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CREDENTIALED OR NOT CREDENTIALED BY UA ATHLETICS?

The Rich Rodriguez era gets under way at Arizona Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 1, and that means a bunch of media types will be in the press box, on the sidelines and later in a cordoned-off portion near the locker room for the UA football team's season-opener against Toledo.

With slight variations, it's been this way more or less since the dawn of sports coverage. In Tucson, a slew of Arizona Daily Star reporters, including beat-writer Ryan Finley and columnist Greg Hansen, will be joined by TV folks with cameras in tow, the ever-dwindling radio people, and a new presence: the website reporter.

In Tucson, and in a number of locations with a high-profile sports program, website coverage has exploded. Whether it's Anthony Gimino, who has two decades of experience covering Wildcat athletics with the Star and the Tucson Citizen newspaper, and now with tucsoncitizen.com, or it's a relative newcomer working for a site connected to a larger network, there's no shortage of information pertaining to Arizona sports.

But online, what do sports fans read? To note his 1,500th story for tucsoncitizen.com, Gimino recently wrote a column about what generated the most traffic. Of the Top 10 entries, six stories dealt with the football recruiting saga of a high school student, and Arizona's decision to wear blue helmets for a bowl game—or the use of copper-colored helmets in future encounters.

You don't exactly need a press pass to write about that. And because the athletic department's sports-information wing now puts press-conference and postgame material online at arizonawildcats.com, a lot of the benefits of the press credential seem questionable. You could argue that television stations want their own footage to fill space during nightly newscasts, but the quotes that get on the air will be the same ones used by every other reporter on hand.

For websites, the new players in this reporting equation, the press credential seems to be something of a status symbol, and therefore a benefit of sorts, even if the audience doesn't care about such distinctions.

"Having (credentials) at least gives you some credibility. In my position at tucsoncitizen.com, being online-only, we're partly a slave to page views," said Gimino, who is paid by Gannett, which operates tucsoncitizen.com. However, the site also features at least a half-dozen contributors—some with respected media careers, some without traditional journalism training, and many without any credentials—who cover the UA.

"We have to quantify exactly how many views we're getting, where they're coming from, who's linking to you," Gimino said. "Journalistically, you have to balance that with, 'Do I really sit at home all day and write about uniforms and recruiting news, which you could do and have a very fine page-view total at the end of the day? Or do I go out, go to practices, and talk to coaches and players? Am I going to games, writing some of the atmosphere, some of the stuff you don't see on TV?' It's that stuff that probably gives you the credibility to play around and do the kind of nonjournalistic stuff that gets you well-read. If you didn't do one, you may not get the other. Finding that balance of original content versus curated content versus aggregated content versus putting your spin on a news release, whether you're the newspapers or online or have your own blog—it's what we're all trying to solve."

The websites dedicated to UA athletics that receive media credentials tend to be connected to larger networks. That list includes goazcats.com, which belongs to the rivals.com network. (Goazcats.com editor Tracy McDannald did not respond to efforts to get his comments for this story.) Wildcatsportsreport.com is affiliated with the 247 Sports network and operated by Brad Allis, who, in addition to having nearly two decades of sports-reporting experience, is entering his ninth season alongside me for pregame and postgame broadcasts on Wildcat radio flagship station KCUB AM 1290. There's also wildcatauthority.com, which operates under the scout.com banner.

Game stories and press-conference material generally don't drive the hit-count train for these sites, which charge subscribers for content. The engine that does is recruiting news, and that's a touchy area for universities concerned about the potential for NCAA sanctions. Arizona was stung by goazcats.com when it was operated by Jim Storey, whose participation in a Tucson high school basketball tournament led to the revocation of scholarships and other penalties for the men's basketball program. Due to Storey, goazcats.com had its credentials revoked again last spring, but the site gave the university paperwork showing that Storey no longer had official involvement with the site, and the credentials were reinstated.

That scenario is an indication of how network-affiliated websites view the importance of a credential.

"The press credential legitimizes what we're doing," said Jason Scheer of wildcatauthority.com. "If the UA allows you to have a press credential, then they're recognizing you as a legit media outlet that benefits the university. If I was forced to, I could function without credentials. But with credentials, it kind of brings everything together and makes life overall easier than it would be without it."

Not all UA sports websites take that view. Pointguardu.com, which covers UA men's basketball and basketball recruiting—it went so far as to travel to the Bahamas to report on the team's exhibition games this summer—prefers functioning without credentials.

"Here's the UA press credential. You get it; you have access to Sean Miller's press conference. (But) it was streamed online. Why do I need to be there?" asked pointguardu.com owner Ace Thakore. "The next thing is a press conference with the players and Sean after the game. Once again, streamed online. ... The UA offers very limited access to the players, anyway. They give one-on-one access to the big guys like The Sporting News and other national reporters every once in a while, but I don't see the little sites with individual interviews with these guys, so you're big-time limiting the access to these players.

"... Press conference information is, 'This is what we want to tell you; this is what we're telling you; this is what you're going to report, because this is what we're going to say.' I can go read 1984."

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