Online Cheerleading for Golf?
By Chris Harvey
Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at
washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.
C BS SPORTSLINE CALLS the recent blending of its golf Web site with that of the PGA Tour a "marriage."
Critics are saying if it's a marriage, it's one destined for unrelenting trouble.
On September 9, SportsLine's GolfWeb.com and the pro golfers' PGATOUR.com announced they had become one: Though still reachable from both Web addresses, the content had been interwoven, and the PGA Tour had been given final say over what would or would not appear on the new site.
Eight days after the announcement, GolfWeb's executive editor, Stu Schneider, was told he was no longer needed. "I had been in charge of all editorial decisions on the site. That was taken away from us and given to the PGA Tour," he says. After working for more than four years on the site, "they gave me 15 minutes to leave." The site now lists two managing editors--one each from GolfWeb and PGATOUR.com-- but no top editor.
Within days of Schneider's dismissal, two GolfWeb contributing columnists, Lorne Rubenstein and Michael Mayo, had resigned, concerned about perceptions and how they would be able to write about the PGA Tour when tour staffers were making news decisions. "Right after the merger, it was unclear about what was acceptable," says Mayo, a full-time sports columnist for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. "If I wanted to take the tour to task, I didn't know what they'd allow on the site."
Mayo had early reason to be concerned. In late August, on the first day of the blended site's "soft launch," which preceded the formal announcement, PGATOUR.com staffers instructed GolfWeb staff to change a link to a story about golfers Tiger Woods and David Duval from "Tiger Outshines Duval" to "Tiger on a Roll," Schneider says. Tour staffers "didn't want to pit one person against another," he says. In another instance, in September, PGATOUR.com staffers refused to post a column by golfer Tom Weiskopf because it was critical of other players, Schneider says.
That same month, when golfer John Daly lost a lucrative contract with Callaway Golf because he had resumed drinking, the wires moved a story, but GolfWeb was slow to give it prominent play. "They had to get clearance...run it through some of the [PGA Tour] higher-ups," Mayo says.
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.com's managing editor, could not be reached, and Donna Orender, senior vice president of television, productions and new media for the PGA Tour, declined to comment on specific editorial examples or on Schneider's departure. However, Orender emphasized, "We are a publisher much like any other publisher.... We maintain the right to make editorial decisions as long as [they] represent quality."
She says the site's readership is different from that of sites like ESPN's. PGATOUR.com and Golf-Web's users are more apt to be "cheerleaders for the PGA Tour," Orender says. "Investigative journalism, that's not what our fans expect."
Contributing columnist Melanie Hauser, who's been writing for SportsLine since 1995, says the worst is past. "There were some growing pains; there was some editing some of us weren't happy with" soon after the initial comingling of copy, Hauser says. But after Rubenstein, Mayo and Schneider left in September, writers, editors and administrators from the sites sat down to air concerns, she says.
Hauser, who also strings for the New York Times and other golfing publications, says she is optimistic she will be able to do her job without interference from the tour.
Some media ethicists wonder if objective decisions will always be possible. The relationship between the two companies "is not only a perceived conflict of interest, but probably an inherent one," says Bob Steele, a senior faculty member and ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He adds, "You can create some very high editorial firewalls...which might minimize these conflicts," but the credibility of the product will remain in question.
"PGA Tour obligations are different than those of CBS and SportsLine and its users," Steele says. "It doesn't mean either of them are bad, but they're different."
Joan Deppa, who teaches reporting and ethics classes at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, says the ethics issue goes beyond this Web site, calling into question how CBS reporters might cover the PGA Tour, for instance. "No matter how courageous a sports journalist is, or how serious he or she is, if it's widely known that [his or her employer] is making money off of this [site], there's a real problem here" with objectivity, Deppa says. (CBS owns about 20 percent of SportsLine USA, a publicly traded company, says Larry Wahl, director of investor relations and corporate communications for SportsLine.)
There's also the broader question about other deals being cut between sports and media franchises, Deppa adds. Indeed, SportsLine USA also produces the official Web sites for Major League Baseball and the NFL Europe League. And ESPN Internet Ventures, which produces ESPN.com, creates Web sites for professional sports leagues, including the NFL, NBA, WNBA and NASCAR, says Eric Handler, manager of communications for ESPN Internet Ventures. Those league Web sites are linked from the navigation bar at the top of ESPN.com's homepage.
But Handler points out that the league sites and ESPN.com are produced by separate editorial staffs, and the league staffs have no say over ESPN coverage.
Kathy Bradley, a corporate communications manager for SportsLine USA, says she's confident the new "strategic relationship" between SportsLine and the PGA Tour will yield a quality product. GolfWeb benefits from the real-time scores published by PGATOUR.com, while the tour gains from a wealth of additional editorial content, Bradley says.
Meanwhile, CBS Sports will be watching for any major stumbles, says LeslieAnne Wade, vice president of communications. "We monitor our Internet relationships closely," she says. "If it came to a point where it didn't make sense to us...to be involved, things would change."