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No news is bad news
Published July 20, 2009
The Los Angeles Kings were finishing up a morning practice in Montreal, early in a two-week road swing in February, when word came down that the NHL had grounded defenseman Denis Gauthier for five games for a hit that rattled HD screens across North America.
A tree had fallen in the forest, and the hockey writer from the Los Angeles Times — the dominant paper in the nation’s second largest market — was back on the left coast, chasing the story by phone, as she often has in the three seasons since the paper stopped traveling with the Kings.
The next morning, it would lead the briefs column on page 3.
During a rare trip on which the moribund Kings won four in a row, the Times ran game stories on pages 4, 5 and 10, none of them longer than 400 words. All were generic dispatches from The Associated Press.
“If we’re gone for an extended trip, we fall off the map,” said Mike Altieri, the Kings’ vice president of broadcasting and communications. “Our team is gone for 14 days sometimes. That’s a significant time to not be in what is the primary voice in the local marketplace.
“I want to look at it in a positive way and say that when one door closes another opens. But are we going to reach that same audience in any other way? Not at this point in time.”
For executives who for years have used the daily paper as the primary way to keep their teams top of mind, the steady, debilitating bleed of the news industry has been painful to watch; its impact difficult to diagnose; the most effective response elusive.
Sports sections are thinner, staffs trimmer, travel budgets cut to the quick. For some teams, the shift has been seismic.
For all that has changed on the media landscape, newspapers still provide the broadest, most consistent way in which a team or event promoter can reach consumers without paying for it.
Broad-based advertising, provided daily, for free.
And now, in most cities, there is less of it.
In a much-discussed entry on his blog in December, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban summed up life in a sports media world now dominated by a four-lettered monolith (Read: ESPN), where fans are bombarded with minute-by-minute updates from Brett Favre’s front lawn but must dig deep to find textured coverage of the teams in their town.
“Despite the huge volume of sports coverage,” Cuban wrote, “the local coverage of teams for the most part sucks.”
SportsBusiness Journal recently surveyed editors from 50 North American daily newspapers (46 U.S., four Canada) that regularly covered at least one team in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball both at home and on the road. The pool included 15 of the nation’s 25 largest daily papers and 30 of the largest 50.
Those 50 departments had cut the equivalent of 303 full-time jobs through an 18-month span that ended in May, reducing staff sizes by about 20 percent through a combination of buyouts and layoffs.
Not surprisingly, sports sections are smaller. Space was down about 20 percent from the start of last year, with sections sliced by an average of six pages per week, or almost a page a day. For many, that continues a steady decline that began about five years ago.
All but two papers reported reductions in travel.
Those who have gone along merrily assuming that shrinking sections would be balanced by an expanding menu on the Web should be reminded that this isn’t simply a reduction of space. It’s also a purge of the labor force, with some of the more experienced, better paid writers and editors counted among the casualties.
While those who are left are posting online more often than they used to, fewer bodies and leaner travel bankrolls have meant less original content overall, derailing the migration process at many papers.
“There’s less coverage, period,” said Lynn Hoppes, former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, who ran the Orlando Sentinel sports department before leaving for ESPN.com in April. In the last 10 years, the Sentinel’s body count in sports dropped from 51 to 27.
“If you have fewer people covering, what you automatically have is fewer stories, fewer notes, fewer sources,” Hoppes said. “If I’m sending one person [to an event] instead of two or three or four, that one person can’t really cover anything. Can’t work sources the way they used to. Can’t get to both locker rooms.
“You’re not only getting less, you’re getting less quality and less depth.”
While larger papers have continued to staff their local teams, many have eliminated league writers and cut back on the number they send to games. A handful of big papers have stopped traveling with some teams, as the Los Angeles Times did with hockey.
It costs about $50,000 a year to send a writer out with a Major League Baseball club for a year, according to several sports editors. The bill on the NBA and NHL is about $35,000 each. NFL travel is relatively cheap at less than $10,000. In cities where flights are more expensive, the bill can be higher. One paper that travels with teams in three leagues spent $141,000 sending out writers and photographers last year.
Among the grounded:
Four of the papers surveyed stopped traveling with NHL teams entirely and four others skipped some road trips.
Three papers skipped some road trips with NBA teams. One stopped traveling entirely.
Four papers — all of them midsized or suburban dailies — stopped staffing MLB teams. Three others stopped traveling.
Two papers plan to stop covering nearby NFL teams this season. Two others will eliminate NFL travel.
The travel-intensive touring beats — motorsports and golf — have gone the way of the blacksmith at most papers.
Some sports editors have managed to protect their core beats, but even those have taken aim on big event coverage. Thirty of those surveyed pointed to cuts in travel to a golf or tennis major, an iconic car or horse race or a league championship series.
