We Want to Help Fix MMA Journalism. But First, a History Lesson.

Mixed martial arts journalism is full of talented, hard-working people.

But there are numerous outlets staffed by non-professionals, and for the most part, the professionals are grouped together with those who have zero training.

We do have a mission here at MMW, and we’ll get to that in a bit. First, we want to give you a little background on why this publication now exists, and where we plan to take it.

THE NEWS STILL MATTERS

The public’s distrust of the media as a whole is at an all-time high, and with good reason.

News organizations across the world no longer have informing the public as their top priority; the modern publication must first seek to build and maintain the revenue streams that keep the bills paid. This means jumping on whatever hot item generates the most traffic, even if the societal value of that item is negligible, because traffic equals revenue and revenue equals jobs.

The term “clickbait” is almost always used incorrectly; it was created to describe a tantalizing link promising information that, once clicked, revealed something else entirely. Our headline up above is a perfect example.

Today, “clickbait” is used to describe, well, pretty much anything the reader does not agree with, as is “fake news,” a term originally created to describe click-farm stories that were entirely fiction, but which is now used as a term of disagreement.

The MMA journalism sphere suffers from the same malady affecting the rest of the world. In reality, MMA journalism as far back as eleven years ago was something of a sneak peak at what was to come for the rest of the world. This can mostly be blamed on Dana White, who was far ahead of Donald Trump in castigating the news media for reporting stories he didn’t personally like and for barring professional reporters from UFC events for the same reason.

Here’s one example: White, angered with then-Sherdog reporter Jake Rossen, loses his mind: (hat tip to Bloody Elbow for the transcription)

Like I give a f***what Jake Rossen thinks. What has this guy ever done to move the sport of MMA forward– okay? First of all, first of all we’ve done- – we’ve made this thing grow despite all the dicks that write on Sherdog, okay? Number one. And, and– but his f***ing input about business and he also says the UAE [United Arab Emirates] is f***ing– uh, has big financial trouble. They are worth a trillion f***ing dollars! This guys is a f***ing ass bag, okay?

That quote is revealing for a number of reasons, but White’s next quote is the money bit, because it is the moment he accidentally reveals why he thinks the news media exists:

So, instead of, wait, instead of, instead of promoting the fight this weekend– instead of promoting the fight this weekend, this guy is f***ing arguing with me about how big MMA is going to be in the next ten years and why it wont be as big as I say it is. Are you mother f***ers into Mixed Martial Arts!?

White, the promoter, believes the news media exists for the purpose of helping him do his job.

We aren’t breaking new ground here. Any reader who has followed MMA through the media over the years is aware of White’s hatred for the media, and they are likely aware that Rossen, Josh Gross, Jonathan Snowden, Loretta Hunt and others have been barred from attending UFC events because—in almost all cases—they did the one thing White can’t overlook.

They reported the truth.

ZERO ORGANIZATION

White’s power plays with the media are ridiculous and a source of scorn from anyone involved in journalism outside of the MMA bubble. But the media as a whole must carry their share of the blame, for they are the ones who allow White to bully them.

Other than a backbone for some of its members, MMA journalism desperately needs (and has long needed) an association like the Baseball Writer’s Association of America or the Football Writers Association of America. Such an association would do several important things:

  1. It would conceivably protect its members when facing backlash from White over honest reporting.
  2. It would give MMA journalism a unified front instead of the fractured web that exists today.
  3. It would raise the quality of MMA journalism overall by introducing membership standards
  4. Those membership standards would be something of a sign of quality to readers

With those potential benefits, we must ask: why is there no association in place for mixed martial arts journalists?

According to four journalists we spoke with on the condition of anonymity, there have been several attempts dating back to 2006 to launch such an association.

One of the earliest efforts was spearheaded by John Morgan (USA Today) and Josh Gross. The group—tentatively calling itself the Mixed Martial Arts Journalist Association—held a meeting on August 3, 2012 in Los Angeles. We’re embedding the full minutes of that meeting here; it’s a lengthy read but is quite illuminating.

