SBJ/20090720/This Week's News

For tours like NASCAR and golf, disappearing local bylines reduce the reach of the sports

Forced to choose between criss-crossing the country with touring circuits such as NASCAR and golf or following a pro franchise that plays half its games in town, most sports editors will spend their money tracking the local teams for which readers cheer.

While a relatively small share of papers have stopped traveling with their local ball teams, a parade have opted off of the NASCAR circuit and the PGA Tour.

A dozen of the 50 papers surveyed said they eliminated motorsports as a beat or reduced coverage to only the races in their backyard. Five of the 50 said they had axed the golf beat. Eight papers reported that they skipped the Masters and U.S. Open after covering both in 2008.

Take away the specialized golf magazines and you can count the outlets that maintain a standing presence on the PGA Tour on one hand: The Associated Press, USA Today, ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and The New York Times.

Not only are the beat writers evaporating, but fewer papers allowed their columnists to travel to golf’s majors this year.

“We’ve seen an evolving of the makeup of a golf tournament media center to now be probably five guys who are consistent presences,” said Ty Votaw, executive vice president of communications and international affairs for the PGA Tour and former LPGA commissioner. “For the tournaments that take place in their markets, the local newspapers fully staff those. But they don’t send their writers out to other events.”

In spite of this, Votaw contends that more words are written about golf now than ever, thanks in large part to the bottomless reservoir of Web pages from ESPN and CBS.

The concern there isn’t how much is produced, but who sees it. There’s plenty for the golf fan who seeks out stories, but what about for the general sports fan who skims and scans? Just as Votaw would prefer that more golf appear on the ESPN.com front page, rather than be buried where only the golf fans drill, he worries that the disappearance of local bylines is costing the sport better play in newspapers.

Fewer daily newspapers are sending reporters
to follow the PGA Tour’s far-flung events.

“If you’re going to invest in a writer to go cover the Masters or PGA Championship or The Players, then you’re going to put it on the first or second or third page every day,” Votaw said. “Not on the agate page or back on page 9.

“There are more words being written about golf, even with these cutbacks, than before. It’s just a question of: Are as many people reading it?”

No one has been throttled worse by the changing landscape than NASCAR, which for years made the rounds to sports editors at big papers, trying to convince them to devote more space, staff and travel budget to its increasingly mainstream series.

John Griffin, vice president of public relations at the IndyCar Series, headed communications for NASCAR when it was making its push for broad acceptance in the late ’90s.

“It took years, but we finally got them to cover us,” Griffin said. “And now we’re in this economic time, and all bets are off. Here we are, motorsports has the respect that it earned and that was warranted, but now we’ve got to find our way into a six-page sports section that has become locally focused.

“It’s tough.”

 By traditional tracking standards, all is well for NASCAR. Coverage is up 8 percent in the 44 newspapers that serve the nation’s 20 largest markets, according to NASCAR tracking data. The average paper had run 136 stories, compared with 126 at the same time last year.

NASCAR’s communications director, Ramsey Poston, was surprised when he saw the data, because his eyes told him otherwise. Then he thought it through.

Papers that once staffed races and ran features by their own racing writers were instead using AP reports with the same, or slightly greater, frequency. The tracking data counted stories, not inches.

“God bless the AP, they have been dedicated to NASCAR,” Poston said. “But, let’s face it, that AP story is probably cut and on 3C. They wouldn’t do that if it were their own writer.”

NASCAR still makes its annual run through newspaper offices, but now it is more of a fact-finding mission than a sales pitch. Poston soaks up all he can about the direction newsrooms are heading. If papers won’t send reporters to the story, perhaps he can take the story to them.

“When there are no more budgets there are no more budgets,” Poston said. “So how do you set up a plan for reporters to cover the sport from their desks?”

While that may not appeal to many traditional journalists, NASCAR is giving it a run. Each Thursday, it streams press conferences with its top 12 drivers on its media Web site. Reporters can e-mail questions, Poston said. Soon, the definition of “reporter” will stretch beyond the traditional bounds.

Last month, NASCAR announced a “citizen journalists” program that encourages bloggers and other operators of motocentric Web sites to apply for the sort of access previously reserved for traditional media outlets. Once approved as a member of the corps, a blogger will have access to NASCAR’s media site and can be credentialed to cover races.

“If we see a breach of professionalism, they won’t be invited back,” Poston said. “But through the vetting we’re doing, we’re seeing some good sites. Our fans are reading them. Those independent sites are part of this changing media world.”

Teams across all sports have opened their doors to bloggers. Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened up a “bloggers row” in the press box for the month of May this year.

IndyCar also is creating plug-and-play content that newspapers — and bloggers, for that matter — can easily embed on their Web site. For each upcoming race, the interactive feature allows readers to click on icons that sprout from a layout of that week’s venue, taking them to various interactive features, including video of a driver’s view of a lap around the track.

It won’t fully make up for the lost 700-word feature, Griffin said, but at least it’s helping Indy maintain a presence, if only on a paper’s Web site.

“I feel like I’m going back in time to early in my career,” Griffin said. “I gotta call a sports editor and say, ‘Who is covering our race next week?’ And it’s not like I go into Dallas and it’s Terry Blount and John Sturbin. Both are long gone.”

Blount, who covered motorsports for 11 years, first at the Houston Chronicle and then the Dallas Morning News, left for ESPN.com in 2006 and wasn’t replaced on the beat. Sturbin, longtime motorsports writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was laid off in June and has since gone in on a Web site with old colleagues (see story).

The two papers in one of the nation’s last, multipaper markets are sharing content. But in the case of motorsports, neither is producing much.

The papers in the Chicago Tribune chain — which includes the Los Angeles Times  and, about 50 miles southwest of NASCAR headquarters, the Orlando Sentinel — had access to some of the better motorsports coverage in the country when it employed former SI writer Ed Hinton.

But Hinton left for ESPN last year, and the Tribune chain cut back the resources it devoted to motorsports dramatically.

“The real question for us has to be, by market, how much does that matter?” said Mike Kellams, associate managing editor for sports at the Tribune. “In Orlando and Newport News, having diminished NASCAR coverage has a greater impact on them and their readership than it does for me in Chicago. … The complaints I get are basically zero. It’s just not on the radar that way.”

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