Only 11 of the papers that serve NBA markets were in both Los Angeles and Orlando for the Finals this year. When the Cavs played the Spurs two years ago, that number was 26. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution skipped the Super Bowl in Tampa, one state away. One of the nation’s 20 largest papers cut trips to the Super Bowl, World Series, Daytona 500, Indy 500, three U.S. golf majors and horse racing’s Triple Crown, all in the last year.
The Los Angeles Times skipped the MLB All-Star game, instead relying on the Chicago Tribune.
“We don’t need to put our own stamp on that,” said Los Angeles Times sports editor Randy Harvey. “We can take that money and send an extra person to New York for when Manny (Ramirez) comes back.”
That sort of choice is a relatively new one at the Los Angeles Times, where for the better part of 25 years Harvey’s predecessor, Bill Dwyre, was known for flying platoons of writers across the country and around the globe.
“Dwyre had a budget to follow, so he had to make choices,” Harvey said. “But it was mainly things like whether you were going to cover the world track championships or the world swimming championships or both.
“He didn’t have to decide whether to cover the Kings or not.”
The Nashville Predators already felt they were getting short-sheeted in a market that has neither an NBA nor MLB team when the only paper in the town, The Tennessean, stopped sending its beat writer on the road with them for the final two months of last season.
“Even when they were traveling, the amount of space they gave the beat writer was ridiculous,” said Gerry Helper, senior vice president of communications and development for the Predators. “We need more coverage. More attention. If we don’t feel we’re reaching a broad enough audience, or even reaching our core fans (through the local newspaper), we have to find other ways.”
For the Kings, the other way came in the form of the “Royal Road Report,” a Web site feature that runs when the team plays away from home. Starting midway through last season, the team hired freelance writers to attend practices and morning skates, interview players and coaches, cover games and file stories.
When Gauthier was suspended, there was coverage of the announcement that day and a follow-up the next day when the team was in Ottawa.
When the Kings are on the road, the team site offers exponentially more content than either the Times or the Los Angeles Daily News. Now that he’s seen what they can do with editorial content, 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 thing that makes it so difficult is you have to get all the constituencies on the same page with it,” Altieri said. “And the opinions are so wide ranging. To get everybody on board with it — that’s the challenge.”
In Nashville, Helper said he has contemplated what he’d do when the papers went away almost from the time that the team came to town a dozen years ago. After working for both the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as in the league office, he went into the job in Nashville optimistic that coverage would be plentiful because it was a two newspaper town, and papers frequently put more resources behind a beat when they’re competing on it.
Eight months before the Predators first game, the Nashville Banner folded.
“That was a concern for me,” Helper said. “And as history has borne out it was a pretty legitimate one.”
The Preds haven’t gone as far as the Kings in providing coverage, instead trying to build relationships with bloggers, credentialing a couple in Nashville for games and trading e-mails with some who opine on hockey from a national perspective.
Opening the press box to bloggers has become common practice now that the traditional media corps no longer fills its allotted spaces. Teams also are looking more to niche outlets, such as those that serve the Spanish-speaking or Asian communities.
Seeking coverage outside the dominant papers not only reaches consumers who aren’t already following the teams closely, it’s also cheaper than producing more Web content. And some public relations directors see it as less perilous.
“We’re trying to do more and more on our own Web site, but that presents some internal challenges,” Helper said. “Are you a true newsmaker and newsbreaker? We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Whether a team should break news on its site is a debate that has percolated ever since teams began creating content.
Cuban says he wants any news that the team has control over — like the hiring of a coach, signing of a free agent, or a trade — to show up on Mavs.com before it appears elsewhere. But many PR directors worry that undercutting the local papers on news would give them even more reason to pull back on coverage.
Then again, if the coverage is already drying up, they don’t have much to lose.“If the traditional media are covering your product to a lesser degree, you can’t just stand there and treat it as business as usual,” said David Newman, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the New York Mets, who counts himself fortunate to be in a competitive market where baseball coverage remains vibrant. “It’s all about content. If you have a Web site without game stories, preview stories and other real editorial content, you’re not going to have a Web site people are going to be very interested in visiting.”
When he learned in March that Sam Smith, longtime chronicler of all things NBA and author of best-seller “The Jordan Rules,” was taking a buyout from the Chicago Tribune, Steve Schanwald contemplated the impact on his business.
As executive vice president of the Chicago Bulls, Schanwald suspected that when Smith went, so too would his weekly NBA mailbag, a staple of the Tribune sports section. Even if the Trib continued the column, Schanwald worried that the departure of so well-known a voice would weaken the sport’s profile in a town that includes the Cubs, Bears and White Sox.
