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Thumb Wars: Social Media and Baseball Coverage, Part 2 | March

Last week we looked at how social media has changed the process and methodology of how baseball is covered. We'll wrap up this short series today by taking a look at a few ethical dilemmas social media and Web 2.0 have created, and how newspapers are searching for the next proven revenue model.

 newspapers online(image courtesy sarahsbangor.wordpress.com)

How much restriction to put up with?

Ever since reporters stopped sharing train rides to games with players, there has been friction between baseball organizations and the media that cover them. Media groups desire the straight truth along with as much access as possible, while the team has an inherent tendency to resist giving away any information that would paint them in an unfavorable light. 

Legally, baseball teams have every right to revoke a reporter's access to a press booth or restrict the amount of material a newspaper posts online. Even if the stadium is publicly-funded, a baseball game is a private event. The right to free press doesn't apply in the case of baseball coverage; the only feasible negotiating power sports journalists have is a collective boycott of the sport.

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 After MLB instituted an especially restrictive policy in 2008, the tension between the media and teams became palpable. Major League Baseball limited the number of photos a news organization could post on its website to just seven per game, and put a 120-second cap on any audio or video highlights of the game. And all non-textual material generated from the ballpark was required to be removed from the website within 72 hours.

Hearst Corporation, Gannet Company, and the Sports Illustrated Group fought back, and eventually convinced MLB to remove some of their arbitrary coverage limits.

As the Internet and social media have developed, newspapers have been fielding more diverse and unique requests for coverage. Audio, video, and photographic coverage has been implemented by every major news organization, and some are just beginning to realize its potential. Hundreds of thousands of “followers” and “friends” are keeping close tabs on news organizations and consuming the posted videos, pictures, and information. 

But as both MLB and news organizations become increasingly supportive and transparent, and barriers are broken down, a question remains for newspapers: How are they to monetize this content they're giving away for free? 

Monetizing what's free 

Twitter and Facebook are services that are free and inherently designed to be easily accessible to everyone, making it difficult for newspapers to capitalize on the potential of social media.

 “It's a question of how you harness the power of social media when you realize, for example, that more people are buying smart phones than laptops,” Star Tribune sports coordinator Howard Sinker told me over the phone. “All of a sudden, in a very quick and very short amount of time, social media and Twitter become a real part of our arsenal.” 

Some sports departments are more willing to invest more time and effort into social media than others. The Star Tribune, for example, breaks just about every story on Facebook and Twitter. The “Twins Insider” and “Vikings Insider” blogs on their website serve as a microcosm of how sports journalists are learning to approach their reporting: providing context and perspective to stories that have already become old news. 

“(The struggle) is trying to figure out how to capitalize on it,” the Pioneer Press’ Kelsie Smith said of social media in a phone conversation last month, “which is something newspapers have been struggling with—not just with social media but with internet in general. Trying to figure out how to make money on this product that we're really just giving away for free." 

It’s clear that people’s demands and expectations are rising. Consumers want news at their fingertips; on their phones and on their laptops. As more and more newspapers embrace social media, fewer and fewer newspapers can afford to be left behind in the dark ages.

“You can't be afraid of protecting your content anymore,” Sinker said of the Star Tribune’s policy. “People are going to get the stories one way or another, and the trick is to use social media to bring people to your revenue generating product.”

Indeed, an increased social media presence will rarely correlate to a rise in print subscriptions. Newspapers will need to turn their websites into revenue generating products, whether via a pay wall or advertisements or more creative methods.

Many news organizations have used an unpopular method to stay afloat financially as more and more information is available free of charge. By using a pay wall to protect exclusive or niche content, newspapers hope to make up for lost print subscriptions.

Of course, pay walls need to be solid. Unlike that of the Wall Street Journal – where “blocked” articles can be found in full on Google – newspapers will need to charge for content that is ever only available to paying customers.

Another method newspapers could take is the metered approach; allowing consumers to read a set number of articles every day while charging for additional article views or unlimited access. Those organizations that wish to remain free have been forced to plaster advertisements across every open space of their website.

There are surely creative people who have clever ideas on how to combine aspects of the options listed above.

A balance between paid content and obtrusive ads exists, and newspapers are still searching for the next great revenue model. One of these days, a perfect solution will be found. Until then, though, the journalism industry will continue to flounder and struggle.

But something tells me it won't be this way for long.