Tait’s move to Bombers signals shift in CFL coverage

Shortly after I started covering the Ticats for the Hamilton Spectator in 2009, I begged Ed Tait for help.

Tait, who would enter the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing two years later for his work covering the Bombers for the Winnipeg Free Press, was considered one of the very best in the business. I got his number from my colleague Steve Milton, who had grown tired of my incessant questions on the intricacies of the CFL and advised me to call one of the few people who knew more about the league than he did.

Eddie could not have been more helpful. In addition to explaining all manner of things over the next couple of years, he also became an emergency Rolodex, sharing phone numbers and player contact information on a regular basis. To say this is an unusual level of generosity in the sometimes cutthroat media business is to describe Jon Gott as man with some stubble on his chin.

Here’s the thing: most of the reporters and columnists who cover the CFL don’t see themselves as full-fledged competitors, but fellow members of a select, unkempt, quirky and undefinably unique tribe. Everybody wants to be first with a story and respected by their audience – that goes without saying – but there’s also an understanding that we’re all in the same increasingly leaky boat, dealing with the same challenges, pressures and conflicts. Demonstrate a commitment to the craft, return the occasional favour, buy a round when it’s your turn and you can find yourself with a dozen or so good friends and helpful colleagues across the country.

Last week, Ed Tait left the Free Press and joined the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as the director of digital content. It begs the question: should we kick him out of the club and make him return his jacket?

In truth, the questions raised by Eddie’s departure are much more complex and speak both to the challenges faced by traditional media and the ongoing effort by professional leagues and teams to produce and control their own content.

His reasons for leaving aren’t hard to figure out: like all newspapers, the Winnipeg Free Press is facing declining circulation, revenues and its newsroom is being gutted by cost reductions.

“As much as I trust what’s going on at the Free Press – they are an independent with lots of great ideas – there’s lots of uncertainty in the industry,” he told me last week in conversation that, rather weirdly, had to be prefaced with an understanding that he was speaking on the record. “That led me to sniff around on some things and this gave me the best of the previous gig I had and the chance to try some new things.”

When he was on the Bomber beat – he’s covered the NHL’s Jets the last two years – I would have described Eddie’s reporting as tough but fair. He gave credit and praise when warranted but he also wasn’t afraid to criticize players, coaches and front office types he felt deserved it (and this is a guy who covered Mike Kelly and Joe Mack, so let’s just say he wasn’t lacking for opportunity.)

It was clear in talking with Eddie that the move to the Bombers came together quickly and while there was some discussion with team president Wade Miller around objectivity, the rules of engagement remain a work in progress.

“That’s a great question and it’s something that I’m going to have to walk a fine line with. Clearly, you’re not going to read that the Bombers should fire ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z.’ Not that I ever really did that much before,” Tait said. “But I also told Wade ‘if you guys lose 34-3, I’m not going to be writing about how the long snapper had a good night. They’re cool with that. It’s going to be a bit of a dance but I hope to be just as fair and objective as I always have.”

Eddie also told me he took the job without talking to either head coach Mike O’Shea or general manager Kyle Walters. I would also suggest that no matter how the club has structured the parameters of Tait’s coverage in the relative calm of May, things won’t truly be tested until the first bad loss or losing streak.

And some things are going to be verboten, no matter what. When he covered the team on daily basis, Tait had sources all over the city and the league, including agents, scouts, players and members of the team’s board of directors. He had clandestine access to the team’s negotiation list and routinely mined it for stories.

“I would imagine some of that it going to change,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be chasing stories, talking to sources as much as I used to because that’s something the club is going to want to protect.”

What he will have, however, is tremendous access and – and this is important – the talent to take advantage of it.

CFL teams have traditionally staffed their websites with interns, asking 20-somethings with little training, experience or league knowledge to produce content. Whether that’s even legal in some provinces – never mind ethical – is an open question. And while some of those interns have produced some good work and several gone on to have careers in the field, the vast majority don’t yet have the skill set of a professional journalist. And yes, like playing quarterback, this job is harder than it looks.

The NHL, the NFL and MLB have been hiring people like Eddie for years but this is the first time a CFL team has done so. By hiring Ed Tait and paying him a wage similar to his newspaper one – and yes I asked him because I have no shame – the Blue Bombers have upgraded their talent level significantly.

“The things we often hear that we don’t do enough of in the newspaper industry, I’ve got an access now that a newspaper writer doesn’t to tell some more in-depth stories and do it on a multi-media platform,” Tait said. “The Blue Bombers want to become their own news source for fans and so that might mean we’ll be breaking more stories. The club wants to control their content right from the beginning, not just issue a press release. Now it will be a press release and a story, all on one website.”

There’s part of me that can’t believe it took a CFL team this long to invest in their content. The number of conventional journalists covering the league and individual teams declines every year and the future, at this point, is bleak. The Postmedia/Sun chain is losing money and facing $672 million in debt payments over the next two-plus years: they employ the beat writers and columnists in eight of the nine CFL cities. The only exception is Hamilton and while things are marginally better at Torstar/Metroland, one of the reasons we launched 3Down was to try a different economic model around producing and presenting CFL coverage.

Whatever concerns I might have with teams competing with traditional media, that doesn’t change the reality: the Bombers have just taken a giant step forward. My feelings on the subject are further complicated by the fact that I like and respect Eddie and while I worry that he’s traded one uncertainty for another, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“It was a little weird. I walked out of the Free Press after handing in my computer and my security badge… it’s not easy. It’s all I’ve known since 1987. It’s exciting and scary at the same time,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t intrigued by the opportunity.”

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