How will we pay sportswriters to ply their craft?

Could Trost, Levine be on their ways out?
Game 35: Searching for our Phil of redemption

Newspapers are dying, but that’s old news. It’s been happening for years. The industry has made few, if any, adjustments to the digital revolution, and now they’re all suffering for it. This has led to numerous publications ceasing operations, and we haven’t seen all of it yet. Not by a long shot.

Craigslist has made newspaper classifieds obsolete. Online publications, fueled by ad networks, have decimated the artificial scarcity which fueled inflated ad prices since the beginning of last century. Online publications in general have led many to forego their newspaper subscriptions. Even legal notices, a nearly effortless form of revenue, could be going away. There aren’t many industries which could survive this level of revenue loss.

Jason at It Is About The Money, Stupid asked an interesting question of the newspaper downfall as it relates to baseball: “What does that mean for the media business? Where do the writers go? To the Web, obviously, but can ALL of them afford to rely on an ad-based revenue model?” It’s something media companies are going to have to think hard about, because they’re running out of time.

Soon enough, print publications will be a rarity. Some will continue operation — I don’t think the Daily News, which still turns a profit, will be dying any time soon. For most publications, Web will be the way to go. The problem for publishers is that the Web is far more democratic than print. People have a choice, and with dozens of alternatives they’re not always going to pick the hometown paper. Sometimes they’re not even going to pick the paper of record. They’re going to pick the publication that fits best with their own worldviews.

What, then, happens to “objective” reporting? While I don’t believe any news that filters through humans can be truly objective, there is certainly value in hard facts. That’s the basis of nearly everything in the news industry. Digital media might handle the facts in a manner more palatable to the general public, but news organizations are the ones which gather the facts in the first place. If they die out, how will we find the facts on which we pontificate?

Former Giants beat writer Jeff Fletcher understands this. He summed it up perfectly on his blog a few months ago: “Even on the easier stuff … you need someone there to ask the questions.” Absolutely you do. That’s how we obtain information, by asking questions. Fletcher also notes the obvious, that writers need to be paid for their efforts. They have to pay the bills somehow, and journalism can be a time-consuming endeavor.

By no means do I have all the answers for how journalism will adapt to the digital world. I do read everything I possibly can on the matter, but even the most in-depth experts don’t have hard and fast solutions. What I do know is that instant-money-making ideas like micropayments will not work. How many times do you read a news article? Once, probably. Then it’s never read again, for the rest of eternity. Is that something a consumer should pay for? Probably not, but at the very least it’s a strong argument against the analogy between music and print. News organizations as nonprofits? Great idea in principle, poor because it would involve direct government involvement, and the watched funding the watchdog doesn’t sound like a good idea.

What’s it going to be? First, journalists, editors, executives, and even the public will have to rethink the nature of a news organization. No longer can newspapers afford bustling newsrooms. No longer can they act like they’re the only show in town. No longer can they try to force a sense of scarcity when there exists true abundance. The base level of a news organization needs to change in order to adapt to a new environment. This means decentralized and bottom-up networks of journalists and editors working together, rather than competing with one another, to disseminate the news.

As I’ve long explained to friends, as it relates to baseball, the costs of reporting are simply too high. Think of all the times you see PeteAbe post from an airport. Think of all the road trips and the hotel rooms. Think of expenses incurred in the normal course of duty. Those costs add up big time, to the point where most future organizations won’t be able to afford them. This hurts for baseball writers, because as Fletcher explained, access is key. Yet what we haven’t seen is new organizations combining forces to provide full coverage. Want the facts while your team is in Detroit? Partner with a news organization from that city to provide you coverage. They file the report, the local beat writer adds the color. Not only does this help cut costs, but it also puts pressure on beat writers to be knowledgeable about more teams, since they will be called upon to cover them when they’re in town.

This conversation could go on forever, but in the interest of brevity I’ll cut short here. If you want to read further into how news organizations can adapt to the new century, I’d recommend the following: The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman, Wikinomics by Don Tapscott, and What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis. (Full disclosure: those are our Amazon Associates links). I’d also recommend Jarvis’s blog Buzz Machine, as well as David Carr of the New York Times.

I’d also like to say that if you’re not already reading It Is About The Money, Stupid, you should be. Jason is just excellent. Just wait until he has two, three full years of this under his belt. He and Craig from Shysterball should have a real future with this gig.

