No news is bad news. Decline in local coverage pushes sports to innovate

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 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.

For the last three seasons, the Los Angeles
Times has stayed home when the Kings
hit the road.

“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.”