SBJ/20090720/This Week's News

First to make jump, he still walks a fine line

The bloggers and the fans who bang the message boards often peg him as a sycophant, a mouthpiece for Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown. Around the team offices and the locker room, some question why he insists on covering their failings; not just on the field, but also off it.

Before there was a full-fledged MLB Advanced Media, with a beat writer in every city and disclaimers at the bottom of every story, there was Geoff Hobson, who in 1999 left a job covering the Bengals to do what they told him would be similar work for the team’s Web site.

For someone like Hobson, who set a goal of writing sports for a newspaper when he was 12 years old, it meant a leap across a cavern, leaving behind the known world of traditional media for the Internet — and with a significant catch that some colleagues found troubling.

“Ultimately, I work for the team,” said Hobson, who was the first writer to make what now is a common jump from independent to team-owned media. “That’s the thing. They do sign my checks. I think I’ve been able to marry both. But it’s been tough. Some people on the team think I’m too tough on them. The bloggers and people on the message board and my critics think I’m a lap dog for the team. I guess since neither side is always happy I’m doing my job, right?

“If you care what people think, it’s tough. If you don’t, you’re OK. You’re serving a lot of masters.”

The marriage came about because Bengals owner Mike Brown believed that the team Web site needed strong, original content in order to attract an audience. He read Hobson’s coverage in the Enquirer and believed moving him over would bring a following, a prediction that proved correct. The Bengals site has approached 900,000 unique visitors a month, a brisk rate for an NFL market of Cincinnati’s size.

Brown first floated the idea at league meeting, while having lunch with Hobson, daughter Katie Blackburn and son Paul.

“I think all three of them were somewhat skeptical at first,” said Mike Brown, chuckling. “I never envisioned it as writing for a house organ. . . . I told him from the very beginning that I wanted him writing the way he writes for a newspaper. We give him great latitude. And I think that that gives him credibility.

“I didn’t want him to be mocking or disparaging, which a lot of times you see in newspapers. But I wanted him to report fully and accurately and give our people a sense and insight into the team. And he has certainly fulfilled my expectations.”

Hobson said Brown “knew what he was getting” when he hired him. While at the Enquirer, Hobson wrote that the franchise should examine hiring a general manager, rather than allowing Brown to continue in that role, as he has. He said Brown has been supportive of him, even when others in the organization have complained.

Still, you won’t find the sort of no-holds-barred criticism of the front office or coaching staff that you find in the papers that cover the team.

“If beating up the Bengals is what you’re looking for, there’s plenty of it out there,” Hobson said. “But I’m not sure why anybody expects to find that on a team site. It’s It’s not”

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