The changing face of sports media

With newspapers in decline and ESPN making a push into local markets, how will traditional media adapt to the rapidly changing landscape of sports journalism?

Thanks to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy and Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck for their outstanding work in promoting the Sports Business Journal story.

The Sports Business Journal has an excellent story today about the decline in sports coverage among traditional media platforms. The story focuses on how newspapers are drastically cutting the coverage of the local teams due to financial hardships, specifically how a lot of papers are no longer sending beat reporters to follow teams on the road. It's not only sports coverage that is declining among traditional news sources; there have been major cuts at newspapers across the entire country, in every department.

This is due to not only the financial hardships most companies are finding themselves in lately, but also due to the rapidly changing way consumers get their news and entertainment. The advent of the internet, specifically "web 2.0", has put a big hurt on large newspaper companies all over the world. People who used to have to pay $.75 a paper, or had to subscribe on a monthly basis, can now get this news for free on the internet. And in a day and age when news is broken and travels instantly across the internet all over the world, a hard copy newspaper that is printed once daily is becoming exponentially obsolete.

The past five years or so have also seen a meteoric rise in blogs, and I'm not talking about the personal blogs. What was first just a handy, easily updated "web log" that people used to convey thoughts, ideas, rants, etc. about the goings on in news, entertainment and sports has evolved into genuinely useful news sources that are both entertaining and informative. Puck Daddy, Deadspin, Slashfilm, CHUDAwful Announcing, and Cinematical are all extremely popular "blogs" that have become reputable news sources for film and sports consumers. There are a ton of other great sites out there as well, run by both professional journalists and "amateurs" that are equally successful.

Traditional hockey writers and media members will say that blogs and bloggers are just a passing fad, a group of basement dwellers who think they're legit just because they started a website. While I agree that just because someone starts up a BlogSpot account doesn't necessarily turn them into a professional journalist, it's also not fair to automatically write someone off specifically because they run a website.

Some will even try to blame the fall of traditional newspapers on blogs and bloggers. While part of the reason can be associated with rise of the internet, in the end newspaper companies have no one to blame but themselves.

Around ten years ago the tide started to shift in the internet's favor. ESPN was becoming serious about it's online content and several newspapers began to republish their stories online. We saw a sudden boom in internet companies (that eventually fell apart) and more and more consumers were getting personal computers placed in their households.

At the time, traditional print newspaper companies were stubborn about how to best handle this shift in content generation. Some embraced the online format (such as the Dallas Morning News) while others made a half-hearted attempt at running a website while maintaining a stance that consumers preferred to read their news daily, in a hard copy newspaper. Ten years ago was the ideal time to take advantage of this shift and the companies that refused to start finding new ways to present information were behind the curve from the very start.

In 2001, who would have known that eight years later laptops would be $300 - $400 with built in internet service that was accessible anywhere a signal could be had with a cell tower? Who would have known then that nearly all cell phones could easily access the internent and that the majority of consumers would all have one? With technology where it is today, with how easily this generation can read the news online, the companies that started behind the curve of transitioning to online content now find themselves struggling to make ends meet.*  iPhones, Blackberries, Palm Pre's, netbooks and even personal home computers make finding and reading news much, much easier and faster than it was just five years ago.

*It must be noted that print media is not struggling solely because of the internet. There are many, many factors that have led these companies to face the hardships they do now but the majority of these issues stem from the advent of the intenet as a daily tool for consumers.

So what does this have to do with sports media? As mentioned above in the Sports Business Journal story, newspapers have begun to drastically reduce the coverage local sports teams receive in the print media. There are several teams (the LA Kings, for example) that no longer have a beat writer traveling with them on road trips. The reasoning behind this is financial, of course. These companies claim that the financial costs outweigh the content benefits and the decision was made.

Whats ironic is that this decision puts the newspaper company and journalists even further behind the alternative online sources that they are so desperately fighting with. With no beat writer on road trips, there's not much that can be said be the local beat writer in the morning paper other than a recap of the score and a generic story on the game. If given a choice between reading a short, 400-600 word AP story on the game the previous night, and reading an in-depth breakdown of the game that examines all of story points from the night before sports fans will generally choose the latter, especially if it's free.

