AUGUST 12, 2009 3:12AM

MLB.com: Corporate news that works

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By King Kaufman: The Future of Journalism is going to involve the news coming at you from all sorts of directions, and one of the most interesting, to me, is news that's going to be coming from corporations.

I hear the squeals of outrage and indignation. That's not news, it's corporate shilling! It's public relations!

Well, it could be. But it could also just be the news. Baseball fans have grown comfortable with MLB.com, a huge Web site owned by Major League Baseball, the corporation that runs big-league ball. It's no secret that the site is owned by the company and while it's very popular, democracy seems unthreatened.

mlb.com logo  

OK, I'm being facetious. It's only baseball, but users have proven themselves to be much more sophisticated than we in journalism nerdland tend to give them credit for being. We like to think people are too dumb to consider the source for their news, that they swallow everything they hear whole, and that's why it's vitally important that all news outlets be "objective" above all else.

But the real world doesn't work like that. In the real world, people consider the source to the point of obsession. No matter how objective a news organization tries to be, the most prominent criticism is almost always the same: You're biased!

MLB.com is an amalgam of public relations, media relations, commerce, more commerce, other kinds of commerce, raw data, entertainment, marketing -- and journalism. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan confused by any of it.

We go to MLB.com to find box scores and highlights, TV and radio broadcasts, gear, stats, all sorts of things. There's journalism of various types. There are real-time game reports, game stories, features about players, history and events, photo essays, fantasy analysis and on an on. Most of it comes with this disclaimer at the end: "This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs."

Of course some of it veers close to P.R. -- also true at ESPN or your favorite newspaper -- but MLB.com, while it has a clearly labeled "press releases" section, is not just a P.R. outlet. It doesn't ignore unpleasant stories just because they're unpleasant. There is a "special reports" home page for drug policy coverage, and it doesn't often carry good news.

All that said, we get it. It's the company site. It covers the steroids issue because it wants to be credible, but we fans would be fools to think MLB.com is likely to be home to a groundbreaking investigation into, say, teams' treatment of underaged Dominican prospects.

One of MLB.com's "special reports" is headlined Dominican Beisbol, and it's all about how so many great players have come from the Dominican Republic and the clubs are helping to build schools. There's nothing about this year's scandal involving team executives and scouts taking kickbacks from players' signing bonuses.

We must insist that other parts of the news ecosystem take care of things like that. But we can't afford to dismiss an entire wing of that ecosystem because it doesn't do everything. They do wonderful investigative journalism at ProPublica, but their real-time baseball coverage sucks.

I visited MLB.com Tuesday looking for two highlights from Monday's Giants-Dodgers game in San Francisco, which I'd attended. I wanted to see two calls that it looked like the first-base umpire had blown. Neither was among the selected highlights, but one of the two appeared in the two-minute game recap.

The clip clearly showed that the umpire had gotten the call wrong, that Dodgers first baseman Mark Loretta's foot had been way off the bag when he'd picked up an errant throw. "Not sure that right foot was down," host Pete McCarthy said, noncommitally. Did he not want to say an MLB umpire had blown the call?

McCarthy also mentioned that Giants starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez "has been red-hot since that no-hitter." McCarthy reeled off some stats from "his last five starts." But the stats included the no-hitter, which made them sound a lot better than the numbers from Sanchez's four games since the no-no.

The kind of dim-bulb statistical error TV sports announcers make all the time, or McCarthy trying to build a guy up a little? After all, somewhere on MLB.com, there are probably Jonathan Sanchez jerseys for sale, though all I could find was a Freddy Sanchez model.

The answer to these questions is I don't know. But I have an idea and if I visited MLB.com more I'd have a better idea, because I'd be doing what we news consumers do all the time, but don't get enough credit from us news producers for: Being a smart news consumer. That means considering the source, matching up the information I get from it with information I get from all my other sources and making some judgments about whether I'm being sold a bill of goods.

We do that when we get our information from local or independent media outlets, which have their interests, when we get it from media conglomerates, which have theirs, or when we get it from political partisans, which have theirs. There's no reason we can't do it when we're offered information by companies with interests other than acting as the Fourth Estate and upholding democratic institutions. I'm confident I can get a news story from the National Widget Company without becoming a National Widget Company zombie, programmed to do its bidding, and so can you.

Especially if you buy some National Widgets.

No one is going to argue that this sort of thing should be the entire Future of Journalism. But it can be an important part of it, especially where there's a vacancy, like perhaps in your town.

If MLB.com or any other corporate site like it proved to be nothing more than a P.R. mill, we news consumers would turn elsewhere. And if we didn't find anything, some of us just might start something.

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I, for one, would like to see more Fiscal Stimulus coverage at MLB.com.
It's all about transparency, isn't it? Be honest with your audience and trust them to be fair. The public is aware when corporations try to sugarcoat or whitewash things, and they know a hard sell from a soft sell -- and when it's done right, they don't seem to mind.
I don't visit mlb.com often, but, for the reasons you listed, it's a useful site.