In October, the Bulls announced a deal to make their Web site the exclusive home of Smith’s work. He would cover games, write a daily blog, host chat sessions and, of course, bring along his popular weekly mailbag.
“We felt that the elimination of his two decade long weekly column on pro basketball from the Tribune’s pages would be a blow to the NBA’s prestige in our market, and hence a blow to our prestige,” Schanwald explained during a recent e-mail exchange, which is his preferred means of communicating with reporters. “We felt it was incumbent upon us to fill that void.”
What the Bulls have done with Smith is not particularly new.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban hired the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s NBA writer, Art Garcia, who has since moved on to Turner and NBA.com.
A decade ago, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bengals writer, Geoff Hobson, jumped from the newspaper to the team’s Web site, where he remains employed today. Since then at least a half dozen NFL writers have made similar moves.
In its nine years, MLB.com has thrown lifelines to ink-stained wretches from coast to coast. There are now a dozen MLB Web writers who hold Hall of Fame votes, including editor Mark Newman, national writers Hal Bodley and Barry Bloom and beat writers Marty Nobles (Mets), T.R. Sullivan (Rangers), Carrie Muskat (Cubs), Dick Kaegel (Royals) and Chris Haft (Giants).
What’s different about the Bulls hire is the motivation.
The franchise wasn’t simply trying to upgrade the coverage on its own site. It was reacting to what it believed to be a threat to its standing as a brand. Based solely on Web traffic, it’s difficult to justify the salary that an experienced journalist can demand. But when other coverage is shrinking, the dynamic changes.
Schanwald says it’s working, pointing to Web metrics that are up by every measure since Bulls.com added Smith’s stuff. Page views increased by almost 7 percent, unique monthly visits grew by 11 percent and time spent per visit rose by 13 percent. Smith’s work accounts for about 10 percent of all traffic to Bulls.com, Schanwald said.
While those are upticks, they’re hardly shape-shifters. But, taken in the context of a team trying to replace lost content, the gain might justify a hire for more teams.
“We are but the first of many teams that will, out of necessity, hire someone like Sam to fill this void which is being left by the ongoing cutbacks in sports coverage occurring in markets all over the country,” Schanwald wrote. “What we have done with Sam, other teams will do as well. As time goes on, it will become more and more mainstream, common, and therefore accepted by those who might be a bit uncomfortable with it today.”
The “uncomfortable” part comes from the dance that teams must do on matters of editorial control.
The Bulls tag Smith’s columns and stories with a disclaimer similar to the one that MLB.com has used since its launch. But, even with that, there is great debate among public relations directors and other executives as to whether fans actually believe it.
Schanwald argues that fans will develop trust over time, reading Smith daily and realizing he’s providing the same sort of coverage he delivered through the Trib for 25 years. When asked about fallout from any of Smith’s critical columns, Schanwald mentioned only that executives from other teams had to be convinced that he didn’t enjoy any special access and wasn’t operating as a Bulls “mouthpiece.”
During the playoffs, Smith wrote a column that criticized the league office for its complicity in ESPN’s promotion of a LeBron-Kobe final that never materialized. Schanwald said he heard not a peep about it from the league.
Cuban doesn’t see the credibility question as an issue, because he doesn’t think a team’s Web site should be the venue for unbiased editorial dialogue. He realizes fans feed off controversy, criticism and the debate over the decisions of a team’s coaches and management. He embraces it elsewhere.
“Not on the Mavs site. That’s not its purpose,” Cuban e-mailed. “A team Web site is stupid if they are objective in what they write. The goal of a team site is to sell the team.”
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
OK, say it with me: Yeah, right.
The former Kansas City Star sports editor who has run the editorial division at MLB Advanced Media since its inception can and will roll out story after story after story, through and including the site’s coverage of Manny Ramirez’s suspension, as evidence that he has built a credible news organization that stands free and clear of its owners. Yet Dinn Mann knows that some in both sports and journalism remain skeptical, even after nearly a decade and in spite of thousands of those not subject to the approval of disclaimers.
Just doesn’t smell right, does it?
But then Mann trots out his examples, all this coverage of the unflattering and the controversial, all the way down to the story on former San Diego Padres owner John Moores’ divorce, and … OK, maybe.
This is, after all, the same league that launched its television channel with a two-hour examination of the A-Rod steroid scandal, the centerpiece of which was a sit-down with Selena Roberts, the SI reporter who broke the story and authored the book.
“It’s important that we … not only give lip service to editorial independence but actually have independence,” Mann said. “I have the same sort of conversations with PR directors today as I did when I was running sports departments.”
Most PR directors in MLB have awakened to — or gone to bed shortly after — reading a story on their Web site that they’d just as well not have seen.