A group of interested participants met in Aug. 3, 2012, with a stated goal of hosting a progression of ongoing talks to form a Mixed Martial Arts Journalists Association of North America that have previously been held as early as 2006.

1. It was suggested that no single person should be making decision in regards to the group but rather that all full member s should having rights.

2. It was suggested the organization should not be established for extraneous purposes but should be a meaningful organization designed to have some impact on our industry and craft.

3. The history of the previous talks was shared, and it was determined that past talks didn’t progress because certain members demanded an “all or nothing” mentality.

4. It was suggested that parties involved in ongoing conflicts with major promotions should not serve as the “face” of the organization so that the goals of the group are not misconstrued and politically attacked.

5. The history of previous conflicts involving media members was shared, including an unaddressed demand for a comprehensive media policy from the UFC. However, it is admitted that the organization was not previously in a position to provide service to either its members or to assist in addressing their potential issues.

6. It is noted that the purpose of the association is not to band together in defense of its members but rather to request consistent policies from major MMA promotions as well as to demand consistent behavior from its members. It is noted that while conflicts in the future with major promotions are unavoidable, the association can actually provide them a great service in policing its own.

7. It was noted that the association could ultimately assist in identifying credible and respectable media sources as well as to unify in our efforts in combating combat theft and other less-than-honorable practices.

8. It was noted that members of the association must be willing to remain united during difficult times. An association must be willing to stand up for common interests, or there isn’t much point in uniting.

9. It was suggested that unified responses and efforts of the association don’t necessarily need to be of an aggressive nature. Diplomacy will be of the utmost importance in handling difficult topics with important potential adversaries, such as the sport’s major promotions.

10. It was noted style guides and codes of conducts would be of great value to association members, as well as aspiring professional journalists, and could potentially serve to better our craft as a whole.

11. It was noted that there is not necessarily a “power” of the association to enforce certain policies and guidelines but that if we can work hand-in-hand with major promotions, we can help to limit the number of media members not operating with proper etiquette, which can ultimately assist in both bettering our reputation as the “MMA media” and also assist in making our jobs easier.

12. It is noted that while the UFC is the leading brand in the industry, the association cannot exist to either serve or combat that single brand but must make policies that make sense across the industry.

13. The standard for membership in the association was discussed. It was noted that taking a paycheck directly from any promotion should probably exclude one from membership but that working for broadcast partners such as FOX or Showtime likely should not exclude potential members. Ultimately, it was decided that this is a key definition to address quickly.

14. It is noted that before deciding exactly who does and does not belong as members, the tenets of the association should be fleshed out in order that interested parties may accurately know whether or not they belong.

15. It was suggested that making blanket statements on outlets, positive or negative, in terms of membership is probably a bad idea.

16. It was noted that 21st-century journalism dictates that photographers, videographers, etc., should certainly be allowed in the association.

17. It was suggested that a good litmus test for membership should be, “If an issue comes up with a major promotion, are you willing to risk your paycheck from that promotion to stand up for the association?” It was also noted that looking at someone’s income sources when evaluating potential members is difficult, it’s also necessary to ensure everyone is working toward the same goals.

18. It was suggested that a future committee will be charge of evaluating potential members and to ensure the requirements are consistently and appropriately updated.

19. It was noted that content sharing will never be an expected term of membership.

20. It was noted that while looking at other journalists’ associations for influence is wise, this association must work for the very unique space that is MMA, which includes much more than simple “writing.”

21. It was suggested that the source of members’ incomes may actually be less important than just ensuring members are professional journalists as being financially tied to the betterment of the craft. It was also noted that case-by-case evaluation of applicants may be the most appropriate behavior in such a unique media space.

22. It was suggested that a President should be elected in future and that the person in the position will act as the face of the association and speak for the group. It was also noted that person should, of course, not be acting in their own interests’ but that of the association.

23. It was noted again for emphasis that the primary purpose of the association will not be to seek out battles and attempt to make unnecessary power plays but rather to work to better the entire field of MMA journalism in terms of consistency and professionalism, protection from content theft and other relevant topics.

24. It was noted that the association could also serve as a way for journalists to address grievances with each other.

25. It was noted that the association should be willing to deal with grievances between members and particular camps and fighters in addition to just promotions.