Could Trost, Levine be on their ways out?
Game 35: Searching for our Phil of redemption
  • jsbrendog

    very well done.

  • Matt H

    I dunno, I feel like, at least in NYC, newspapers will be here for a while…

    • Joseph Pawlikowski

      Oh, I agree. The Times will stick because of name value. The News will stick because they always turn a profit. The Post will stick because of Murdoch’s obsession with beating the News, and the fact that the Post is such a minuscule write-off for News Corp. that he can afford to.

      • Matt H

        Just think about how many people you see reading a paper on a train or bus…

        Small town newspapers though, see ya…

        • Joseph Pawlikowski

          And think about how many electronic devices are being created which will replace them.

          Smalltown papers have a chance to thrive. If they focus on hyperlocal news, that is.

          • whozat

            Exactly. I sit on the train reading news on my phone. Google news aggregates and links me to the articles I want to read on the papers’ individual websites…and links me to bbc stories and reuters international stuff too. Why would I get a subscription to the San Jose Mercury News or the SF Chronicle instead?

      • NHYankee62

        I’m not so sure about the New York Slimes being around for awhile.

        Doesn’t a share a Slimes stock cost less than a Sunday paper nowadays??

  • sabernar

    “Think of all the times you see PeteAbe post from an airport.”

    I’d really rather not. Not that he doesn’t get some good info, but his attitude is a real turn off. If you look up “beat a dead horse” in a reference book, PeteAbe’s picture will be right there.

    • jsbrendog

      doing the beating or being the horse?

      i keed i keed

      • pat

        I picture him feasting on the remains.

  • off his meds

    If I see Pete Abe, I will knock him out.

  • Tank the Frank

    “I don’t believe any news that filters through humans can be truly objective…”

    I got my degree in journalism and I feel the exact same way. Couldn’t agree more.

  • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

    I’ve been thinking for a while that eventually sports media will be subsidized by the sports leagues themselves, if not owned outright by them. I think the most important aspect of the downfall of traditional news media, as far as sports are concerned, is, as you noted, the prohibitively high costs of reporting. Clearly the traditional structure of the sports media doesn’t look like it can continue to sustain these costs. But, who benefits from the coverage? The leagues and teams themselves. I don’t think, for example, MLB wants to lose the print sports media as a revenue generator. For the sports leagues themselves, the media aspect doesn’t even have to be a huge money-maker to be successful, since the media aspect increases their revenues in other areas and is really a pretty important part of their business model. So, I think as newspapers die (or, at least, as that industry goes through a significant period of shrinkage*), the people that benefit most from the existence of traditional sports media will step into the void and beef up their media presence. The major sports leagues have already realized media is a huge revenue-generator, I think they’ll just continue to build in those areas and pick up the slack as the traditional outlets become less relevant and/or disappear.


    • Moshe Mandel

      Well said. Obviously, the public benefits from the coverage as well. If reporters with access disappear, a lot of the discourse that we have would disappear or be based entirely on opinion. I think it more likely that eventually those who have traditionally had access will find a way to turn the internet into a money making device. I think intellectual property laws on the internet may also change with the times, actually getting stricter to protect the incentive for people to gain access and put money into reporting the news.

  • Doug Gray

    One thing that should at least be explored is perhaps using all of this technology to the advantage of the writers. Would it honestly be all that difficult for the team media relations department to set up an internet feed in the coaches office for the local guys to talk to them pre and post game while the team is on the road? Would it be such a difficult thing to hold back 4 or 5 players to do the same thing with after the game for the beat writers to conference call with? All of the teams have the TV crew at all of the games because even the untelevised games aren’t the entire series…. if something happens in game, the other beat writers could get the story in game from the guys working the game on the TV side of things. How much money would that save? I don’t know, but my guess is a whole hell of a lot.

    Anyways, thats just my two cents on a way that the beat writers could survive a little easier if they need to go ‘online’ with things.

  • CB

    Recently Tony Jackson at the LA Daily News got laid off.

    That means that right now the LA Dodgers have two beat reporters covering the team.

    The only ones left are the beat reporter from the LA Times – which is teetering on insolvency – and the reporter from who covers the dodgers.

