Six sports journalists at The Bee picked the 49ers to win the Super Bowl last Sunday. Does that make us homers? I'd say no.
In our special section, 49ers writer Matt Barrows, along with columnist Ailene Voisin, reporters Matt Kawahara and Joe Davidson, sports editor Tom Couzens and his deputy, Vic Contreras, all had different, compelling reasons for the San Francisco team to win. They aren't just fans.
Sports reporters face some of the same challenges as journalists who cover politics or crime. Unlike fans, they need to remain disengaged so they can cover the news even when it's bad. And while it might sound like a cushy job, it's not. Leagues and coaches want coverage that satisfies fans and fills the seats in their stadiums. They want focused athletes. They don't want stories that distract or hold athletes accountable for bad behavior. They can and do limit access to avoid hard questions.
"Under Jim Harbaugh especially, there is a distinct us-versus-them attitude toward the media," Barrows said. "Access has been restricted; Harbaugh often is terse and prickly, and many of the players have adopted similar attitudes."
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Even if he were so inclined – and he's not – Barrows said it would be "hard to be a fan while covering the 49ers."
"There may be certain players that I like more than others because I admire them as people or because they've been more helpful to me," Barrows said. "But I don't see how that's any different than a reporter who covers a state legislature, and it wouldn't affect my coverage if that player made a mistake or had a bad game."
That's apparent from his coverage. In the month leading up to the Super Bowl, Barrows covered stories ranging from the struggles of 49ers kicker David Akers to the controversy involving wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a San Francisco hotel but ultimately not charged.
He wrote about defensive back Chris Culliver's apology one day after saying gays would not be welcome in the 49ers locker room. He wrote that even Alex Smith, the quarterback who lost his job to Colin Kaepernick, was impressed by Kaepernick.
He held Harbaugh accountable for his habit of avoiding the media, writing about the stepped up press conferences scheduled by the NFL leading up to the Super Bowl. The schedule was "a lot for a man who once ran from reporters following his Orange Bowl victory and who tends to be, at best, terse during his press conferences," Barrows wrote.
I asked Barrows, Kings reporter Jason Jones and sports writer Matt Kawahara how much it matters to them if the teams they cover win. Is there more job satisfaction if they're covering the World Series, Super Bowl or NBA Finals?
That question is most important for Jones, given the dismal record of the Sacramento Kings. But with all three, they said it comes down to compelling stories more than the biggest games. Jones, for instance, pointed to ongoing story lines that rise above record, such as the ongoing immature behavior of DeMarcus Cousins, ejected during halftime in Monday night's game.
Barrows said that when the 49ers were playing badly he didn't have January games to cover but did have plenty of other subjects. "There are all sorts of story lines – Which coaches will get released? What players get cut? Whom do they draft? – that keep you busy. In fact, some of our best blog numbers have come in January after the 49ers have had a terrible year," he said of readership at his blog on sacbee.com.
"I guess there's been a difference in the demeanor of players. It's easier to talk to them after good games than bad ones," he said. "There's a better variety of story lines on a winning team, and you are in demand more, from radio stations, TV stations, etc., to talk about the team."
Kawahara is at the front end of his career, joining The Bee in time for the World Series and Super Bowl, something many sports writers never experience.
"Being there to document the games was something I won't forget," he said. "They attract so much media attention, though, that a lot of the stories get swept up in the cacophony."
Kawahara said he's always enjoyed watching football. Covering it was a different experience.
"With fans there's emotional investment in the team's success and often in the players or coaches," he said. "As a journalist you don't let yourself get that close. You're more a conduit for information between the team and the people who care enough to follow them."
And yet all six Bee journalists picked the 49ers to win. Why was that?
"I think it has to do with familiarity," Barrows said. "You simply know the 49ers, especially their strengths, better because you've watched every play that season probably two or three times."
For Kawahara, "I don't think that necessarily makes us homers. I honestly thought the 49ers would win based on their strengths, admitting that the predictions are almost entirely guesswork, since every game has a lot of variables."