26. It was noted that the association should also work to give back to the MMA community, perhaps in terms of charity. “We all started this sport to leave it better than we found it.”

27. It was noted that some prominent members of the media are opposed to the association because they believe the potential members will have a real problem uniting for singular causes.

28. It was noted that clear laws need to be established immediately in terms of voting rights, term limits and the like. Complete transparency needs to be the first goal.

29. It was suggested that trying to battle for “banned” members’ credentials with particular promotions should ultimately fall to members’ employers and not the association. However, it was also suggested that association should at least push for clear understanding why members are not credentialed and push for consistency.

30. It was suggested that the association should never look to build any sort of “leverage” against promotions, fighters, etc. However, it was also suggested that the association and its members should at least look to exercise their voice in terms of fairness.

31. It was suggested that membership should not be considered automatic for any potential candidate and that it is important to determine that members are producing high-quality content and are not guilty of past ethical breaches.

32. It was noted that tenure in business should at least be considered as a guideline in terms of membership. It is also noted that “user-created content” presents an interesting case for potential association members, but accountability and accuracy need to remain key tenets of any guidelines.

33. It was noted that while the association does not need to be guided by elitist attitude, there should be very real definitions of what does and does not constitute a viable member.

34. It was noted that education and resources should be utilized to help members but that job placement should never be a role of the association.

35. It was suggested that time in the position should not play a prominent role in whether or not members are considered. However, “reasonable” tenure is expected.

36. It was noted that “auxiliary” membership could be a valuable tool and that potential auxiliary members would not receive voting rights and have roles in day-to-day operations of the association.

37. It was noted that “grooming” or assistance in the development of aspiring journalists could be a very valuable byproduct of the association and have far-reaching implications.

38. It was noted that the standards and guidelines the association develops do not just apply to major promotions and could help both members and regional promotions in their efforts to improve coverage and conditions at that level.

39. It was suggested that firm timelines should be in place in terms of the establishment of the association and that the end of 2012 is a reasonable goal.

40. It was noted that the association’s influence will never directly extend to non-members but that as the association develops in terms of relevance and influence, there will be valuable reasons to be involved.

41. It was noted that fighters do not need to be directly involved with the association but that suggestions and input from fighters could prove valuable.

42. It was noted that members who are treated unfairly by promotions should receive support from the association. Guidelines for such a process would need to established, but members should expect a measure of support as long as they are acting within the guidelines of the association.

43. It was suggested that the association needs to be considered as an advocate group for its members but that said members should not expect “power plays” in terms of support. Instead, the association should focus on the establishment of relationships versus establishing any sort of leverage.

44. It was noted that the association could actually help promotions address their grievances with individual members and have proper procedures for dealing with issues.

45. It was suggested that a true MMA Hall of Fame could be established at some point, but that is far down the road.

46. It was noted again that a particular person should be speaking for the association. However, that person, again, should not be speaking without the best interest of the association in mind.

47. It was suggested that interested members continue to educate their co-workers on the formation of the association so that as many prospective voices as possible are considered during this period.

48. It was noted that while a President is necessary, so are several other positions and committees to ensure the group does indeed have a common voice.

49. It was noted that the initial goal of the association is to establish guidelines in North America. Global acceptance and application of the policies is a very real and honorable future goal, but we simply cannot do anything more than set an example for others to hopefully follow.

50. It was noted that the association could assist in working conditions for writers, photographers and videographers based on best-practice recommendations for major and regional promotions. While the association will never be able to force a promotion to comply, the members’ needs and desires could be expressed.

51. It was suggested that attendees of the meeting should be considered as potential “senior members.”

52. It was noted that financial concerns should be addressed early on in the formation process. However, it should not be considered until the initial bylaws are formed.

It was decided that the next step moving forward should be to determine exactly that the goals and rules of the association will be so that potential members can decide whether or not they want to be a part of this new plan. Bylaws and constitution need to be determined before anything moves forward.

It was agreed that Las Vegas shows are easiest opportunities for membership to convene and that with UFC 151 coming up on Sept. 1, there is an easy benchmark to work with moving forward.

