employee, run in Gannett’s six New Jersey papers.

Hollis Towns, executive editor of the Asbury Park Press, told the Times’ Richard Perez-Pena that Gannett doesn’t pay for the articles, is free to edit them, and wouldn’t use articles written by the team to cover any kind of significant controversy. Towns told the Times that readers haven’t objected. (Though he did hurt his cause with an unwise quote: “I think journalists get hung up on certain lines of what’s ethical more than the readers.”)

Can such an arrangement work? Well, the devil’s in the details. (Apologies for that one.)

All things being equal, you obviously wouldn’t want organizations of any stripe covering themselves. But all things aren’t equal in the news industry these days: As readers hunger for more information, many news organizations have fewer resources to meet those readers’ needs and keep them from looking elsewhere for news.

The first key to making such an arrangement work is disclosure, which Towns says his paper has done by including Marin’s affiliation on his articles. (Though Media Matters’ Joe Strupp identified at least one article in which Marin was just listed as a correspondent, an obvious no-no.) I’d also want to know how Marin covers bad news. I searched on the Devils’ site and the Asbury Park Press’, and couldn’t find a game story after the team’s ouster at the hands of the Flyers. Maybe I was just searching poorly, but that’s disturbing. (It reminds me a bit of my Mets’ 2000 highlight film, which ends with a comical Pravda-style dissolve after chronicling the Mets’ victory over the Yankees in Game 3 of the World Series.)

Assuming Marin is properly identified, his affiliation is disclosed, and he covers bad news as well as good, I wouldn’t automatically say no to such an arrangement. MLB.com’s baseball coverage raises similar red flags, but it’s excellent: This game story, for instance, appears on the Braves’ site and sugarcoats nothing.

Would I have said the same thing 10 years ago? I’m sure I wouldn’t have. But the world has changed. Web readers in Asbury Park, N.J., no longer have to rely on the Asbury Park Press for their hockey coverage. They have the whole world to choose from. If the coverage supplied by the Devils doesn’t meet their standards, they’ll find it elsewhere – in effect, voting with their eyeballs.

That said, such an arrangement demands vigilance on the part of news organizations that enter into it beyond coordinating day-to-day coverage. Towns notes that the Press wouldn’t use a Devils story in covering a controversy, but that brings up the question of how one would be covered.

Last summer, Adam Rubin of the New York Daily News (he’s now with ESPN New York) wrote a series of damaging stories about Tony Bernazard, the Mets’ vice-president for player development, detailing a history of bizarre, bullying behavior. (Bernazard was ultimately fired.) If the Mets had their own employees covering the team, I might come to trust their game stories and daily coverage – but not to investigate a story like that one. That’s not to disparage in-house writers, but to acknowledge that some situations can’t be covered from within.

At its heart, this is a problem all news organizations face – and one that worries even those optimistic about the digital future.

News is increasingly reported and written by people who aren’t traditional journalists, and their ranks include everyone from bloggers and curious citizens to organizations looking to communicate directly with the public. Some of those efforts have promise for filling the gaps left behind as traditional news organizations shrink. But there are limits to this promise. Telling stories that organizations don’t want told often requires time, patience, money and legal muscle that are hard to find outside of newsrooms – and these are the stories that keep institutions honest, whether they’re governments or corporations or sports teams. If we allow organizations to tell their own stories, we’d better have a plan for telling the tales they can’t or won’t touch.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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