UPDATE: 10:25 a.m. In some minor Mariners news, Felix Hernandez has agreed to a one-year contract with the team, reportedly worth $3.8 million, thus avoiding arbitration. This is not major news as Hernandez is still under club control through 2011 and would have had to agree to a contract at some point. If any multi-year deals happen later, that will be big news. Spring training invitees? Have already commented too often on Jamie Burke, the team’s third catcher. As for the rest, when they look like they might make the team, we’ll worry about them. I like Chris Woodward as a darkhorse to make the squad as a utility infielder, but really, these are 25th man roster guys we’re talking about in January. Come March, if any of them show something, we’ll get into it. Until then, other than the “will they” or “won’t they” endless debate on Josh Fields, there is nothing concrete happening with the Mariners that we didn’t already tell you about back at the winter meetings. I know some of you are impatient, but today, we have bigger fish to fry than hypotheticals.
Over the past couple of weeks, particularly with the announcement that the Seattle Post Intelligencer is for sale and could fold, I’ve received emails and inquiries asking for my take on the future of sports coverage in Seattle and the newspaper industry in general. I feel, as many others have expressed, that it’s a terrible blow. But perhaps not for the same reasons. My conclusions on where this industry is headed may also differ from some of what you’ve read elsewhere.
One of you sent me an email link, in which Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggests that sports leagues themselves start paying newspapers (through something he calls a “beatwriting co-operative”) for the beat writers that cover them. I actually like much of what Cuban has had to contribute towards the newspaper debate. His take on newspaper blogging last year, critical as it was, happened to be bang-on. I think he’s somebody this industry needs to listen to more often. Leaders of our industry already have listened to him at some conferences he’s attended. But on this issue, he misses the mark. He’s trying, but his overly simplistic references to “church and state” when talking about newspaper independance smack of an outsider’s perspective. And that’s why, well-intentioned as Cuban is, his idea of leagues financially supporting the writers who cover them cannot be allowed to go any further. That’s a slippery slope that could have rammifications far beyond any sports department. And it’s not one any of you want newspapers to start going down.
I’ll tell you where this is coming from. My daily newspaper career began at The Gazette in Montreal in 1991. We had an all-star sports department, which included columnist Michael Farber, now a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. But I began in the news department. And — sports fan or not — I, like everyone else, knew the three writers who were true stars at the paper were the “three M’s” — William Marsden, Rod McDonnell, and Andrew McIntosh. They formed our paper’s investigative team, an award-winning trio that continuously put it on-the-line in a part of the world — the province of Quebec — where government officials, business leaders, police officers and orgnanized crime figures, enjoyed marching to their own tune, often with little sense of accountability to the public. Those three helped bring about accountability amidst the chaos and often at personal risk to themselves. They were a trio operating at a level all of us aspired to. McDonnell and McIntosh later assisted author Stevie Cameron on a book called On The Take — about corruption in the government of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney — which became the most successful-selling political book in Canadian history.
Marsden is still doing what he does best for The Gazette, though his best work is now often reserved for his top-selling books on motorcycle gangs and other topics. But at least he’s still actively employed by the newspaper industry. McDonnell, after extended stints teaching journalism to students in Rwanda as that country recovered from its genocide, left The Gazette in 1999 and later took a job with a division of the World Bank, educating people internationally on how to access public information. McIntosh left The Gazette in 1997, then left Canada altogether and took a job as an investigative reporter with the Sacramento Bee.
That the public at-large can name the talking heads cracking jokes on ESPN’s Sportscenter quicker than they can name any one of the “three M’s” is more of a commentary on the world around us than it is the fault of those three men. Our industry doesn’t help, often cutting investigative reporters as a quick, cost-saving measure whenever profit margins run too thin. But the fact remains, when push comes to shove and readers feel threatened by an institution and need help fast — someone willing to put it “on the line” for them — it isn’t the Sportscenter gang they go running to.