A rough draft of a constitution was created, which MMW received from a source involved in those early plans.

The introduction of the constitution reads as follows:

The purposes of the MMAJA are:

1. To promote and protect the rights of its members in regard to working conditions in the daily coverage of mixed martial arts, and foster the highest professional and ethical standards in mixed martial arts journalism, both print and electronic.

2. To represent the collective interests of its members in any area that affects their professional duties or general welfare and their ability to properly inform the public.

3. To practice and advance the concepts of professional journalism while using verifiable facts, proper attribution and an objective, appropriate perspective in order to inform and enlighten the public in a credible manner.

4. To use its powers for whatever purposes the membership duly decides to be worthwhile in protecting, preserving and advancing the interests and policies of the MMAJA.

5. To stimulate and sustain a fellowship among its members based upon journalistic integrity.

The next section defines criteria for membership:

1. He or she must be employed by a media organization of general circulation which regularly assigns reporters in the fields of print, photo and broadcast journalism to cover professional mixed martial arts.

2. Such an employee must be one of the following:

A. A reporter assigned regularly to cover mixed martial arts.

B. A sports editor, assistant sports editor or head of a sports desk.

C. A regular sports columnist.

D. Anyone certified by his or her sports editor as a mixed martial arts specialist who is not covered in paragraphs A, B or C.

3. Anyone who does not qualify under sections 1 and 2 may be granted auxiliary membership on a case-by-case basis by the membership committee and president, but only if the applicant meets the following criteria:

A. He or she is employed by a media outlet that regularly covers mixed martial arts, and the applicant is assigned to such coverage.

B. He or she is employed by a media outlet of specialized circulation (such as a foreign language or neighborhood newspaper) which regularly assigns reporters to cover professional mixed martial arts.

C. He or she is a sports editor or regular columnist of a media outlet of general circulation that does not regularly assign reporters to cover professional mixed martial arts.

D. He or she is an employee, editor or owner of a Web site which specializes in professional mixed martial arts.

E. He or she is a writer for a media enterprise who primarily is responsible for covering professional mixed martial arts or related subjects.

5. In judging applications, the committee looks for full journalistic works; not short fight reports or Q&A pieces. When an inquiry regarding membership is received, the potential applicant is sent a questionnaire that asks the following questions:

How long have you been covering mixed martial arts?

For whom do you cover mixed martial arts?

How often, if at all, do you cover fights live at ringside?

What is your “day” job?

E. Have any of your fight-related expenses (e.g. hotel and travel) been subsidized by a promoter, sanctioning body, manager, or other member of the mixed martial arts community other than a publication that you have written for? If the answer is “yes,” please explain.

Are there any current MMAJA members who you can list as references; and if so, whom?

The constitution also requires applicants to submit 6 samples of their work and to pay a $35 cost for annual dues.

We’ve posted the full draft of the constitution here, and we’re also making available a draft version of the code of conduct.

The early effort led by Morgan and Gross fell apart. One source said in-fighting between journalists from competing organizations was to blame; another source claimed Morgan and others were afraid of angering the UFC.

But the emails we received seem to show a group of people entirely capable of getting the association off the launch pad. The problem? They couldn’t stay on common ground long enough to make it happen.

UNIFIED?

Last year, efforts began again when White banned Ariel Helwani from UFC events “for life” solely because Helwani reported on a breaking news story the UFC wanted to announce itself: the return of former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.

Helwani was restated quickly, but before it happened,  a large group of journalists—kicked off by Ben Fowlkes on June 5—participated in a behind-the-scenes email thread from four years prior discussing the association.

Ben Fowlkes (USA Today/MMAjunkie):

I searched through my inbox to find this message and was kind of surprised to discover that it was almost four years ago that we first started seriously talking about this. Seems to me it might be time to revisit the topic, but I’m interested in everybody’s opinions on the subject.

