Newspapers must insist on content control

Key Steve
Key Steve

By Steve Key

State high school athletic associations earned a federal-court victory in an ongoing fight with newspapers over coverage of sporting events.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago recently ruled that the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association is constitutionally entitled to sign exclusive contracts for Internet streaming of high school games.

The ruling did not surprise me.

Athletic associations have negotiated exclusive radio and/or TV broadcast rights for state basketball and football games for decades. The recent ruling by the three-panel judge is logical under the same legal framework.

I still encourage newspapers who have the capability to consider lining up streaming rights to your school districts’ regular-season events.

And don’t forget non-athletic events that would be attractive to your community – speech meets, band competitions, plays and musical performances.

School news has always been a bulwark for the local news franchise, and if newspapers don’t move into this area, someone else will.

If a newspaper needs technical help, consider a partner like iNK Barrel Video Networks.

If you lack the manpower, consider working with high school administrators. Many schools have video/web production classes that would love to tie into their community newspaper’s website to produce events and provide student commentators.

My concern with the result of the case involving Gannett Co. and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association is that it may embolden high school athletic officials to renew the fight over press-credential restrictions.

The Indiana High School Athletic Associ­ation has so far not enforced for HSPA members a provision of its credentials that prohibits newspapers from selling photos they take at IHSAA events.

The IHSAA believes the provision protects the revenue potential of their product. But newspapers have rightly protected their copyright on photos they create.

It’s a typical contract-law problem – a term that one side wants and the other rejects.

It would be a mistake for high school athletic associations to believe the Wisconsin victory gives them a green light to move forward on restricting newspapers’ photo use. Newspapers are more likely to refuse the credential than give up control of their photos.

A resulting boycott of high school games by newspapers would not favor either side, which typically has had a mutually beneficial, symbiotic connection.

Access to IHSAA events allows newspapers to more easily provide coverage of the games that are avidly followed by the community.

Coverage of regular-season games by newspapers builds interest in season-ending tournaments that go beyond local fans and create statewide interest as teams march toward the finals.

Part of the adamancy of newspapers on the issue of photo control is the potential domino effect that could occur if they surrender to athletic associations on the credential question.

Organizers of local festivals, county fair boards and the hosts of other newsworthy events might also try to dictate what newspapers could do with photos or videos produced.

The trend then could move to restrictions on coverage as entities try to control their spin on an event.

If you think that sounds far-fetched, consider that Texas Tech University has closed football practices to the media, and coverage will be provided by Texas Tech athletic department personnel.

The university likely is considering a subscription-based service that would provide practice information, footage, etc., that it could sell to fans of the Red Raiders – all things previously provided by newspapers.

Access is a critical component for coverage of community news. It’s an area where newspapers can’t afford to compromise principles.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.