And for me, that’s what will be missed if the PI goes under. It isn’t necessarily the sports “beat writers” or folks who write colorful twists on last night’s game. Sure, they’ll be missed as well to a certain degree. But it’s the real journalists out there (whatever department they work for) who will be truly missed. The folks who go beyond the game, or city council meeting, or daily news event, to tell you what’s really going on (see second paragraph of linked story). Folks you may never have heard of because they don’t get interviewed on the radio, or get to spout off on TV every day. But folks who, through their journalism, have helped make this country better than many others on this planet. That’s what will be missed the most. And as fewer voices rise up from the fray, trying to tell you what’s really going on, you as a reader will be less-informed and worse off as a citizen. Some of you don’t like the media and the way it operates. But in this case, you’re much better off arguing with the thing you don’t like, or trying to reshape it, than you are getting rid of it entirely. Don’t agree? Well, I can tell you, other countries have tried a news model where the government gets to approve every story beforehand and even pays its version of “beat writers” to go out and bring you stories. This newspaper in the link was one of them. You may have heard of it back in the 1970s and 1980s. No, this is not the direction you want American papers to go.
And the principles behind that are why I could never accept Mark Cuban’s proposals without a fight. He proposes that newspapers retain “editorial control” but only after agreeing in writing to provide certain types of stories written as profiles of players and teams. In many cases, these profiles would amount to “puff pieces” on athletes, the kind you find in “stories” on league-sponsored websites. Cuban would demand far greater coverage of the games themselves. But what if a team, like the Mariners, is all-but-cooked six weeks into the season? Of course an owner, like Cuban, would want continued in-depth emphasis on the games rather than increased spotlight on ownership and off-field issues. But with his suggestion, by written contract, newspapers would be forced to cover meaningless games as if they still matter. Independant newspapers don’t have to do this. The good ones would never adopt such a suggestion. In fact, I’d resign if our paper, rich in the tradition of investigative journalism, ever implemented Cuban’s suggestion (as far as I know, they aren’t even considering it). It would be a slap in the face to folks like the “three M’s” and others risking personal safety overseas to report on international conflicts if we allowed our sports reporters to literally be bought and paid for by the teams we cover.
But without that money, what’s next?
The first step is for all reporters who still have jobs to start practising journalism to a far greater degree than they do. You don’t have to be an “investigative reporter” to go beyond a story. Sure, we all have issues we balance on our respective beats. But putting it “on-the-line” a little more often wouldn’t hurt.
Second, we have to do a better job, as an industry, of figuring out how to make our online product work. To the point where it’s profitable while serving the public to a degree that print newspapers once did. Hey, I’d love to go back to the 1980s and 1990s, when print newspapers were rolling in cash and financing longer stories in countries around the world. It isn’t going to happen. Times have changed. So, counting up the numbers of staff-generated stories at one local paper’s sports department on a given day and comparing them to another’s — as one radio host did with the Times and PI last week — misses the mark. One of those papers is on the verge of going out of business. It doesn’t matter how many staff generated stories it runs between now and April. It’s not sustainable. It’s owners have decided the business model no longer works in its present form.
So, we have to find a model that does work.
And we’re getting closer.
Despite all you’ve heard about the future of newspapers, there are some, like the Los Angeles Times, that claim they’re getting close to having their online ads sustain their newspaper operations. In the meantime, we take steps to make our product something that serves the reader. Here in Seattle, our sports department has taken steps to make sure the print product, going forward, will contain deeper, feature-type stories you can’t find elsewhere.
To be honest, I was shocked, upon arriving in Seattle in 2006, that The Times and PI still operated with a “paper of record” approach to sports coverage. The type where every single incident at every team workout was recorded in a time-consuming daily notebook. That kind of approach was discarded years ago in other parts of the country. It doesn’t take much brainpower to jot down that “so and so” had an ankle injury yesterday. Or to write down “who scored this goal or that goal” last night. Writing a more issue-based, or feature-like account of a game story is harder work. Check out the New York Times. They’ve done it for years. In Canada, we were pushed towards this type of writing well before I left. In fact, Canadian papers tend to expect far more analysis and interpretive writing (not to mention features and investigative stories) out of their “beat writers” than the straightforward game accounts I’ve seen here. But that’s all changing and it’s a great development.
The onset of blogs will force beat writers to go beyond writing about last night’s game. It will force them to actually think about issues and tackle them — even at the risk of upsetting some fans and alienating some of the players they cover. Some of you see this as reporters “becoming the story”. I see it as enhancing your view of the world. For years, we’ve asked beat writers to sit idly by and dutifully record generic quotes from players like glorified courtroom stenographers. Now, we are finally allowing reporters to provide context behind those quotes. To share the knowledge they’ve gained without the shackles previously attached. Sure, that comes with great responsibility. And that’s why newspapers, moving forward, will have to be a lot more careful about who they entrust to that position. While my workload has doubled because of blogs, creating two media entities I provide content for, that part should ease as the print product relies less on minutae like ankle tapings to fill its pages. You can get all of that smaller stuff in any sports blog at the Times. Duplicating it for the print product, at the expense of a larger, feature-type story or investigative report, is a poor use of dwindling resources.