Kevin Iole (Yahoo):

This is a crisis, and a very serious challenge to press freedom. I think this is something that needs to be addressed, and soon, and not by wise guy Tweets and little cheap shots.
This needs a thoughtful, calculated, serious and unified response.
We need to protest this, but we have to have teeth and back up what we say we’ll do. I believe we need to have a consistent voice.
My recommendations at this point:
1) Speak to your boss and get his/her blessing to proceed.
2) We need to be very cautious about public statements until we have an agreed upon and unified response
3) Share other similar instances with each other to use.
4) Decline to appear on camera on any UFC broadcast in any form; i.e., no talking heads interviews until this is resolved the right way.
I spoke to Ariel last night. I have called Dave and Dana, but no response. I texted Dana and said it was urgent that I speak to him. I’m going to repeat that today.
To me, this might suggest a coverage boycott, but I don’t know that will be able to be accomplished.

Chad Dundas (Bleacher Report):

Wholeheartedly agree with everything Kevin said. Also agree with Mike that a public letter signed by as many media members as possible would be a good first step. It might not have the teeth Kevin spoke about, but at least it would show a united front among media people.

 Luke Thomas (SBNation):

If speed an issue – and I’m totally inclined to agree with Kevin here – then perhaps a drafted letter condemning this in the strongest possible terms is the first move. In addition, demanding reinstatement seems like an essential component, too.

As for forming a group, that will take a reasonable degree of time, but should also happen. In terms of first priorities, though, some kind of formalized group response, even without a formal identity, seems prudent.
However, everyone who is invested to say whether this sort of thing is good or bad. If there are alternate ideas, please vocalize them.

Jeremy Botter (then FloCombat):

I agree that drafting a letter condemning the action and demanding reinstatement is the way forward.

I would also like to see reinstatement for others who have been banned but can still provide thoughtful coverage on a regular basis, like Josh and Jonathan. Those wrongs should have been righted long ago, but we’ve never stuck together. This is the time to demand it.

Iole:

And frankly, while I threw a boycott out there, I’m not sure that’s the answer in any event. Our readers who look to us for this coverage shouldn’t be penalized.
It might not be a bad idea for us to have a joint call of some kind where this can be debated
The email exchanges are fiery, defiant and resolute. The participants are unified in their need to stand up to White and the UFC.
But then the cracks started to show after Iole makes the assertion that no person accepting a paycheck from UFC.com or Fox Sports be allowed into the association.

Jonathan Snowden (Bleacher Report):

What’s the rationale behind prohibiting members from freelancing for UFC.com? Does that extend to smaller and independent promotions? To websites like Fightland that are reportedly funded by UFC? Organizations like Fox Sports 1 where UFC has explicit editorial control?

Something to consider.

 Iole:

Because you’re getting paid by the very entity that we’re fighting against

So, on one hand, we have to hold ourselves up self-righteously and say we’re journalists and talk about the sanctity of the processd and then turn around and write a piece that THEY can edit and which THEY pay you for. So your credibility, what?

And I’ll add further to that: A member organization MUST have strict standards. So maybe we say no one with FS1 is permitted to join. That’s a discussion for another day, but that is a fundamental tenet of journalism.
And if we violate that and don’t agree to that kind of a rule, banning anyone from working for them, I am out of this organization on the moment that decision is made.

The association push that began on June 5 of last year was over before it began. It splintered for the same reasons it did in the past: journalists who should have been pushing for the same end goal could not overlook their petty differences.

Our sources said Iole first threatened to quit the non-existent association unless Snowden was kicked out, and then Iole quit anyway, only to temporarily return to the table after several media colleagues tried to appease him.

Within days, a smaller group had taken ownership of the entire effort, telling others they were working with editors at USA Today, SB Nation and ESPN to draft a letter, to be sent to White and blasted from every media platform imaginable, demanding Helwani’s reinstatement.

And then: silence.

The last update sent to the larger email group came in the form of a status update from Fowlkes on June 28:

We’re progressing, albeit slowly and methodically. We’ll keep you all in the loop when there are updates to update you with.

There is a chance that the same group of journalists and editors are still hard at work on laying the groundwork for the association.

A more likely reality: with Helwani rightly back where he belongs, none of his peers cared enough about everyone else—including those who still remain on the blacklist, to continue the push forward.

