Sports journalism in an age of transition for all journalism

This is my first blog post to be republished on Bleacher Report. Hi! I’m going to bring some quirks to my writing, which I hope to (re-)introduce you to over the next few days and weeks. I just relaunched my Web site,, where I talk about a wide variety of topics, including some you might never have heard about, and even the topics that are familiar I often talk about from a unique perspective, because I’m constantly thinking about them. On my site, the motto is “Ideas every day”, and to celebrate the launch of the new site, this is Ideas Every Day week month at Because I got the idea for Ideas Every Day week over a month ago, I’m going to start it with some ideas for posts that are not as topical now as they were then.

We are in a period of painful transition in journalism. We are in a period where the Internet is big enough to take a bite out of newspapers but too small to effectively replace them and too young to know what, exactly, will replace them, or how it’ll be paid for. It’s outside the realm of a single blog post for me to proclaim to have all the answers for how to save newspapers or maintain the standards they set in the Internet Age. It covers too much ground, touches on too many aspects of our everyday life. One day I hope to write a book on all the changes the Internet is bringing to society, and maybe I’ll try to find the answers there. Nonetheless this post is on just one symptom, one aspect, of this larger problem, and it unavoidably means talking about the larger problem and thinking about how to fix it.

The second sentence of the preceding paragraph is an important way to describe and look at the situation. For all the trouble that newspapers are in, they still reach many more people than most websites and even most TV news shows. The slow disappearance of newspapers isn’t just about the in-depth journalism that will be lost, which itself is less about the disappearance of newspapers and more about our increasing demands for immediacy. There are still a lot of people, people without any access to the Internet, that are reliant on newspapers (and, admittedly, TV) to know what’s going on in the world. At least in the short term, losing access to newspapers could mean complete disconnection.

The flip side of that is the reality that whatever it is that replaces newspapers, it will exist in a greater number, diversity, and precision than what exists now. The diversity of voices on the Internet has a lot of advantages. But it also has a number of problems.

For many, including me, it’s easy to assume that the future of the Internet and journalism in general will follow the mold set by television, a future largely supported by ads. There are a few problems with this supposition, but one of them is that very, very, very few web sites will have the mass penetration of a leading daily newspaper or TV station. The value of advertising lies primarily in the number of eyeballs you can have seeing your ad; the fewer eyeballs, the less value. While it’s theoretically possible for people to follow more websites than they subscribe to newspapers or watch TV shows, the fact is that there are going to be more voices fighting for a piece of the pie, and there’s a limit as to how big the pie can grow, especially when a lot of the eyeballs are going to be the same people over and over again.

Not all journalistic functions that are going to be changed, and possibly not for the better, by the Internet are time consuming. Some are just expensive, underwritten by less expensive sections of the paper. Something that requires a lot of traveling may attract a significant number of readers and eyeballs, but it’s still going to be harder to pay the bills that go along with it – which in turn, means fewer people are going to be willing to take the plunge. It’s doubly hard when we’re talking about something that requires a lot of traveling yet is still local.

Which brings me to July’s series in the Sports Business Journal on the declining sizes and budgets of newspaper sports sections. Sports sections have reduced staff and page counts, cut travel expenses on beats (especially by not sending writers on the road), and even when they haven’t reduced beat coverage, cut coverage of big events as well.

A one-two punch of the Web and ESPN has put a crimp on local sports sections, and given its frivolity compared to the rest of the paper, I wonder if sports sections will be first to be cut entirely. Hardcore sports fans who once were reliant on the local sports section, or the sports minute on the local newscast, for sports news from anywhere in the country have found ESPN a godsend. A self-reinforcing pattern of people flocking to ESPN for sports coverage in the wake of shrinking coverage in the local paper has started to emerge. There’s now a significant group of people like me who consider themselves general sports fans, rather than necessarily fans of any particular team. The team I have the closest attachment to is the Mariners, and that’s because I’ve been going to a couple of games every year since I was a little kid and feel a sentimental attachment to keep going. I probably couldn’t tell you half the names on the team.

