Jockbeat: Barra Bemoans Shrinking (Print) Sports Sections; Ortega Tells Him To Stop Whining

For many years, there's been a feeling that SportsBusiness Journal is a publication only for insiders. Well, the web has changed the definition of "insiders," expanding it to heretofore unthought of numbers, and I can't think of any sportswriter, editor or fan who doesn't need to see and absorb Bill King's cover story in the July 20-26 issue, "No News Is Bad News."

No other publication has summed up the changes the cuts in newspaper staffs and growth of the Internet has brought to sports coverage -- and the direction these changes portend for the future. King doesn't sugar coat it: "Those who have gone along merrily assuming that shrinking [sports] 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."

King continues, "With those who are left posting online more than they used to, fewer bodies and leaner travel bankrolls have meant less original content overall ..."
Lynn Hoppes, former president of the Associated Press Sports Editor and former Orlando Sentinel sports editor (and current ESPN.com correspondent), is quoted saying that, "If you have fewer people covering, what you automatically have is fewer stories, fewer notes, fewer sources ... You're not only getting less, you're getting less quality and less depth."

Among the eye-opening statistics in King's story are that only 11 of the papers that serve NBA markets were in both LA and Orlando during the Finals this year, compared to 26 two years ago when the Cavs played the Spurs. The sports that are suffering most are hockey (The LA Kings get no on-the-road coverage from the LA Times) and motor sports ("12 out of 50 papers surveyed eliminated their motor sports beat or now only cover local races"). Even the NFL, it appears, will be taking a late hit: two papers surveyed plan to stop covering nearby NFL teams this season while two others will eliminate NFL travel.

Most intriguing, though is an ESPN Sports Poll conducted for the SportsBusiness Journal, which surveyed 1,000 U.S. sports fans who had a specific favorite professional team. Amazingly, 41% still depended on a hard copy of their local newspaper for news on their team compared to 29% who went to the team's web site and 15% who went to their newspaper's web site.

This shows what journalists can only regard as a dangerous trend. While newspaper coverage is shrinking, more fans are going to a team's official web site -- which, by definition, can only be public relations copy -- rather than to independent daily newspapers' web sites.

Delivering such news is a dirty job, but SBJ is doing it.

COUNTERPOINT: Hey, Allen, Tony Ortega here. Thought I'd be sacrilegious at the end of your post and say, so what?

When you tell me that 11 newspapers that cover the NBA sent reporters to both LA and Orlando during the Finals, my reaction is the opposite to yours. To me, that sounds like a high number.

Aren't sports sections falling victim to the same forces at work in the rest of the paper? Redundant, expensive material can't compete with cheaper, faster work being done on the Internet -- it's the wasteful practices that are suffering at the dailies the most, right? Does a newspaper in Indianapolis, for example, really need to send a reporter to both LA and Orlando for game stories that aren't going to be substantially different from 50 others describing contests that millions saw every second of on television?

The fact is, while print sports sections are shrinking, at the same time we're drowning in sports information online. And while it might shock the conscience of traditional print scribes to consider giving up team beat reporters, for example, it seems to make more sense to me to invest in columnists and other providers of unique content than to keep paying for material you can find in a dozen different online locations.

BARRA RESPONDS: Don't blame me. I'm not even the messenger, I'm just the one telling you that there's a messenger.

Maybe it's true that most of what the newspapers have been giving us over the years is redundant and unnecessary - or maybe it just took that many writers to deliver a few nuggets that were vital and essential. But I think you're overlooking two things:

First -- and let me use the LA Times and LA Kings example since that's the one Bill King stressed in his story -- when the paper stops sending a beat writer on the road, it means less coverage for the team and that ultimately means a falling off of fan interest and decline of revenue. It's a symbiotic relationship. And after all, on the road is half the season, and the only coverage the team gets at home for that half of the season would be some lame AP report.

Now, you may counter: But that slack can be picked up by somebody online. But to get quality reporting from a beat person on the road, you'd have to have a correspondent in every city where the team plays. Now where are those people going to come from?

Second -- It really isn't as if fans of, let's say, the LA Kings have suddenly made a conscious decision to stop reading team coverage in the newspaper and turned to the Internet. Right now the way it stands for most of them is if they don't read it in the paper, they wouldn't get it at all. And, back to the point I just made, even if they did want to read the same coverage they've been getting online instead of in the paper, it's not going to be on the Internet because there are no beat writers traveling with the team.

Yes, to answer your question, what's happening in the sports pages is exactly what's happening with the rest of the newspaper business.  Sure the work on the Internet is cheaper and faster, but in many case it's not the same kind of work it's not the same kind of work. Not the same quality, the same depth. For one thing, there's less and less of it actually being done by professionals.


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