And frankly, it’s time to recognize the online product for what it is: a part of the newspaper itself. I shook my head last week when that radio commenter went on and on about the lack of staff generated content in the Times. He’d completely ignored the reams of online content generated by our staff. I write hundreds of thousands of extra words in this space each year that none of you would have had access to a few years ago. So does Jose Romero, covering the Sounders soccer team. Or Danny O’Neil on the Seahawks. Bob Condotta was the blog king at the Times for his Huskies coverage long before I penned my first word here. That’s staff content. Local content you can’t find anyplace else. And honestly, it’s better content than we’d have had a chance to put into the print newspaper because of unlimited space and technological advances.
This blog item we did on baseball pressboxes was something I put together in one morning. It’s not Woodward and Bernstein quality to be sure, but it’s a heck of a lot more in-depth than any print newspaper section would have allowed me to produce. And that’s in a morning’s work. I’ve written 2,000-word newspaper features that were less interesting and colorful. You’d never get that many photos in a newspaper story. And you would not get any videos into one either.
Sure, it takes work to produce those videos. Nobody should ever, in today’s online age, accuse reporters of working less. They are all being asked to work harder, produce more and — if they want to do it right — think more about what they do. This will not be every reporter’s cup of tea. But it’s the way the industry is headed. The theory behind the job hasn’t changed. But the way we communicate stories and ideas certainly has.
And I love the changes. I love that the five-part series we wrote on the Mariners for the print product last September, which the same radio host raved about for two straight days on his broadcast back then, is now packaged online on the front of our Mariners page. Back when I first started out in this business, you’d put your heart and soul into something in-depth like that, and it would be forgotten in a day or two. Not anymore. Now, you can produce creative, multi-media packages on your blog, and indulge in traditional newspapering at the same time. There are few limits being placed on us by the new technology. And once the workload is eased, by creating less duplication between the print and online products, the opportunities to do the work we love will be there like never before.
Now, it’s time for newspapers to make it all work financially. With several years of building up their online “brands” through blogs and other unique content, the ability to find sponsorship and ads for this content should grow. The more original and thought-provoking newspapers can be on a local scale, providing content that can’t be accessed elsewhere, the more people, in theory, should want to pay for such content. It’s the free market. Those papers that cannot achieve this will die. It’s really that simple. But some newspapers are slowly finding their way. And the ones that do survive this Darwinian exercise will be products that, hopefully, readers can be proud of and enjoy in whatever form they exist. Where the same journalistic principles flourish. Because no matter what you may think about papers, we all rely on them. Citizen blogs need them for content, as do most broadcast outlets. That’s been a fact of life for years. I found it interesting when, seconds after the radio commentator had finished blasting the Times, his station cut to a sports news update and the top story was the minor league coaches named by the Mariners. It had actually been the subject of a blog topic we’d written 24 hours earlier. So, there you go.
Yes, things are changing and will take some getting used to. And no, I don’t want the PI to fold any more than most of you do. The more “journalists” we have out there, the better off we all are. Those of us who are left have a responsibility to carry on the traditions of this industry and be as creative as possible in taking advantage of new technology. I happen to think it’s possible.
Yes, another long-winded answer, but you asked and I’ve given you the complete answer you deserve. We have spent much of this month preparing new blog features for you to enjoy when spring training kicks off in a few weeks. Starting tomorrow, I will be headed out of town to rest up before spring training gets underway. We will resume daily postings on this blog — Larry Stone can update before then if a major deal is made — about a week before pitchers and catchers report. From there, the eight consecutive months of daily postings will be back underway. Think about where you were a few years ago. Think of whether or not you’re now closer to the action and better informed than you’ve ever been. I can’t see how you’d argue otherwise. Many of you did not even know what spring training looked like back in 2005. Now, you can access regular videos showing you each workout. You can debate hot topics with each other. This new world of journalism we’re entering is truly different. But in many ways, it’s better.