When the story of Rich Hammond leaving the Los Angeles Kings broke late last week, it struck a particular chord with me.
For those of you who haven't been following the story, Hammond was the writer for the official Kings website. He joined the team after a career with the L.A. Daily News. He ran the awesome Kings Insider blog as part of his work for the team and covered every moment of the season, especially important in a market where the local beat writers don't always go on road trips.
Hammond left his job after three years last week to join The Orange County Register and cover USC sports. It's a prime job to be sure, but the reason he left may have had as much to do with NHL and lockout politics as career opportunity.
According to several articles, Hammond and the Kings were pressured by the league to take down an article where Hammond interviewed locked out Kings player Kevin Westgarth. Because of the lockout, teams and their employees are prohibited from having contact with players, which is why several recent charity events have had an awkward lineup. While the Kings reportedly pushed back and the story never came down, Hammond apparently did not feel comfortable with the idea that the NHL wanted to dictate his coverage and decided to switch gears in his career.
This hits home with me because I know exactly what Hammond is going through.
When I was a young, budding sports writer at SMU, I spent a little more than two years doing an internship with DallasCowboys.com and DallasDesperados.com, working for the awesome Mickey Spagnola. The Cowboys were one of the first professional sports teams to start using their websites as de facto media outlets, allowing real reporting, columns and opinion on the team site in an effort to drive more fans there.
The theory makes good business sense. Loyal sports fans love their favorite teams, and they want real, informative content from as many outlets as they can get their hands on. They (and I am one of them) will read four different stories about one game that they watched on television or in person. They'll go through four different articles detailing who should be the starting goalie next year and disagree with points in all of them.
If a team website can offer a substantive contribution to those discussions, fans will come to the site. And once you have a sports fan on your official website to look at your unique content, you can then sell them tickets and team gear.
Over the past five to seven years, more and more websites have hired former professional journalists to write for their site. Mickey with the Cowboys is among the first of these, making his way up the journalism ladder with the defunct Dallas Times-Herald. The Stars have joined the trend over the past several years, using some Associated Press writers to freelance for the site for the past several years before hiring Mark Stepneski, of Andrews Dallas Stars Page and previously a television journalism career, this summer.
On its surface, the job sounds glamorous - write for a ravenous and intensely dedicated audience, get to know everything about a specific team, travel (in some cases) to every game and get paid to do so. In practice, at least in my experience with the Cowboys, it's just like every other journalism job - long hours, limited media access, working every holiday that crosses with a game and getting to a game three hours early and leaving three hours after it's done. Heck, when I worked for the Cowboys, I had the smallest office I ever had in journalism. I do hope they've finally let Mickey, Nick, Rob and the gang out of the closest-like space above the space where Brad Sham and Kristy Scales recorded radio spots.
In my experience, being employed by a team means you're a reporter like every other member of the media throng and subject to the same rules. I had the same open-locker-room periods to get quotes, the same claustrophobic post-game media huddles around unshowered, often cliche-spewing athletes, the same pressure to get something out first and accurate so our site became the driving force for the comments and traffic.
The biggest advantage from a reporting perspective is that you can never get called away to cover something else. One hundred percent of your energy and focus is on that team. Even beat writers for newspapers can have other work priorities at some points, whether that's helping out with another beat in the off-season or working on a long feature that takes your time and energy.
While I didn't handle the potentially controversial columns or major breaking news with the Cowboys, I was around for the great Quincy Carter training camp debacle, back when Tony Romo was fourth on the depth chart behind Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Carter. That was the only time I sensed that there was something we couldn't do - break the story of why he wasn't there. We immediately reported that he wasn't at practice, of course, but we didn't run with the reasons behind that until after the official announcement. But even if we'd have been another outlet, I don't know that we'd have had enough to run since the people we'd heard from were unwilling to go on record. With a story of that nature, you have to have an iron-clad source to protect you should the rumors end up being false.
And that's when the line-walking gets tough, those times when you know something that the team may not have officially released. At the same time, when I got into the professional media ranks, there were times a story might be embargoed, when you'd know it would break the next day but couldn't release it. There were times you'd know a story but didn't have on-the-record sourcing and times you knew something through all the proper channels but also knew it was a private rather than public matter. So the gray area exists outside of the world of team-sponsored media as well.
To the Cowboys credit, the Carter debacle was the only time I felt like a story made the rest of the organization antsy. We were given free reign to write about unhappy running backs, quarterback controversies and questionable coaching decisions. If a player told us about an injury and when he might be back on the field, we were free to write that up too. More and more, teams are endorsing that approach to keep fans coming back to their site
But there always is that gray area lurking out there. Hammond did a great job of finding that line with the Kings because the organization allowed him to function independently. He reported on rumors, wrote opinionated columns on how the team was playing and was always up to date with breaking news. And he offered an informed, objective voice on all things Kings. That's what a team site writer can be at his or her best.
As for what drove him away, everyone involved was in an exceedingly tough position. A journalist feels blind and deaf without access to key sources. When he interviewed Westgarth, he was only doing what anyone else in his profession would in that situation. And the Kings, to their credit, stood behind his right to do so.
But I also can't fault the NHL because Hammond technically is a team employee, and team employees have all sorts of restrictions on their contact with NHLPA members because of the legalities of a lockout.
It was a rock and a hard place, and instead of staying in a job where he felt certain stories were off limits, Hammond chose to move on, another of the hidden casualties of the lockout. The Kings had given him full editorial control, and even the idea that the NHL could start restricting his content was enough to send him back to newspapers. I understand that feeling. If the NFL had tried to spike something I'd already published, I'd have felt much the same way. No matter how legitimate their reasons might be, it's a very different thing to try and outright spike a story than it is to embargo something until further sources can be verified.
I hope Hammond gets back to hockey once the lockout ends. He was a terrific contributor to the greater hockey media.
And I applaud him for standing up for his journalistic principles. It's one thing to say you are an independent voice and a much harder one to act when someone tries to take that independence away. When this lockout is over and the legal issues regarding talking to NHLPA members are resolved, hopefully teams will invest in people like him or Stepneski to provide quality, objective content for their websites.
The more people covering hockey like Rich Hammond, no matter who they write for, the better.