Late last season the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed a sponsorship agreement with the St. Pete Times, in which the local newspaper would be designated “The official newspaper of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays”. In addition, the Times became the main sponsor of devilrays.com, the first such agreement between a Major League team and a sponsor .

While this deal is a source of revenue for the team, which ultimately decides the product on the field, in the long run it has direct negative impact on the fans. As a news organization, the St. Pete Times is supposed to be unbiased in their coverage of any news story. But now the success of the St. Pete Times is affected by the success of the Rays. If the Rays do well, more fans go to the games and the team’s website. More fans at the games means more people will be drawn to the St. Pete Times kiosks that will be found throughout the Trop and more fans on the team’s website means more traffic to the St. Pete Times website. In essence, the Times is banking on the hope that associating the newspaper with the Rays will mean more customers and more revenue for the newspaper. The problem is that it is no longer in the Times best interest to be unbiased. In fact, it is more beneficial to their business to only report positively on the Rays. This hurts the average fan that looks to the local newspaper as a source of unbiased information.

This association of the St. Pete Times with the Rays is felt elsewhere also. As a direct competitor, it is no longer in the best interest of the Tampa Tribune to support the Rays. In fact, a look at local coverage of Spring Training and you will see far more coverage of the New York Yankees in the Tribune than you will see in the Times. A rough count shows that the Tribune has run nine stories on the Yankees in the past seven days. This cannot be due solely to the Yankees having their spring training home in Tampa, as the area is considered part of the St. Pete Times market. Of course it may also be due to the sponsorship deal between the New York Yankees and The Tampa Tribune (as seen in this list of Yankees spring training promotions).

In addition to the bias in coverage and writing, there is now likely to be unbalanced access for the local papers. Is it too much to assume that the team will grant more access to the St. Pete Times from whom they have received millions of dollars? It is not unthinkable that the team would also grant special privileges to the Times such as first access to breaking news by leaking stories to the Times prior to other news sources, especially the Tribune. So while other sources may not have biased coverage, they may in fact have no coverage at all.

This is not an issue that is restricted to the Tampa Bay Rays. This has been a long-standing and more serious problem with many other professional sports clubs . Ask any White Sox fan about the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the local baseball teams. The Tribune owns the Cubs and has a direct interest in the promotion of the team. There is even a website dedicated to this bias, The Chicago Cubune. In New York, there is considerable contention from Yankees fans concerning the lack of coverage of their beloved Bombers in the New York Times especially as compared to the Boston Red Sox. The Times would probably tell you it is because a lot of Bostonians have relocated to the Big Apple and that Yankees fans are always interested in what is happening with their arch rival. Still, many fans complain that there is actually more coverage of the Sox than the Yankees. Silly? Not when you realize that the New York Times is a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox.

This is not an issue restricted to newsprint either. Tune into Sportscenter on ESPN since they acquired the broadcast rights to NASCAR and you would suddenly think you were watching NASCARCenter. In addition, it was four days before ESPN.com ran a story on the PacMan Jones shooting in Las V
egas during the recent NBA All-Star game weekend. An oversight from the “Worldwide Leader”? Or was ESPN
hesitant to report on a what would be perceived as a black eye for two leagues that they have a lot of money invested in through broadcast rights?

Is this bias real or just perceived by the fans? Does it matter? From Chicago Cubune website we would like to direct the management of the St. Pete Times and the Tampa Tribune to two quotes:

Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict. — from the American Society of Newspaper Editors Code of Ethics

Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility, disclose unavoidable conflicts… deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage. — from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

Is the St. Pete Times ordering its writers to only publish positive articles about the Rays or to minimize the negative articles? Is the Tampa Tribune purposefully avoiding coverage of the Rays and directing it towards the Yankees? Is there bias in their writing and their publishing? There is no way to be certain and they would never admit it, but there is a perceived bias at this point. We understand the nature of the beast. It is the natural flow of an economy. As fans we want revenue streams for the team. Ultimately it will mean a better product on the field, but can we ever trust what we read again? Now that the St. Petersburg Times is in bed with the Rays, we will still read the articles and columns, but we will now be forced to seek a balanced opinion elsewhere. This bias will likely push more fans to sites like this one or DRays Bay or Rays of Light, where we attempt to read through the B. S. and present to you a (somewhat) unbiased dissection of the news that is presented in other forums. OK, we are biased, but at least the Rays aren’t controlling our content.

St. Pete Times and Tampa Tribune, this Kool-Aid smells funny. Thanks, but no thanks.

 
 

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