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Webio Warnings Wasted

By Mike Conklin

As Chicago sports fans get fed their steady diet of the Big 5, otherwise known as the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks, the dustup surrounding David J. Hernandez and the alleged Ponzi scheme surrounding Chicagosportswebio.com proves once again how journalism is seldom practiced in sports.

The most basic technique for a reporter - a check of newspaper archives - would have shown to Mike North, Dan Jiggets, Chet Coppock & The Gang that yes, indeedy, Mr. Hernandez and his business plan was too good to be true.

For starters, there were two juicy stories for everyone to see in the Tribune's easily-accessible files to set off alarm bells.

On Aug. 22, 1997, this headline appeared over a story with his name: "Ex-Bank Executive Charged with Stealing from Clients."

In the article, the reporter told how Hernandez was arrested for stealing $500,000 from three clients at Columbia National Bank in Chicago. Just for good measure, he was alleged to have spent some of the money on sports tickets.

On Oct. 22, 1998, this headline appeared: "Ex-Banker Gets Prison in $720, Fraud Case - Elderly Victims' Cash Spent on Sports Events." If this headline didn't set off warning bells, then the 20-paragraph story that followed about him should have deafened everyone.

Did anyone check? Is there any real journalism technique practiced in the sports media anymore, for personal use if nothing else?

In the Chicagosportswebio.com case, it's probably not too surprising. It involved mostly personnel from talk radio and these guys, with a few exceptions, have never been outside a stadium, practice field, or their own office to work a story.

Part of the problem has to be subject overkill, which would diminish anyone's skills. The sixth sidebar from a Bears' post-game locker room should not be mistaken for enterprise journalism. The rush to get us the latest on Jay Cutler's character, Alfonso Soriano's place in the batting lineup, or Ozzie Guillen's most recent, taped tirade doesn't involve real legwork.

You can almost always bet "informed sources" is merely someone from the club's PR office or, worse, another reporter.

As local sports fans continue to get fed very little outside the Big 5, the story involving Mr. Hernandez reminds us how little journalism takes place in sports - not even a simple check of the archives.

Sadly, there's no shortage of real material out there. Here is a quick, unscientific list of ideas, while not part of the Big 5, to consider digging up with facts:

* Steroid use among high school athletes, including girls. Yep, it's here and just waiting for some real reporting;

* The abominable conditions that exist for coaches and athletes in some Chicago Public League high schools;

* And how about a little elbow grease on gambling in college sports? Check out that widening University of Toledo story, which, according to ESPN.com, may have involved at least one basketball game with Northern Illinois University (if you need a local angle to justify the effort with an editor).

Some of this means real sleuthing. News judgment will have to be used, starting with, ahem, checks of newspaper files. For that, there also is this marvelous research engine called LexisNexis and, of course, you could always file a FOIA Freedom of Information Act request to dig into the hard-to-get, but public, documents.

Granted, it won't be as much fun as sitting in the press boxes of our city's sports teams, rubbing elbows with coaches and athletes in the locker room, and interviewing each other.

But, if nothing else, some real reporting might save you from getting burned the next time something sounds, as one Webio refugee put it, too good to be true.

At the same time, there is this: You'd be better serving your audiences.

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Mike Conklin, who spent 35 years at the Tribune, teaches journalism at DePaul University. Comments are welcome.

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1. From Whet Moser:

Loved Mike Conklin's piece and glad to see he's writing for the Beachwood. One note:

"The abominable conditions that exist for coaches and athletes in some Chicago Public League high schools."

One piece jumps to mind: Ben Joravsky on the hurdlers at Lane Tech.

It's just one piece, though; would love to see more like it, from the Reader or anyone else.


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