ESPN will tell you when Brett Favre is coming back – they’ll cover the big stars and the big-name teams. That’s why its detractors like to call it the “Eastern Seaboard Programming Network”, despite its willingness to cover LA teams even before opening a studio there. They’ll cover leagues at the macro level, at least to an extent, but as Don Ohlmeyer noted in his first ombudsman column for the boys in Bristol, “programming and commentating for a national audience made up mostly of local interests is a treacherous balancing act.” ESPN itself has suffered from becoming “America’s sports section” in a nation more patriotic about local teams than any other. To get the same level of coverage of individual teams requires a local-level operation whose patrons only expect them to cover two or three teams. There’s less money in those local level operations, so travel expenses have been cut and coverage has suffered.

For teams that aren’t already being doted on by ESPN, that means they’re threatened with a slip to irrelevance. When ESPN puts and keeps an event in the news, people pay attention. If the amount of coverage a team gets in a local paper is a short wire story on the game on page 36 and the amount of coverage on the local news is less than ten seconds, meaning they’re probably getting more coverage from ESPN than the local media (assuming it’s a Big Three team), the team effectively gets shut out. Unless a blogger can become really popular, they’re not going to be much of an improvement, because they either watch the team on TV, cover only the home games live (just like the beat writers who see travel expenses cut), or fork over a considerable amount of money for travel expenses.

That’s why I think it’s smarter for papers to skimp on coverage of big events. Unless their team is in it, people already get more coverage of the Super Bowl or World Series from ESPN alone than they’d ever need, and there are, by my count, nine national sports websites before you go into single-sport websites like the sports’ official sites, fan-powered websites like Bleacher Report, and blogs like Deadspin – ESPN, CBS, Fox, Yahoo, SI, NBC, USA Today, Sporting News, and depending on whether or not you consider it a blog, Fanhouse. What people want, and need, is maintained coverage of the local teams. And if their team is in the championship, no coverage the major sports organizations can provide can match the coverage provided by someone who has grown intimately familiar with the team over the course of the season. But not all papers have realized this, and for papers with large, somewhat national readerships, like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, it poses some tough questions as to which audience to appeal to.

At least in the short term, most of the easy answers are unsavory, involving the dicey concept of teams subsidizing their own coverage, which always raises the specter of conflict of interest. The LA Kings, who saw the Times‘ beat writer stop travelling with them on the road, hired their own freelance writers to write coverage for their own web site.

Now that he’s seen what they can do with editorial content, [Vice President of Broadcasting and Communications Mike] Altieri said he is warming to the idea of hiring a newspaper pro to cover the team both at home and on the road.

They looked into doing it three years ago, but decided against it, mostly because of the expense. The salary of a seasoned professional likely would approach $100,000 in Los Angeles, a difficult expense when he can’t demonstrate that it will lead to more revenue, particularly at a time when the team’s on-ice performance has been shoddy.

If traditional coverage continues to wane and the team improves, it may be worth the money, Altieri said. The debate then will be whether the front office is prepared to occasionally find criticism on its own site. Without it, fans probably won’t view it as credible, and they won’t come back.

The Kings wouldn’t be first: the Dallas Mavericks hired the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s NBA writer as that paper left Mavs coverage to the Dallas Morning News (merging of beats between competing papers has also become common practice where once that level of collusion would have been unthinkable), and at least six NFL teams have done similarly, led by the Bengals’ Geoff Hobson, who has written for the team site for a decade. In Major League Baseball, where the Advanced Media division runs and all 30 club Web sites, 12 online writers have Baseball Hall of Fame votes. The Chicago Bulls, concerned about the loss of legendary Chicago Tribune NBA writer Sam Smith weakening the NBA’s profile in a football- and baseball-crazed market, hired him to continue his work for their site. In their case, they saw the departure (without their intervention) of one writer having a severe impact on their profile. The resulting uptick in traffic suggests other teams may follow the Bulls’ lead in that sense, ignoring the concerns about editorial control and conflict of interest given the larger issues at stake. Major League Baseball seems to have leapt into the future head-on: with no editorial interference from MLB or the clubs, the Advanced Media-run sites are fairly impartial.

