Finding the Bears’ Next QB on the Web

CHICAGO – Although training camp for the Chicago Bears is still more than four months away, the team’s current pursuit for a free-agent quarterback has thrown fans and journalists alike into mid-season form.
For winning-deprived Chicago sports fans (who arguably value one Super Bowl title won nearly 20 years ago more than the six Michael Jordan-led NBA championships collected by the Bulls in the 1990s), the identity of the Bears’ soon-to-be selected quarterback is serious business.

Chicago media outlets – including the two newspaper dailies, three sports radio networks and five television sports departments – all fiercely compete for the scoop. Increasingly, journalists are turning to the Web for clues.

“Any sports operation worth its salt will use any source available and will attribute the information to that source,” said Norm Potash, sports producer for WBBM-TV (Channel 2), a unit of CBS. “There are those in this office who have found the Internet to be a wealth of information.”

There are so many insiders online. The insider information can differ greatly from what’s being reported by the AP and beat reporters.
– T.J. Shanoff of Murray in the Morning
Potash, whose department was the first to report Michael Jordan’s 1995 comeback (legend has it that WBBM received a fax from Jordan saying “I’m back”), says his staff regularly uses the Internet to monitor events in close to real time (including Illinois high school basketball and PGA golf).

Damon Hack, who reports on the NFL for the New York Times, cited ChicagoBears.com (the Bears’ official Web site) in a story published March 9 concerning the pursuit of Kordell Stewart, who visited with Bears officials last week.

“We’re living in a multimedia world. There are a lot of ways to get information,” said Hack, who regularly peruses NFL team sites in pursuit of news. “Every now and then, we see a Web site breaking stories.”

ChicagoBears.com was established as a fan news and information service two years ago. It’s purpose, says Bears’ director of marketing Linda Conners, is to promote the team and sell tickets. The Bears have one full-time reporter on staff who, Conners says, has regular access to the team’s headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill.

Conners says the team has no editorial control over what is reported on the site. Internet start-up formerly known as Ignite Sports (now Sportvision) manages the site’s technical components.

It is debatable how independent sites such as ChicagoBears.com are from the teams that operate them. George Knue, editor of Chicago Tribune unit ChicagoSports.com, says the perception among fans and journalists is that team sites exist as mouthpieces despite their editorial autonomy.

“A lot of team sites consider themselves to be an independent news source and operate at arm’s length from the team itself,” Knue said. “My instinct is that they are the voice of the Bears, Cubs and White Sox whether they want to be or not.”

Still, like Hack and Potash, Knue has no qualms publishing reports from ChicagoBears.com as fact. In addition to those from respected media sources (notably ESPN.com), he says team sites are generally respected for their accuracy and how they deliver and qualify information.

This is not the case, however, for upstart news and information providers trying to enter a crowded and competitive field.

“I’m very skeptical of what I read and where I read it,” said T.J. Shanoff, contributor to Murray in the Morning, which is broadcast from Northbrook, Ill.-based Sporting News Radio (AM 840). “It’s difficult to differentiate between fan content, team content and news content. There are so many insiders online. The insider information can differ greatly from what’s being reported by the AP and beat reporters.”

Of course, the passage of rumors, gossip and inaccurate information has long predated the Internet. A cardinal rule for reporters is to know and verify sources. Potash added: “You’d hate to stick your neck out and use a source you don’t know.”

Still, all media has to start somewhere. For those who operate with an unproven track record independently of existing media, how is it possible to gain trust and authority?

“We leave the news reporting to the big guys and spend most of our time and energy looking at the next step, providing analysis that is new and insightful,” said Tom Alexander, publisher of the Chicago Sports Review, a monthly journal that debuted in March.