< Making the Team

Transcript

Friday, October 09, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of skipping the middleman, consider the Los Angeles Kings. It’s a professional hockey team, not a very successful one. Not only do the Kings often lose in on-ice competition, they have a hard time in the competition for media coverage in a market with the champion Lakers, the champion Dodgers, the champion Angels and college football powerhouses USC and UCLA. The Kings lose out so often, in fact, that they have decided to take their media destiny into their own hands by hiring veteran sports reporter Rich Hammond who, until recently, covered the Kings for The L.A. Daily News. That’s right, Hammond will now be a full time Kings reporter whose stories will appear on the Kings’ website and whose salary will be paid by the Kings. This arrangement has some wondering, first, how Hammond can possibly remain objective and, second, whether this is at least one future of journalism. Rich Hammond joins me now. Hey, welcome to the show.

RICH HAMMOND: Thank you. Glad to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: If someone had said to you five years ago that you were going to be covering the Kings in the employ of the Kings, what would you have said?

RICH HAMMOND: No, I would not have believed it. Frankly, I wouldn't even have believed it one year ago when, you know, it’s not something that a team has really done before. And the concept that kind of evolved over the past six months kind of started as a theoretical question or a conversation and got more real, the more that we discussed it. So no, I, I certainly did not ever anticipate being able to do something like this.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so when you consider that he who pays the piper calls the tune, are you not in public relations? Are you still a journalist? What exactly beast are you now?

RICH HAMMOND: Right, they have hired me with the authority to be a journalist, to do the exact same job that I've always done. The thing that makes this work, I think, is that I already have a body of work. I've covered the team at least on a part time basis or a full time basis for about eight years now, so they've been able to look at the kind of writer that I am and decide whether or not they were comfortable with some of the things that were going to be reported and put on their website and that they were going to be paying for, frankly. And I've been doing this now for one week, haven't heard a peep out of anybody, and don't anticipate doing so.

BOB GARFIELD: If Pfizer or AstraZeneca took The L.A. Daily News health care reporter and employed them to try to cover health care on their blogs —

RICH HAMMOND: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: — there’s nobody who would call that journalism. That would be absolutely deemed public relations. If General Dynamics hired somebody, The L.A. Times defense reporter, to cover the Pentagon that would be unambiguous, as well. Just explain for me why covering a hockey team is different.

RICH HAMMOND: I report on things, on games that are seen by thousands and millions of people. If I'm trying to hide anything or downplay stories, it’s all going to be out there in the public, and this isn't going to work. For there to be some type of change in tone or change in coverage, somebody has to be motivated for it not to work, and I don't think either side is. We started with the understanding that it was going to be independent. If there wasn't that understanding to begin with, there wouldn't have been any need for further [LAUGHS] conversation.

BOB GARFIELD: Understanding, undershmanding, do you have a contractual guarantee?

RICH HAMMOND: Yes, yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: I can see how this might be confusing to readers.

RICH HAMMOND: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: I can also see how it could be confusing to players who —

RICH HAMMOND: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: — are, are talking to a fellow employee —

RICH HAMMOND: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: — and may think that they have some sort of impunity that they don't necessarily have.

RICH HAMMOND: That's right.

BOB GARFIELD: Has anything changed in the relationship and have you had to caution them that, listen, you’re still on duty so —

RICH HAMMOND: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: I mean, just what?

RICH HAMMOND: That’s a very good point. That was my first concern, is how the players are going to react, ‘cause those are the guys that I have to spend the most time around. So what I did is the first two days I sat down with the captain of the team and one of the assistant captains and just said, hey, the relationship with me doesn't change. Obviously, I'm going to be around more. I'm going to be on the road when I normally wouldn't have been on the road, but I'm not going to have any more access than I normally had. When the newspaper reporters leave the locker room, I leave the locker room. I'm not hanging around there five minutes before the game. I'm not in there between periods. So that comfort level is going to remain exactly the same. They know if we have off-the-record conversations, they're still off the record.

BOB GARFIELD: How are things in the press box?

RICH HAMMOND: I now sit one seat to the right where I used to sit, so that’s been the major change. The angle on the TV is a little different. And I take a lot of ribbing from the writers but it’s all very good natured ribbing. You know what, when you talk about journalists, and I've been in this profession for almost 15 years now, if people weren't skeptical I'd be disappointed in them. We should be looking at this critically, but, you know, all I've said to anybody, whether it’s colleagues or readers, just give it a read. The proof is going to be in the product. And if you read it for a while and you think it works, then I hope you'll [LAUGHING] continue reading.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Rich, thank you very much.

RICH HAMMOND: Okay, my pleasure, guys. Thank you.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: Rich Hammond covers the Los Angeles Kings hockey team for — the Los Angeles Kings hockey team.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, have you ever wondered why product reviews online are so – nice? Stay tuned for the answer. This is On the Media from NPR.