It’s the dynamic of the sport’s unique setup. MLBAM runs the Web sites for both the league and the teams, hiring the writers, editing their stories and posting them, Mann and others said, without any clearance from the clubs.
Clubs know they can call to complain and ask for changes, but MLBAM makes the final call.
“When the lead story on Mets.com is after an unsavory loss, it’s not a great ad for your product,” Newman said. “I think most of the marketing folks would corroborate that.
“You’re always going to have some interface where your desires from a marketing standpoint are not reinforced by what the editorial message is going to be, by any media outlet. Sometimes that runs counter to your goal of selling your product. But the authentic (editorial content) should drive eyeballs and traffic. Hopefully, they’ll come back tomorrow when you win.”
Leave it to Mark Cuban.
There was a harmonic convergence to Cuban’s purchase of a team called the Mavericks — sort of like if Blackbeard owned the Pirates or Trotsky had a stake in the Reds.
In December, Cuban suggested on his blog that the major sports leagues fund a “beat writers cooperative,” hiring reporters who would provide daily content to local newspapers in exchange for guaranteed space in the print edition.
He based the idea on the premise that declining coverage costs teams fans and, in the long run, money. While he said he has ramped up content on the team Web site, that site is visited predominantly by the most avid Mavs fans, who are easiest to reach. The more difficult-to-reach consumer, the casual fan, grazes at the local newspaper’s sports section.
As that coverage shrinks, so does a team’s profile.
“There is little depth and certainly not the consistent coverage,” Cuban wrote on his blog. “Teams in every league need as much local coverage as we can get. The more stories are written by sportswriters and columnists, the more opportunities for fans to connect and stay connected to our teams.”
Cuban conceded that his suggestion would require a dismantling of the accepted journalistic division between church and state. But the imperiled newspaper industry has abandoned other canons of late, so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched to think it would ditch one more.
Asked earlier this month whether his idea has resonated with the papers or leagues, Cuban e-mailed: “Not a thing has come of it.”
It’s a long shot that any league would fund that sort of endeavor. But with losses mounting and loans coming due for so many newspaper chains, and some teams losing coverage that they are convinced they badly need, who knows what the desperate might be willing to do next.
When Cuban bought the Mavs, the two newspapers in town competed fiercely with each other for stories. Now, to save money, they share beat writers. The Dallas Morning News covers the Mavs and the Stars. The Star-Telegram does the Rangers, some colleges and motorsports. They each still fly solo with their columnists and on the Cowboys.
Three major South Florida papers — The Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post — began swapping content in September. The Post eliminated the Panthers beat, running stories from the Herald. The sports departments at the Herald and Sun-Sentinel aren’t sharing shovels yet, but now that they’ve been forced into the same sandbox it shouldn’t be far off.
In Ohio, eight of the larger papers share content through what they call the Ohio News Organization (the acronym OHNO reflects how many journalists view the endeavor), a collaborative that, depending upon your perspective, has either allowed, or forced, papers to eliminate beats.
As recently as a year ago, all of this would have conjured images of Bill Murray in the mayor’s office in “Ghostbusters,” warning of the impending apocalypse. Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria. Today, an industry that is trying desperately to regain favor before the creditors come calling considers it prudent business.
“The way we used to do it, every newspaper was on an island,” said Mike Kellams, associate managing editor for sports at the Chicago Tribune, which shares content “out the hoo-ha” with its siblings, including the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. “It was every paper for itself. Is that better coverage for readers? You can make a well-reasoned argument that it is. But is it better enough?”
Each Tuesday, the sports editors in the Tribune group convene a conference call in an effort to collaborate. They’re still learning, Kellams said. Both papers recently staffed the Mexico vs. U.S. soccer game in Columbus.
That won’t happen again. The Tribune’s soccer writer left the sports department recently. Kellams opted to cut the MLS beat and rely on the Los Angeles Times for coverage of both the U.S. and Mexico national teams, just as the Times takes his paper’s coverage of golf and many Olympic sports. Kellams hopes the Times will watch out for soccer items that would be of interest in Chicago. But, again, they’re learning.
While all this sharing has it shortcomings — particularly when competing papers climb in bed together, since competition typically drives more coverage — those in sports who have seen beat writers skip trips or, worse yet, stop covering their teams entirely say they gladly would embrace it if it kept their teams and events in the paper.
The PR director of the IndyCar racing circuit, John Griffin, concedes that he’s a bit old school in his consumption habits. That said, he remains convinced that there are merits to seeing his news printed in ink.
“My first reaction is still always, ‘I wonder how we played in the newspaper. Did I get a photo and was it page 1 or page 6?’” Griffin said. “I can’t say page 8 any more, because there is no page 8 any more.”