Let's talk about the media.
Specifically, the men and women who cover, report, and commentate on Nebraska football.
The last week (starting with the Brett McMurphy article revealing Nebraska's alleged NCAA infractions) has created tensions between the fans, Scott Frost, and what is generally referred to as "the media".*
- *For this discussion, let's says "media" is anybody whose job is to write, speak, opine, or produce content about the Nebraska Football program. With few exceptions, a "media" member is somebody who can obtain a media pass from the NU Athletic Department. That excludes the fan podcasters, bloggers (like me), and others who produce content on a medium.
- I'll draw a further distinction between "local media" and "national media".
- When I say "local media", I'm talking about the folks who are either a) based in Lincoln / Omaha, or b) focus the majority of their work on the Huskers. Think the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, Hail Varsity, Mitch Sherman of The Athletic, Nebraska's 247 Sports team, hosts of local sports talk shows, etc.
- "National media" would include the writers who cover college football from a global perspective - Pat Forde, Pete Thamel, Andy Staples, etc. - anybody on ESPN, BTN, or Fox Sports. Radio hosts like Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd are in this group too.
A quick recap of the week:
Last Wednesday, the McMurphy report dropped. I equate the allegations - especially the improper use of analysts - to driving 49 in a 45 MPH zone: it's technically wrong, a lot of people do it anyway, and if you are unlucky enough to get caught, you'll probably get off with a warning. But anytime the words "Nebraska" and "NCAA violations" are in the same sentence, it is newsworthy - both locally and nationally.
After Wednesday's practice, Athletic Director Trev Alberts joined Scott Frost for a brief press conference. The contrast in dress and apparent demeanor - Trev in a suit, standing tall at the microphone answering questions next to Frost in practice gear, arms folded, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else - gave off a definite "middle schooler sent to the principal's office" vibe. Several local media members in attendance noted this. I wouldn't be shocked if "body language" trended for a while.
Mitch Sherman saw Chancellor Ronnie Green walk to his vehicle in the stadium parking lot and tweeted about it. Is his appearance newsworthy? Possibly? Probably not? Regardless, Sherman was vilified and accused of making a mountain out of a molehill.
On Monday, Frost held his weekly press conference with the local media. Typically, these run 20 minutes or so. On Monday, he was done in just over five minutes, giving short, terse answers to most questions. This too was mentioned by the local media in their tweets and reports. Several media members noted the shortness and mood, which led to even more push back on the media.
Today, Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports included Frost on a list of "coaches facing win-or-else" seasons. Thamel takes the lazy approach of reading information created by others (McMurphy's report and a April 2020 OWH story about buyouts) to form sloppy opinions that he tries to pass off as credible rationale. It was a pathetic strawman argument created by somebody who probably hasn't stepped foot in the state since Pelini was here. But for some fans, it strengthens their belief that "the media" is out to get Frost and/or Nebraska.
I look at the relationship between the local media, the head coach, and Nebraska fans as a triangle. Each side needs the other two to be complete. The local media needs information/access from the coach to produce the content the fans consume. The coach needs the support of the fan base, and should view the media as a way to communicate information and promote the team to fans and recruits. The fans want news and opinions on their team, and for the team to be successful.
Ideally, the triangle is equilateral, with all sides having an equal amount of pull. In reality, it is often a distorted shape with one or two sides not considering the others.
So how can we keep the triangle in balance? I'm glad you asked. There are a few things that I would like each group to keep in mind as we go into what could be a very tumultuous year. Think of it as way to all get along without devolving into a weekly soap opera.
To the fans, alumni, and other consumers of Husker coverage
I'm starting with us because a) we're the most likely to read this and b) we have more power than we think. We can demand and impact change from both the local media and the coach. We also can be better.
- First and foremost: You don't have to choose sides. It is okay to be "ride or die" with Scott Frost, and understand that the local media have a job to do. I think Mitch Sherman is an excellent journalist, but I wonder if he got caught up in the moment when he tweeted about Ronnie Green. You can still support the fine work done by the local media, while pushing back on the "body language" discussion.
*A quick aside on Frost's body language: Yes, the visual contrast from last week's press conference was striking and easy to see.
BUT - as fans correctly pointed out - Frost rarely looks like he's having a great time in his press conferences. If I showed you two screenshots from Frost's press conferences - one after a blowout win, one after a blowout loss - I doubt you could tell the difference based on body language.
- The local media is not the enemy. If you want to hold hate in your heart for a certain national writers/pundits/personalities, I won't judge. Longtime readers may remember that I've pushed back against lazy, drive-by narratives tossed out by ESPN, Pat Forde, and others. But it is unfair to the talented men and women who primarily cover Nebraska athletics to put them under the same "evil MSM" umbrella you might use for national (or political) media. There is a difference.
- They can't say it out loud, but the local media want Nebraska / Scott Frost to win for personal reasons. Think about a member of the Nebraska media that you really like. The odds are good that person a) is a Nebraska native, b) attended UNL, or c) both. Professional decorum limits the amount of outward rooting that they can do (there's an old sportswriter cliché "there's no cheering in the press box"). That said, I would argue some of the columns that put Dirk Chatelain in Bo Pelini's crosshairs were result of a Nebraska native and alumnus using his platform to advocate for his team to live up to their potential.