That points to the other inherent issue with print media vs. online sports content. There is limited room in a newspaper for statistics, opinions and in-depth articles that really explores the world surrounding any sports team. There are hundreds of thousands of sites on the internet right now solely dedicated to nothing but a particular sports team. All of their content is driven towards coverage of that specific team and sports fans have flocked to these sites for not only hardcore coverage of their favorite team, but an online forum to discuss their team with other fans. So once again: If given the choice between getting news and coverage from a print newspaper and getting in-depth coverage from a free website, who do you think the consumer will choose?

This isn't to say that newspaper companies, journalists and professional hockey writers are obsolete. They are needed in the sports media landscape because as much as team-specific blogs and websites devote their time to the teams, they don't have anywhere near the access traditional media gets.* While the best blogs generate mostly completely original content, they still need to get breaking news, quotes, and stories from sources that have access to the team.

*The debate as to who deserves access to a team, and whether bloggers should get this access as well is a debate for another day.

The SBJ story also focuses on how teams are starting to embrace the notion of basically writing about themselves on the team's own website. With print media declining their coverage of local teams, there still needs to be some way of getting out news about the team and generating online interest. Professional teams understand just how important comprehensive coverage in the public's eye is important to maintaining relevance and interest. Interest in the team generates tickets and sales, and we all know how much teams like that. If the local papers won't give them the online (or print) attention they need, then they might as well generate that content themselves.

SBJ has an interesting poll in their story that reveals just how much has changed among the younger generation and how they get their sports news:

Preferred source of team information for those fans:
Team Web site 42%
Hard copy 30%
Newspaper Web site 21%
AGE
Age 12-34
Age 35-44
Age 45+
Hard copy
28%
44%
58%
Team Web site
45%
23%
11%
Newspaper Web site
19%
17%
7%

The older generations, who grew up getting all of their news from print copies of the news, still prefer that method. Yet the younger generation, the one that advertisers target and the one that pretty much drives the consumer economy, prefers the online method of getting team information. It must be noted that blogs and other sports-specific sites were not included in this poll.

Yet all is not lost for "traditional media". The companies that saw the change coming in how consumers got their news and decided to embrace their online content are doing much better than the ones that didn't. The Dallas Morning News has one of the best online newspaper websites in the country, and generates a lot of online-only content. They have transitioned to a hybrid news source, one that still has a successful print copy but one that also has very successful online content.

A few years back, the beat writers for the local teams started writing blogs on the DMN website. These blogs have evolved since then to become possibly more successful than the print copy of the newspapers. The writers can provide multiple updates each day and generate content that wouldn't normally get covered in the print version of the news. Yet they also write traditional columns that cover the teams, available both online and in the print edition.

That's not to say the Dallas Morning News has avoided the financial issues affecting the other newspaper companies around the country.

Mike Heika, the beat writer for the Dallas Stars, is the only writer in the metroplex that covers the most successful team in the area. The Dallas Morning News decided it best not to send him to Montreal to cover the draft live, and there were no other local writers covering the team on location. Last January, it was revealed that the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram would start sharing content in their coverage of the Texas Rangers and the Stars. This meant that beat writers for each newspaper would be "reassigned", in an effort to save money between the two companies. Tracy Myers, an excellent hockey writer for the FWST, no longer covers the team and the stories written by Heika for the DMN now appears on her old blog as well. Evan Grant, perhaps one of the best baseball beat writers in the U.S., left the Dallas Morning News and started up his own blog at the D Magazine.

This sharing of content has led to a distillation of the coverage of both the Stars and Rangers in Dallas. Fans still have a great source for news on their teams, but having just one source is not an ideal situation for either readers or the team. While Heika is one of the best in the business, he can only do so much and with just him covering the team there is a narrow range of coverage he can provide. This has led the Dallas Stars to begin generating their own, excellent content on the team's website and for the team to also start posting breaking news themselves. They produce several outstanding online-only features each year and continue to publish excellent stories on the team weekly.

