While much research has examined the composition of sport media and those charged with constructing it, namely sport journalists and editors, far less has explored an essential set of actors in the construction of news: sources. It is to explore the construction of the sport media agenda from arguably the most important sport news sources: sport media relations managers. The main question is how do media staff in sports organisations influence the production of news? To answer this question, this paper is based on a qualitative, observational study of a professional Australian Rules football club in Australia found that the club delivered high-quality information subsidies that met sports journalists news work requirements. However, media access was almost solely limited to these information subsidies, which are highly subjective and negotiated, which in turn allowed the professional football club to significantly control the subsequent media agenda.
There is research that indicates sport journalists are frustrated with the increasingly controlled access they are provided by sport organisations (Coombs and Osborne, 2012; Grimmer and Kian, 2013; Sherwood and Nicholson, 2013; Suggs, 2015). This frustration is most likely linked to their inability to develop source relationships outside the media management staff, which had previously allowed them to verify or clarify material delivered through information subsidies. In Lowes (1999) study of sports news production, while sport organisations information subsidies were important to journalists news work, sport journalists had a network of other sources that they spoke to regularly and informally, and these were crucial news sources.
A significant finding was that almost all media access to club sources (i.e. players, coaches and administration staff), in the week of the case study, was governed by the media management team. During the week, it was observed that the media would watch the players train from the side-lines, then enter a room set up for a formal press conference. The clubs media staff would often chat informally to journalists before and after these media conferences, but there was very rarely an opportunity for the players or coaches to do so. The players and coaches were moved in and out of the media conference, with almost all interaction occurring in a formal and highly regulated environment.
The post-match period represented another opportunity where players and media could potentially have interacted directly, however, all media organisations still negotiated their requests through the media team. While players stood just a few metres away, journalists stood behind a barrier and asked for the media management team to fetch the players they wished to interview. The media staff mentioned that there were occasions when coaches might interact informally and off the record with journalists, but this did not seem to apply to players. The time that journalists and players spent together was,
therefore, almost always on the record. Media access to club sources was delivered consistently through formal information subsidies.
The club also had its own media platforms, such as a website and social media channels, its own content production staff, and it published 38 website stories and 30 videos during the week of the study. The clubs content production team set their own editorial agenda, interviewed players who were not used in other media opportunities and operated almost independently of the media relations team. The content team negotiated with players directly, rather than request interviews through the media relations team, and did not use the same sources that were available to media except in the case of formal press conferences, which were available as videos on the website. However, the content produced by the clubs in-house production team was not developed with the aim of being used by traditional media, but instead was aimed at engaging fans directly. Given that the studys main question was to explore how media relations practice influences news, and in particular, focus on how media access is governed at a professional sports club, this paper focuses on the information subsidies that did have the direct aim of influencing news. Media access in this study was limited to official information subsidies and was prioritised to rights-holding broadcasters and other television and radio stations that paid players to appear on their programs. For those media outlets that were not prepared to pay, the power to decide which talent they were able to access almost always resided with the media management team. While some requests were approved immediately, there was evidence that they were more likely to be approved if the request was related to a story about the game, was positive and of strategic benefit to the club. Newsworthiness was not the main consideration of media staff when determining which sources would be available via an information subsidy. That newsworthiness was not a key determinant in the request for or allocation of sources via information subsidies is not perhaps surprising given earlier research that established the primary work of sport reporting is space-filling (Marr et al., 1999: 119), where daily updates from designated beats are newsworthy simply because of their status as a beat (Lowes, 1999).
This study provides more evidence to support the claim that newsworthiness is a secondary consideration in sport journalism. Most importantly, this study establishes that individual, one-on-one contact with sport news sources such as coaches and athletes is potentially now a valuable and rare commodity. This is in contrast to Lowes (1999) study that described how beat reporters drew stories most often from the informal encounters that they had with coaches, players and other club staff. Lowes (1999) detailed how a National Hockey League beat reporter would spend several hours at the teams practice facility, chatting to coaches, players and administrative staff, in order to uncover stories, and perform checks on information that came from the media relations team. Therefore, the most important finding of this study is that there appears to have been a paradigm shift in the relationship between sport journalists and their news sources, even taking into account different national, league and organisational contexts. The most valuable sports sources are still the athletes, coaches or administration staff, but sport organisations media management staff now control access to these sources, which ultimately empowers the organisation to seek to control the media agenda.