The changing relationship between reporters and sources

I’d like to point you toward a post from Dallas NBA team owner and Internet entrepreneur Mark Cuban which I hope will get you thinking, but might just get many of you mad instead:

Here it is, and here’s a taste:

In the year 2011, I’m not sure I have a need for beat writers from, Yahoo, or any website for that matter to ever be in our locker room before or after a game. I think we have finally reached a point where not only can we communicate any and all factual information from our players and team directly to our fans and customers as effectively as any big sports website, but I think we have also reached a point where our interests are no longer aligned.

What Cuban writes could have been written by someone representing just about any major source covered by the news media today – not just sports teams, but businesses, as well as community, social and religious organizations… even government.

By this point, we all know that newspapers and TV stations have lost their traditional “gatekeeper” role in selecting and distributing information to the public. But don’t dismiss Cuban so quickly; he’s not writing simply about that. Cuban’s noting how disruptions in the news publishing industry are changing the interests that individual publishers covering his team now serve.

Most journalists I know hate thinking about this, but reporters and sources have a symbiotic relationship. Put yourself in a source’s position for a moment. (As the director of the USC School of Journalism has said, every reporter should have journalism done to him or her at some point during a career.) Why would you talk with a journalist?

Some of us might talk to protect karma: We don’t dare turn down an interview because we don’t want any sources turning down us. But most non-journalists talk simply because they want their side of the story heard.

That’s the symbiotic relationship: we need a story, and sources need their side heard. We work with, and for, each other.

But what happens when a reporter wants to tell a story that’s different from the one you which you want to, or can, contribute to? Especially if you have another way at your disposal to get your message, your side of any story, out to the public as effectively as the reporter’s?

I suspect that you might not be so eager to cooperate.

Cuban, in his post, notes that he continues to need print and broadcast media reporters, to get Dallas Mavericks news out to consumers who don’t read online media as their primary source of information. He also notes that he’s willing to continue working with online reporters who focus on the types of game- and sport-focused stories that he and the Mavericks organization want and recognize that need to be told.

But he’s willing to entertain dismissing from official access those online reporters who engage in trade rumors and speculation that drive big online traffic but that also drive Cuban and his players to frustration.

I’ve been writing about the ethics of who should pay for the expenses associated with news reporting. Cuban’s post takes up the flip side of this issue – at what point is it no longer worthwhile for a source to make access available? As sources get more options for direct contact with the public – or at least more avenues of contact through media – I suspect that we’ll see more sources thinking as Cuban is: Do I really need to keep putting up with these people?

Cuban’s piece ought to inspire any reporter to take another look at her or his source list. It’s time to diversify, to cultivate multiple sources of access in covering a beat, so that one individual, such as Cuban, can’t cut you off from getting the information that you need. It’s another reason never to get dependent upon freebies, too. If you’re paying your way into games and events, you’re buying at least the same access as other members of the public. That’s better than no access at all.

But let’s not be afraid to step into Cuban’s shoes for a moment. As more and more news organizations and writers are creating access for readers to publish on their websites, consider Cuban’s words. At what point is it no longer worthwhile to you to provide that access to some readers? At what point do the interests of a reader contributing content to your site no longer align with your interests as a publisher? Don’t be so afraid of empty forums and comment sections that you’re unwilling to communicate and enforce some standards.

You’re no longer the sole gatekeeper, after all. If you deny access to certain readers, they’ll have other ways to publish. They just won’t be using your gate to get there.

Cuban’s right about this: Relationships are changing. You can’t take any media relationships for granted any longer. But remember this, too, about relationships. Your top priority is, and always should be, serving the real needs of your audience and your customers. Do what you need to do to protect that relationship.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at