If Mark Cuban thinks his ESPN ban helps journalism, he's missing the big picture


Maybe Mark Cuban really sees the issues facing journalism. What he’s missing is the solution.

The maverick Mavericks owner decided to revoke credentials to two Dallas-based ESPN reporters for the season. He initially declined to explain himself, claiming they still could buy tickets to the game. SB Nation and others reported Cuban was upset ESPN pulled Tim MacMahon away from beat reporting in favor of broader NBA coverage. The only takeaway could be that Cuban had been spoiled by a decade of success that included heavy beat coverage, even from ESPN, which for the most part only has beat reporters in larger NBA markets.

MORE: Greatest players in Mavs history

But Cuban finally explained himself by claiming, quite boldly, that he was taking a stand in favor of sports writers everywhere. He’s worried about automated game stories and aggregated content, the kinds of stuff popping up all over the internet that threaten the way sports journalism is executed.

"Maybe I will be wrong but I see a direct path from the trends in coverage of games we are seeing over the last couple years to the automation of reporting on games and the curation of related content," Cuban wrote in an email to the Associated Press. "While it may seem counterintuitive to ban someone from covering us as a way of stopping automation, it really was my only option. As is evident by the AP partnership with Automate

d Insights, it's not if but when."

Cuban is right; some ugly form game stories now can be written by sophisticated algorithms. Plug in a set of statistics and play-by-play, and a summary of the game will spit out. The AP, as Cuban notes, uses these systems, though only for low-level sports that the wire service otherwise would be incapable of staffing.

Cuban refuses to ride on a slippery slope, though, as he made abundantly clear in questioning the punishments for former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He sees a grim future in which sports journalism is done by a bunch of computers, without human insight or anything to keep context in play. This is the doomsday worry that plagues sports journalists everywhere. We’re watching our industry collapse financially, watching other methods of information-gathering gain steam, watching as our credibility slips with each layoff and buyout wave.

MORE: Most influential people in sports

Cuban is known for being mostly friendly with the media, particularly those who look for answers rather than trying to solve everything themselves. He once implemented a short-lived ban on bloggers in the locker room because, it seemed to him, they weren’t being held to the same standards as traditional reporters. Cuban seems to be a man of principles, which is why he opposes slippery slopes and demands accountability.

He thinks he’s accomplishing that with his credential-blocking. Instead, what he’s doing flies right in the face of the way sports journalists are maintaining their relevance.

If computers can write game stories, then we shouldn’t. The modern sports journalist is no longer hinging his or her career on telling the reader about the game. We look to go inside the game, to comment and analyze and investigate and explain what is happening to make the end results found on those box scores. ESPN’s NBA team does a great job of this, by breaking news, writing in-depth feature stories and building analytical models that have set a standard in this industry.

ESPN’s decision to move MacMahon off beat coverage of a 1-5 team was a perfect example of moving this industry forward, of using limited resources in smart ways to deepen coverage. It would be great if companies such as ESPN and Sporting News could afford to stick a full-time reporter on every major sports team in the country, but instead, we’re all trying to think smarter and more efficiently. By imposing a ban on two reporters — the other is Marc Stein, ESPN’s foremost NBA reporter — Cuban has said that he wants coverage on his own terms, regardless of efficiency for the industry. What he’s describing as a chance to save journalism is instead saving the type of journalism he wants.

MORE: 10 reasons why Bill Simmons' show tanked

There’s no doubt that localized coverage is different and, for the most part, worse than it was 20 years ago. There was a time when most city and town council meetings included a journalist from a newspaper, there to keep an eye on what was happing around town in the style of the “fourth estate” that we propagate. Resources for that coverage no longer exist. Online advertising revenue never kept pace with the decline of print advertising and subscription revenue, and too many newspapers were too quick to give away their product on the internet. Look no further than Sporting News; we are the oldest sports-only publication in North America and possibly the world, but we abandoned our print magazine four years ago.

The focus now is on sharper content. We need to make you want to click. We need to give you a reason to pick our link on your social feed or Google results page. The best way to do that is to provide indispensable coverage of topics that resonate with readers, and a big part of that for sports writers hinges on access, to teams, players and even owners.

ESPN was never going to ignore the Mavericks’ existence. It’s a league partner — five Mavs games are scheduled to be aired by ESPN — with the deepest NBA reporting team around. Many public relations coordinators view having national reporters in their markets as an asset, even if those reporters frequently are covering the visiting team. It’s easy to imagine MacMahon and Stein, who both were at the Dallas Morning News before joining ESPN, have deep sourcing and familiarity with the Mavericks and would love to find interesting stories to write from their home base.

MORE: Worst owners in sports

But Cuban likes the idea of a beat reporter, a chronicler of his franchise. His fans probably do, too — who wouldn't want a talented reporter focused on gathering news just about your team? Cuban's desire to protect that coverage is understandable in a paternal sense. Like a father who wants his kid to start, though, he’s ignoring that the coach has other players and the goal of winning the game. 

Cuban claims he’s protecting journalism. Instead, by demanding we play the game his way, he's holding us back.