This has started to become a trend not just among hockey teams, but all sports teams. DallasCowboys.com has a full team of writers and the Texas Rangers employ their own full-time writer as well. With more and more teams following this method of online content and with sports fans using their sites for their news on the team, Sports Business Journal asks the question as to whether the teams can truly present an unbiased look at themselves. Can the Dallas Stars produce content that is just as quick to criticise as it is to inform? Are other teams ready to the same type of coverage? If there is a lack of critical coverage of local teams in the newspapers and the teams aren't willing to have the same level of criticism on their own sites, then where will the accountability be to keep the team in check?

Now we learn that ESPN has decided to launch local coverage of sports in Dallas after a successful trial run in the Chicago area. It will be extremely interesting to see how local coverage, that has been set for so long, reacts to having a brand new high-powered player burst onto the scene. The Dallas Cowboys are perhaps the most covered sports team in the U.S., along with the New York Yankees and and the LA Lakers. With ESPN already having a steady presence at Valley Ranch, it's difficult to tell just how coverage of the other teams will change.

Right now there's basically one major source of sports news in North Texas, especially since the DMN and FWST started to share content. ESPNDallas.com will be in direct competition with the traditional media already set in the area, one that has worked hard to adapt to a changing landscape. Yet ESPN has been on the forefront of adapting to the online sports world and has the most extensive online sports content found anywhere on the internet. A company that has the resources to throw everything they have at the local teams can seriously threaten the livelihood of the local papers who have just one or two reporters for the teams not called the Dallas Cowboys.*

*It will also be interesting to see what effect this has on the successful fan websites that cover the Rangers, Mavericks, Stars and Cowboys. My personal opinion is that it won't have any at all, other than adding an extra online resource for fans to use.

The great news for Dallas sports fans is that the teams and local papers are well ahead of the curve as how fans consume information changes. It's a fluid landscape now, after having the same type of news sources for so long. Yet other cities and fans across the country are not as lucky and as more and more local papers distill their coverage of their favorite teams, fans will migrate to other sources in order to satisfy their need for news and content. Local teams have started to generate their own original content to meet this demand, but how the big newspaper companies around the country adapt over the next few years will be interesting to see.

Sports teams are resistant to giving blogs and websites access, but they are starting to see the value in having credible sources present at games and practices. If the local newspapers can't be there, then the teams need to understand that just because a source is not "traditional", that doesn't mean it's a bad way to have their information disseminated among fans. While team websites can have great content, a wide array of credible sources also gives the team accountability in the eyes of the fans. That's whats going to be most important moving forward.

[Update by Brandon Bibb on 7-21-09 at 12:02 pm CDT] - Mike Heika broached this topic at the Stars Blog at Dallasnews.com and it elicted the following comment from BW (who I can only assume isn't our very own Brandon Worley, though it did include a shout out to us, so thanks :o) ):

I welcome ESPN and will look forward to see what they bring as far as Stars coverage goes. If it is anything like what they have for the Blackhawks on ESPN Chicago, it doesn't seem like anything to get too excited for. That said I will most likely still read the coverage. This new site will probably be more of a competition to the Cowboys coverage, as ESPN is big on football and the Cowboys are the biggest thing around (yawn).

(emphasis mine)

As most of you may know, I've been a Chicago Blackhawks fan for about 20 years now. Even during the lean years (i.e. When Dollar Bill ran the team into the ground before kicking the bucket), I still followed the team through as many outlets as I possibly could.

The debut of ESPNChicago coincided with the team's rise back to the top of the NHL. But even with this additional media outlet, I still get 95% of my Hawk-related news through the guys at Second City Hockey, the Fifth Feather, The Third Man In, as well as through Chris Kuc of the Tribune.

I suspect I'm not alone, either, as those sites became entrenched in other fans's minds as THE PLACE to go to to get Blackhawks news and have continued to be so in spite of the addition of ESPNChicago.

I also suspect Mike Heika, Mark Stepneski, Defending Big D, and The Stars Fans, etc. have similarly become entrenched here in Dallas and that won't change.

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