On September 24th, Commercial Appeal Grizzlies beat writer Ron Tillery wrote a column previewing the team's prospects at the center position for 2016. Astute readers could see that Tillery, who's been covering the Grizzlies since the team's arrival in Memphis in 2001, was a bit miffed.
He wrote, for example: "Several weeks after the Commercial Appeal learned about Marc Gasol's return to full basketball activities and requested an interview with the center, the Grizzlies released an 'injury update' on their website.
"The report confirmed what the Commercial Appeal learned. The only difference is the franchise wouldn't allow Gasol to speak with the newspaper. Instead, Gasol produced a statement on the Grizzlies' website."
Tillery mentioned the lack of access to Gasol a couple more times in his column, attributing another quote from him, thusly: "... Gasol, as told to the Grizzlies website several weeks after declining an interview request by the Commercial Appeal."
It may be a sign of things to come. Last Friday, the Grizzlies introduced their new branded-content website, Grind City Media, and announced that they'd hired a writer — highly respected former ESPN columnist Mike Wallace — to create content about the team. The team also hired popular sports-talk radio host Chris Vernon (who recently split with ESPN 92.9 FM) to air his show via Grind City Media.
Nothing particularly wrong with any of this, of course. Increasingly, organizations of various kinds are seeking to control their image and the public's perceptions of their operation. It's also another way to monetize the Grizzlies brand.
Similar outfits abound in Memphis, including Higher Ground, Choose 901, Thrillist, and other websites that paint a relentlessly upbeat picture of the city and its businesses. Politicians are also in on the trend, using social media — Twitter, Facebook, and even Instagram — to promote themselves. Mayor Strickland, for example, writes a weekly email, chronicling his administration's accomplishments and activities.
Again, nothing wrong with any of this. Except that the public is increasingly being challenged to discern if what they're reading or listening to or watching was created to push an agenda (or sell tickets or promote the chamber of commerce or garner votes) or if it's attempting to be objective. Branded content is at its core, public relations, committed to blowing sunshine up your posterior. Journalism, conversely, is committed to reporting all sides, the good and the bad. It's important that we, as media consumers, know the difference.
When it comes to the Grizzlies, I get it: Sports reporting is entertainment reporting, for the most part — the toy department of journalism. But real — or at least, embarrassing — stories do happen, stories that, say, an NBA franchise might not want getting out to the public. Mike Wallace, for all his admitted talent, won't be writing about locker-room dissension or scraps on the team plane. He won't be criticizing the coach's bench decisions or the front office's deals. That's where Tillery or our Kevin Lipe or Chris Herrington or other local sports reporters come in.
The hope is, of course, that the two information streams will overlap and intersect and ultimately expand the reportage on the team to the benefit of its fans. The fear, at least for local sports-media types, is that the team will restrict access to reporters in favor of giving interviews and "scoops" to its own content providers. That kind of adversarial relationship won't go well for anyone — fans, reporters, and ultimately, the team itself.
As Memphis' only professional sports franchise, the Grizzlies are a civic asset that brings us the joy of victory, the sweet agony of defeat, the intrigue of locker-room drama, and the god-given right to second-guess the coach. The team would be wise to recognize that we're big enough to handle all of it. And so are they.