Still, given the issues involved, I would suggest a better, less nauseating option, especially in markets without competing papers to share resources, would be to help pay for some of (in the Kings’ case) the Times‘ beat writer’s travel and other expenses – maybe, depending on the comfort level of all parties involved and necessary logistics, even letting him ride on the team plane. That would not only be cheaper than subsidizing all a reporter’s expenses, it would not only lessen (though not eliminate) the appearance of a conflict of interest, it would also restore that broad exposure of coverage. The only people who will find coverage of the Kings on the team’s own site are people who are looking for Kings coverage in the first place – not casual fans, unless they read aggregators, but content providers are very protective of content these days and some of them want to kill aggregators for “stealing” content.

Flamboyant Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has in fact taken this idea one better: he’s proposed that the major sports leagues form a “beat writer’s cooperative,” “hiring reporters who would provide daily content to local newspapers in exchange for guaranteed space in the print edition.” He’s gone on record stating he doesn’t believe a team Web site is the place for objective, unbiased opinions and reporting, but for selling the team. (He does think it’s the place to break news despite the risk that runs of antagonizing papers the team needs more than ever.)

If local teams are concerned about the loss of local beat writers, at least those writers spend half their time at home, and the emphasis on their presence adds up to less concern for the leagues. Take all the pressure faced by each of 30 teams, ratchet it up considerably, and concentrate it in one place and you have the problems facing individual sports – NASCAR and golf most prominently – that are all travel no matter where in the country you are.

It’s easy to separate the national and local levels in team sports – ESPN and the national outfits cover the biggest games like the playoffs, local outfits focus on the local teams. But that dynamic goes completely out of whack in the NASCAR and PGA tours, where for years local beat writers often spent all their time on the road. Considering the additional expense that entails, it’s no surprise those beats have often been axed entirely. Even national chains (who could conceivably get by with one beat between them) and content-sharing local papers have severely cut back coverage as writers have left for the Web. But that just puts more pressure on the national outfits to put as much resources into covering every event on the tour as local outfits do into covering every game for their local teams. It’s easy to cover the big races like the Daytona 500 and the majors – but the Local Dodge Dealers 400 and the side tournament Tiger’s skipping on some random golf course in Texas somewhere? Other than golf-specific magazines, only the AP, New York Times, and three of the aforementioned sports sites (ESPN, CBS, and USA Today, the latter more as a paper than a Web site) have a regular presence on the PGA tour.

PGA Tour Executive Vice President of Communications and International Affairs Ty Votaw insists that, mostly because of ESPN’s and CBS’s online presences, there’s still more being written about golf than ever… but here we run into that little “transition” problem, and a potential harbinger of problems to come. As with local teams, newspaper beat writers are a more visible place for coverage than a team web site, and unless they take the form of a blog, national sports sites aren’t really much better than the latter. Although Web sites have more space than newspapers, the amount the average fan will see is less. General sports fans can easily look through every page of the sports section, but they can only look at the front page of the Web site before anything they aren’t already interested in falls off the radar in favor of what they already came to look at. (The value of RSS for improving this situation is… iffy.) The result is a far more Darwinian competition for space than that which ever existed in the sports section.

For NASCAR, it seems like the universe has it in for them. NASCAR devoted so many resources to encouraging newspapers to covering their circuit in the late 90s as they made a push to be accepted as one of the modern four major sports… only to see their efforts wasted in the face of the juggernaut destroying the business they courted, and in a position to be first to go. Many papers haven’t ended NASCAR coverage entirely but switched to running abridged AP copy. NASCAR has attempted to adjust by removing the travel from its coverage – running weekly streaming press conferences with e-mailed questions from around the country – and, like local teams, has begun credentialing bloggers and other Web-based operations.