- They won't say it out loud, but the local media want Nebraska / Scott Frost to win for professional reasons. Most of the print, online, and radio entities (including HuskerMax) are primarily supported by advertising revenue. Yes, this can mean "clicks". Subscriptions matter, but they ultimately drive ad revenue as well. The math is fairly simple: If Nebraska is winning, people are excited and want to consume as much Huskers news, information, and opinion as possible. Obviously, this is good for the media entities. If Nebraska is struggling, people will still read / view content on the team, but fan apathy is going to eat into those potential clicks. "Drama" within the program - either real or inflated by the media - may provide a brief spike, but it is short-lived and is no substitute for a winning team.
- "Click bait" headlines and content are rare from the Nebraska media. First, a quick definition: "click bait" is something - such as a misleading headline or intentionally publishing inflammatory /wildly opinionated content - done to get a reaction. Those reactions can be page views or social media share. "Click bait" is NOT necessarily the same as 'an opinion I disagree with' or a harsh opinion. Frankly, I cannot think of an example of "click bait" from the local media (if you can, shoot me a link). Why? Because most local media members understand that click bait is not a sustainable business model. A national writer might be able to get away with dropping a steaming bag of hot takes on a fan base's doorstep from time to time, but nobody is going to consume content like that on a regular basis.
- Not everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows. We all like heartwarming stories, optimistic opinions, and positive predictions. We are willing to believe that this year's team chemistry and leadership is better than last year's team. We want to root for the walk-on or career backup to transform himself into an all-conference player. But sometimes we need to look at reality. Nebraska is 12-20 under Scott Frost. By many statistical measures, the 2020 team was worse than the 2018 team. At times, the progress and growth have been hard to find. These are things that deserve to be written about and discussed too.
- If you like - or dislike - something, say so. I'm a big believer in the voice of the consumer. It is easier than ever before to leave feedback for the people who create the media content you enjoy. If you feel a report was inaccurate, say so. Refute a lazy opinion with facts. When you find something you like, share it, sing its praises, and consider subscribing to the place it came from. This is how we can impact change. But just don't be a jerk about it. If you wouldn't say it to their face, don't say it to their Twitter avatar.
To the members of the local media covering the Huskers:
- Help your audience understand when you are wearing your news hat and when you are sharing your opinions. Ideally, everybody would understand the difference between an news article (facts, quotes, and observations) and a column (analysis, opinions, and ideas). But let's face it, that is not always the case - especially when you are asked to do multiple roles (writing, tweeting, podcasting, video, guest appearances on radio shows, and more).
- Consider defining your role as a "journalist" or a "media personality". Can we acknowledge the difference between the two? I'm not here to say one is better than the other; both are important in any media ecosystem. And I get it: you're being asked to do many things that blur the line, it's fun and exciting to expand your platform, and it is hard to turn down extra money. Maybe you can be successful with a foot in both worlds. So why define your role? Put it this way: if you're going to be upset when a fan questions your ability to be an impartial journalist, you probably shouldn't be doing commercials for local businesses.
- Your concerns aren't necessarily the fans' concerns. I'm sure Monday's five minute press conference was really disappointing. You have a story assignment, and crafted an excellent question for Frost, hoping to get a few quotes and/or additional details. Instead, you got 'we're focused on the game this weekend'. That impacts the story, and lessens the experience for the reader. Unfortunately, you can't say too much about it because most fans will side with the coach over the reporter.
- Don't be afraid to ask tough questions. I know, I know - it is not easy, nor will it make you a fan favorite. Ten years ago, Dirk threw Pelini some fastballs on the inner half of the plate. Today, you can still find numerous fans ready to charge the mound whenever Dirk touches a keyboard. Many of you see that as a cautionary tale and choose to lob softballs at the podium.
- There's no pleasing everybody. One of your peers - and I apologize because I don't remember who - said he knows he's doing his job right if he gets feedback from Frost supporters that he's too harsh and feedback from other fans that he wasn't harsh enough. Be honest, be yourself, and know that many fans appreciate the excellent work you do covering this program.
To Scott Frost:
- Understand your role in the process: The primary purpose of the press conferences is for the media (acting as an agent of the fans) to acquire information from you, so they can pass it onto us. When you don't provide information (or give one sentence answers), what happens? The media and fans start to speculate, which leads to unreasonable expectations. I'm guessing you are not interested in more unreasonable expectations.
- Use the media to your advantage. People complaining about "the media" often say "they try to push a narrative". Guess what? As the person who speaks for the team, you have the ability to put out whatever message you want to convey. Need to share some negative news? Flip it into a positive by showing how it will ultimately help the team. Want to motivate the starter whose effort is waning? Mention how his backup is killing it in practice.
- Be prepared. In almost every press conference, you probably can predict one or two topics that you'll be asked about. The availability of an injured player. A starter who only saw limited snaps last week. How the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the team. You're a very smart person, and have a team of media / public relations professionals at your disposal. Awkwardly stumbling through an answer to a question you know is coming is a bad look.
- Be honest….ish. You're going to get some direct questions about tough topics. As fans, all we ask is that you are honest with us as you can be. I'm not saying you need to give away the game plan, air locker room grievances, or talk in detail about every injury. You don't need to throw a player under the bus either. But there have been times in the last year where the answers given were somewhere between revisionist history and a complete lie. The fans will have your back as long as you show us respect.
- Buck up. Nobody is saying you have to enjoy media availability. You don't have to be best buds with the people who cover you. Nobody needs you in a sportscoat, or even with your polo shirt tucked in. If you want to slouch and frown, I don't really care. But this job, these fans, and yes - your salary - suggest that you act like a professional.