SBJ/20090126/Opinion

Partnership with sports could be newspapers’ saving grace

Newspapers are going the way of analog television. While antiquated TVs get replaced with high def, newspapers don’t have anything to keep the wired generation coming back for more.

The advertiser-supported financial model isn’t working. Most American newspapers were having a tough time before the bottom fell out of the economy last quarter. Ultimately, newspapers are putting up “going out of business” signs because there are fewer people reading print editions. And newspapers failed to quickly adapt to the Internet. Sites like Craigslist, eBay and Monster revolutionized classifieds by offering free listings and free access to consumers, further siphoning off advertisers and readers.

For those papers fortunate to stay in business, they have responded by reducing pages, reducing coverage and laying off writers, which in turn is leading to a vicious cycle of additional subscriber cancellations.

At the current failure rate, there won’t be any more dailies to read in a few years. We need a radical solution. Enter the always mavericky Mark Cuban. He suggests that sports teams and leagues work together and hire a few pool beat writers in each major league city. The journalists would write for the local papers but be paid by the teams. The papers would have complete editorial control over the writers, but would guarantee at least one full page of in-depth coverage of each pro sport during its season. This concept seems like a win-win for all the parties. The papers would each get a few top journalists’ salaries funded, fans would get the in-depth and local information they crave, and the teams and leagues would get the local publicity and coverage they need, as well as daily access to middle- and upper-income fans.

Like Cuban, I still love getting my news from papers. Even though I have 24/7 access to the Internet, I actually prefer holding a paper, bringing it to the gym and reading in-depth analysis and columns.

But staying informed through dailies is impossible. There just isn’t much coverage any more. When I moved to Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times had beat writers covering and traveling with every Southern California team, in-depth coverage of many national games and hundreds of features. Today, most sports sections have been gutted and wire reports are increasingly replacing real writers.

Which is why Cuban’s proposal deserves serious consideration. He understands the role of the media in sports. We wouldn’t have a multibillion-dollar sports industry today if not for the sports media. A century ago there was little, if any, sports coverage, and the revenue reflected the dearth of information. Over 60 years ago, Connie Mack, longtime manager of the Philadelphia A’s (1901-50), told the press, “When I entered the game, (sports) received only a few lines as news. These few lines extended into columns and pages. In ratio the crowds in our ballparks grew and grew. News, like advertising, is a powerful momentum … The professional sporting world was created and is being kept alive by the services extended by the press.”

Today, sports consumers expect huge amounts of media coverage of professional sports. If we let a major facet of the press die out, the teams, leagues and even players will suffer. There are numerous other components of sports media thriving today, from sports talk radio to television to the Internet. But people still like following their teams in their local newspapers. And most online writers and sportscasters learned their trade in the newspaper beat-writing trenches. All of which is why we should be coming up with unique solutions that challenge our long-held beliefs about the newspaper industry.

This brings me back to Cuban’s proposal. Why shouldn’t teams help fund their coverage and publicity? They did from the early days of sports journalism through the 1980s. While teams didn’t pay for salaries, they significantly underwrote the coverage. Local reporters used to travel with the teams, stay in team hotels and were fed on the teams’ tab.

Few, if any, screamed bias during those seven decades. Just this past fall the Chicago Bulls hired former Chicago Tribune basketball beat writer Sam Smith as their Bulls.com full-time reporter and blogger. No one would ever describe Smith as a “homer.” His famous book, “The Jordan Rules,” published after the Bulls first championship in 1991, aired some dirty laundry. But it also captivated.

So long as papers have editorial control, why does it matter if the money for salaries comes from Taco Bell, which sponsors the Lakers, or the Lakers? The sponsors and advertisers don’t demand certain coverage or viewpoints from reporters. If team owners and executives actually give journalists the freedom to honestly cover games, ask the tough questions and don’t interfere with the content, Cuban’s radical proposal could work.

If newspapers are not willing to embrace this drastic model to help preserve their futures, maybe they should consider banding together to fund a sportswriting cooperative similar to Pro Publica’s (www.propublica.org) investigative reporting cooperative, which provides exclusives to certain media outlets after it breaks a story. It would be more challenging, since teams need to be covered locally, not nationally. But a solution is needed to continue in-depth beat reporting, features and coverage of the business of sports.

Cuban’s team-funded sportswriter pool or a sportswriting cooperative may not be the answer, but they are definitely innovative ways to address the problem. And at least they get the conversation started. But we need to brainstorm, quickly, before sports journalists go the way of analog TVs.

Debbie Spander (debbie.spander@comedycentral.com) is a sports and entertainment attorney, a director of the Sports Lawyers Association, and the daughter of award-winning sports columnist Art Spander.

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