Friday, January 30, 2009

Should Sports Leagues Bailout Newspapers Sports Sections?

Should Sports Leagues Bailout Newspapers Sports Sections?

By Evan Weiner

12:00 PM

January 30, 2009

(New York, NY) – A few weeks ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested that perhaps it was time for sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and sports teams to serious think about forming what he called a “beatwriter co-operative.” Cuban laid out a premise that “pro sports, every single league from the NFL to NBA to MLB to MLS to NHL need newspapers” because local coverage of teams on the Internet is not as extensive as it would be in a hometown newspaper.

Newspapers in the United States, Spain and France to name three countries are becoming an endangered species. The New York Times is in major financial trouble. The Chicago Tribune newspapers, which include the flagship Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun among others is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U. S. The Minneapolis Tribune is suffering the same financial fate. The Rocky Mountain News is still in business in the Denver, Colorado area but it may join the New York Sun and the Cincinnati Post as recent additions to newspaper heaven. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is on death row and will be put to bed permanently in less than two months unless a buyer emerges. The Tucson Citizen will give up the fight in March. The Baltimore Examiner will vanish in two weeks.

Gannett is ordering workers to take a one-week leave without pay. In Spain, the Metro newspapers have been put out of business. In France, the government is giving 18-year-olds a free newspaper subscription to whatever paper that 18-year-old wants in an effort to get young people interested in reading a newspaper and the country plans to double France’s advertising commitment to county newspapers.

America’s radio and TV industry are also in awful financial shape. Even the World Wide Sports Leader, ESPN, is lopping off workers.

There are numerous reasons for the state of the media industry in the U. S.. Radio was severely hampered by the 1996 Tele Communications Act which allowed companies like Clear Channel and Infinity to became behemoths and own hundreds and thousands of radio stations and the industry consolidated as by 2005 there were six major media companies controlling radio. The model proved unworkable. Clear Channel wants to exit the industry and Infinity would like to follow.

There is too much TV product now with hundreds of cable TV stations competing with the traditional American TV networks, ABC, CBS and NBC along with what really is a syndicator of product, not a network FOX. But the radio and TV discussion should be left for another day. Mark Cuban wants to talk about newspapers.

In Cuban’s Dallas market, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram plan to share content. Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune Company’s Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post will be sharing stories. Paradoxically, with the Internet, sports talk radio, cable TV, cell phones and radio there is more information available to the consumer but in sports, the local newspaper and the beat writer are the lifeblood between the fans and the teams.

The dirty secret that is well known in the media industry but not to fans is that sports talk radio could not exist without the beat writer. The beat writer generates the story, which the sports talk radio hosts read and then put his or hers spin on what the beat writer reported. The same holds true with TV sports readers on local news, but that might be a dying business as well as local TV news executives look at the bottom line and look to cut out costly segments of newscasts.

Cuban’s suggestion, made on December 24, 2008, would have been unworkable in the past. Newspapers do accept advertising money from teams and there are stories from the early 1960s about certain baseball writers who would pocket airline fares that were supposed to be given back to teams for flying on charters in exchange for favorable articles. But there was supposed to be a wall between a journalist and a subject that journalist was covering.

But newspapers are looking at various funding methods, including accepting donations and turning themselves into a not for profit venture. Accepting a government bailout like France is offering would have been unthinkable but the United States government has propped up ESPN, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, a plethora of regional sports networks, Comedy Central and other cable TV networks through the 1984 Cable TV Act which allowed cable systems operators to take The Weather Channel, CNN, ESPN and bundle them into a basic expanded tier and deny cable subscribers to buy those channels on an a la carte basis. CNN, MSNBC and FOX are taking money from subscribers whether those subscribers want that programming or not. Those are bona fide news organizations that exist because of the way the government allows them to be funded.

CNN, MSNBC, FOX, the New York’s area News1, News 12, the DC area’s NewsChannel 8 and other cable TV news covers the people who help fund them---the US Government.

Newspapers should not be slammed if Cuban’s idea gains traction. After all, CNN has lived that way for 25 years; they have been funded by people who are buying a basic expanded tier. Without that law, CNN, MSNBC and FOX would be scrambling to make ends meet. It is so funny that people on FOX like Sean Hannity scream about government involvement in too many programs and how a gadfly like Grover Norquist goes on cable TV shows screaming about the need for smaller government in the U. S. without acknowledging that cable TV funding method that was mandated by Congress and President Ronald Reagan, a small government advocate and someone who was for media deregulation. Hannity would not be making a living without government assistance both on Cable TV and radio.

So there is a precedent for Cuban’s newspaper bailout plan.

For what it is worth, here is the Cuban “beatwriters co-operative.” Cuban wrote, “we need to create a company that funds, depending on the size of the market and the number of teams, 2 or more writers per market, to cover our teams in depth. The writers would cover multiple teams and multiple sports. They will report to the newspapers where the articles will be placed, who will have complete editorial control. In exchange, the newspapers will provide a minimum of a full page on a daily basis in season, and some lesser amount out of season. That the coverage will include game reporting that is of far more depth than is currently in place, along with a minimum number of feature articles each week in and out of season. And most importantly, these articles will be exclusive to print subscribers”

Cuban even is suggesting a pay scale for those writers, $65,000 annually with $10,000 worth of health benefits and that big markets pay more into the “beatwriter co-operative” than small markets for the 100 writers that are needed.

Cuban did not include golf, tennis, boxing writers in his plan nor did he discuss Olympics coverage. His plan is as he pointed out, a starting point.

Whether the leagues and teams will say yes is another story. The NBA and NFL have laid off employees, individual teams have cut back employees including the Washington Redskins. Even Cuban realizes that having leagues pay for sportswriters is a “violation of editorial church and state.” But Cuban rationalized his idea by writing “watching papers going out of business and not even being able to give themselves away means its time to start a new branch of that church.”

Newspapers owners arrogance is a big part of the newspaper problem. Newspapers were slow to react to the changing world. Newspapers did survive radio, which delivered news faster than a paper in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and in World War II. They survived TV, which televised events, but newspapers didn’t know how to use new technology and have failed to become multi-media properties. Craig Newmark’s Craig’s List destroyed the help wanted, things for sale sections of newspapers and deprived papers of a major source of income. The newspapers didn’t see that coming. Nor did they see a recession coming and the tightening of credit lines.

Cuban’s suggestion might not prevent the continued erosion of sports coverage in newspapers. Cuban’s plan does not factor in the cost of putting a writer on the road which includes travel, hotel-motel, car rentals and eating bills which is a huge expense as two papers in New England have found out.

The Red Sox Nation around New England will not get stories from Boston Red Sox spring training from a beat writer for the Hartford Courant or from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, but there will be enough coverage to go around New England. Newspapers need to get very local anyway, they need to cover school board meetings and little league baseball and if they do that people will buy the product.

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