There is a silver lining in this for teams and leagues: as newspapers die, sports coverage may slither to the Web easier than you may think. Smith’s example suggests that sportswriters with large – even if strictly local – followings may be in the best shape of anyone threatened by the decline of newspapers; they have a ready-made audience to follow them to the Web in the form of a blog or just a series of columns for another web site. Unlike most journalism, sportswriting lends itself well to a conversion to blog format. Several sportswriters – especially those let go by ailing newspapers – have found new homes at a league or team web site, one of the national sports sites (ESPN seems especially popular), or even starting their own blog or web site.

Which approach is best for the sport or team varies. The best approach to reach a general audience is probably the national sports sites for the sports in general, especially the big individual ones. For local teams, the future for reaching a general audience may be dicier, at least until more local Web-based sites spring up and become popular. For their part, ESPN is trying to broaden and focus their mandate; earlier this year they launched, a site dedicated to coverage of Chicago-area teams. The site quickly attracted more eyeballs than the Chicago Tribune‘s online sports section, and ESPN will soon launch similar sites for New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas. All four cities are places where ESPN owns a radio station (Pittsburgh being the only other), but few doubt that they’ll eventually expand beyond that zone into markets like Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington DC.

If what’s wanted is coverage, regardless of whether that coverage only reaches the people that are looking for it, a blog may be the best approach to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, at least for the writer looking for creative freedom, and for the sport or team that’s looking for a diversity of voices. But that sends the writer plunging headlong into the issue plaguing so much else of the Internet: the question of money. (SBJ’s profile of Racin’ Today, started by four laid-off motorsports writers, encapsulates many of the issues involved.)

Over the seven or so years that it’s run, ESPN’s Around the Horn has almost been emblematic of the changes coming over journalism. It started as a show for banter between four newspaper sportswriters. From west to east, the current lineup of writers includes: Bill Plaschke (Los Angeles Times); J.A. Adande (formerly L.A. Times, now; Woody Paige (Denver Post, excepting about a year working double duty as co-host of Cold Pizza-turned-First Take‘s 1st and 10 segment); Tim Cowlishaw (Dallas Morning News); Jay Mariotti (formerly Chicago Sun-Times, now Fanhouse, though probably moving to the Chicago Tribune); Kevin Blackistone (formerly Dallas Morning News, now Fanhouse after a lengthy unemployment); Bob Ryan; and Jackie MacMullan (both Boston Globe). Only five out of eight regular panelists still work for newspapers, and because Mariotti shows up almost every day, it’s a rare sight to see nothing but newspaper writers on one show. Occasional panelist Gene Wojcehowski moved from the Sun-Times to; Michael Smith became an occasional panelist (after being a regular for a while) after moving from the Globe to On ATH‘s “big brother” show, Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser no longer works for the Washington Post.

There’s one other noteworthy thing about ATH: almost always, the youngest person on the show is host Tony Reali. Perhaps more disturbing, the youngest of the panelists still at a newspaper is Cowlishaw, who seems to be in his 40s if not 50s, and the only regular panelist I’d even suspect not to be in his 40s or above is Adande. It takes a long time for a sportswriter to build a reputation and following, but there haven’t been a lot of writers to get their start this decade. Newspaper sports sections are being further crunched by the fact most people who once might have been aspiring sportswriters are getting a head start on the future and starting out on the web and firing up their own blogs, free of editorial control and deadlines. Bill Simmons once aspired to be the next Ryan, but instead found enough of a following with his “Boston Sports Guy” web site he was picked up by and is now one of the site’s major attractions. Until recently he even had a regular column in ESPN the Magazine – akin to being a regular writer for Sports Illustrated.

Ultimately, the content of sports journalism will come out intact and possibly even expanded. It’s just an open question how much it’ll change in the process.

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