This is a travesty. If journalists take one thing away from reading this story, we hope it’s this: It is long past time for you to band together, to organize and to stand up for your rights.

Don’t wait for someone else to take the lead. Nobody will do it for you.

WHERE DO WE FIT IN?

The role of the ombudsman is an important one in journalism.

For those unfamiliar with the word, here’s the definition from the Organization of News Ombudsmen:

A news ombudsman receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.

It is impractical for an MMA-focused news organization to create a full time ombudsman position; any full-time wages in the sport will almost certainly go to a writer or talent that can produce the kind of content people want to read and not to a luxury position.

A media critic, however, is not beholden to a full-time salary from a news organization. Here’s one definition of the critic role:

Media criticism, at its most fundamental, is the systematic examination of the workings and effects of communication media.

There are many reasons why the news media rarely takes risks in reporting, and why an outside observer is so crucial to the industry and its growth.

  1. Outlets are afraid of losing access to UFC events: The majority of journalists (salaried or not) covering mixed martial arts were fans of the sport before they began covering it. For fans, there’s nothing cooler than being at a live UFC event. Sitting cageside? Forget about it.You’ve got one of the best seats in the house, and you’re one of the cool kids.Those who make the transition to the professional side rarely lose a sense of that  fandom. Some are able to remain professional and unbiased; some are not, and some never become professional in the first place. The prospect of losing a UFC credential overwhelms many journalists, and so they bow to the UFC’s wishes and go out of their way to avoid angering the promotion.
  2. Outlets are financially tied to promoters: This scenario is rare, but it has and does exist. For example, USA Today had a large financial deal with Zuffa that extended over the course of many years.While Zuffa did not directly pay USA Today for positive press, they did spend millions of dollars on advertising with them. Others will speculate that it was a way for UFC to essentially buy coverage, but the relationship between USA Today and the UFC ended quite some time ago, and USA Today is still sending at least one reporter to every UFC and most Bellator events.Still, it raises some concerns and must be watched.There is also Fightland, which has historically had financial ties to the UFC, for which they were rewarded by White wearing a Fightland t-shirt during weigh-ins from time to time. And on a smaller scale you have FloCombat, a booming streaming business that positions itself as a media organization despite being a financial partner to lower level North American and larger European MMA promotions.

If you’ve made it this far in our story, you are more than just a casual onlooker. Congratulations. You are likely a voracious consumer of MMA journalism, and you already know great work is being done in mixed martial arts journalism.

We’re going to spend time highlighting that great work on a regular basis here at MMW. We want nothing more than to act as champions of those who produce amazing work for fans.

But we’re also going to hold the same community of journalists accountable for shoddy work and questionable actions.

You won’t find us making snappy, sarcastic Twitter posts about journalists and their work, but if we hear stories about a journalist accepting payments from a promoter in exchange for coverage, we’ll be diligent in our attempt to bring the truth to light.

When we pursue a story, we will apply the same exhaustive, responsible and impartial journalistic procedures we demand of those we cover here. You will not find rumors or gossip here. When we offer critiques, we will do so not out of spite, but out of a true need to hold MMA journalism to the same kind of fire that refines the journalism in other industries. It’s through this process that MMA journalism can become something greater than the promotional machine extension it often is today.

We know we aren’t likely to make friends, and we’ll hurt feelings from time to time. Not intentionally, of course. But if we can help raise the standard for journalism and media practices in MMA for future generations, we’ll be fine with bruising a few egos.

If you’re interested in contacting us, or you have a story you think we should pursue, please check out the page we’ve created detailing how you can safely and securely do so.

And please follow us on Twitter; we won’t bombard you with tweets or live blogs. You get enough of that already.

One thought on “We Want to Help Fix MMA Journalism. But First, a History Lesson.

  1. Wouldn’t it be great once, just once, to hear one of the eminences assembled at the press conference ask Dana White a hard question? For example: ‘Isn’t it faintly ridiculous, Dana, to call the women’s featherweight division a division, when you have just two ’35ers stocking it?’
    And then follow through with short, blunt questions to pierce his bluster.
    Being Unorganized and the consequent fear of retribution is turning journalists into stenographers.

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