    Hard to believe – the dodgers only have 2 reporters covering them. That’s simply not very good for fans.

    For many teams I’ll say there’s a good chance that in the near future the only reporter covering them will be the one from

    “Hyperlocal” is an odd model with respect to pro sports coverage. If you are thirsting for more information about your high school team then it’s great. Otherwise – the jury is out.

  • Dan

    Who of the current “sports media” are in fact journalists and provide real news on a regular basis? How many just through bombs and wait for the results? Who writes to their predetermined agenda?(lupika) Whose departure would be judged a real loss?
    Someone will find a way to fill the void if today’s press and their motherships disappear.

  • Jason@IIATMS

    Joe, thanks for the too kind words. I truly appreciate it.

    Like the fired beat writers, I just gotta make a few buck from it all!

    Jason @ IIATMS

  • Sean McNally

    As a working print reporter (albeit at a niche trade journal and not traditional media), Joe’s point is one we should all think about.

    Yes, alternative media like blogs or other Web-based platforms, may push the traditional dead-tree newspaper out, but I think it is going to be difficult only the most committed bloggers will be able to do it for long, that is if they can get access.

    The expense comments really hit home. I can’t imagine what PeteAbe’s expense reports look like. I’m headed for a brief trip next week to cover a conference (two days, one night) and its going to be about $500 for less than 36 hours of travel (depart noon from DC and return the next day by about 9:30p).

    Amateur analysis and opinion can be great, and in many cases is great, it still needs to be balanced by someone being in the room asking Girardi and Texieria what they were yelling about or Nathan what he was thinking on that pitch to Melky. I wonder who is going to do that in 10 years.

  • Andrew

    As a PR professional, it’s something I think about daily. I graduated with a journalism degree, and quickly switched to public relations once I left school because of the pending death of newspapers.

    I believe reporters are going to have to get very creative– it’s not going to be just writing the story– it will be recording video, audio… presenting a multimedia report. And don’t underestimate Twitter… it will be very interesting to see how Twitter evolves and develops over the next few years. This will have a profound effect on how we receive our news.

    Instead of breaking news on newspapers, we’ve evolved to breaking it on Web sites, blogs.. and now Twitter? I can just see the writers with their blackberries live-tweeting Girardi’s press conference.

    One of the larger issues in the death of newspapers I believe are the big, investigative pieces which involve lots of resources. Those will be missed. I mean, how will reporters like Selena Roberts dig up dirt on A-Rod without newspaper funding? =)

  • johnny

    Just because you can get the news online doesn’t mean that it didn’t originate in a print newsroom. There are many, many great online resources for news, especially if you want more than is available by flipping on the TV or opening a paper, but a lot of the dirty work still happens in print journalism.
    Yes, you may be reading the news on your phone, but the writer was still getting paid by AP or the Times or whoever, not by AT&T. Theres a difference between linking to content and producing it, and if print newsrooms go away, we very well may regret it.

    heres a link to a guy named David Simon talking to Bill Moyers. Simon wrote that awesome show The Wire. He was also a Baltimore beat writer for many years and has a good bit to say in this interview topical to this discussion(If you’re really into it)

  • Mike P

    This is a great post on an often underestimated long term problem in our society, thanks!

    The way I think about the issue is to question why newspapers, in the purely practical sense, exist at all. They are a vehicle for distributing the work of journalists, who are the crucial ingredients in a paper. As such, I believe we need to rethink how journalists distribute their material. The old sunk costs (mainly printing & distributing) no longer apply. So, couldn’t journalists (a significant number of whom are freelance already) just organise and cooperate to share costs in publishing digitally? Much as this site wouldn’t be great without three authors, individual journalists’ blogs are probalby not viable. But with contributions from many individuals, you might just be able to set up a profitable organisation.

    Clearly the question of access is paramount to the survival of journalism as a profession. But as a business, I believe if people remember that papers are a relatively a recent phenomenon (c. 150-200 years old), it is quite possible for news to be profitable under a different format.

  • Craig Calcaterra

    Ditto on the thanks, Joe.

    My personal view: you have to have professional beat writers covering teams. The question is whether (a) you need 8 beat writers covering a team; and (b) whether you need traditional columnists at all. Jason and you and I and others like us can handle the opinion. We can’t get a quote from a manager or a second baseman.

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