Over the last ten months I’ve mentioned in this space numerous statistics on job losses and general cutbacks in the newspaper industry. As sites like Newspaper Death Watch continue to gain traction, and papers nationwide continue to scale back their sports operations and travel budgets, it’s important to get a feel for where the industry is for the people in the trenches, past and present.
I interviewed former Newsday Yankees beat writer Kat O’Brien on this topic three months ago and she revealed that one of the reasons she left was because she didn’t believe the medium was viable anymore.
Former longtime Yankees beat man and YESNetwork.com colleague Phil Pepe agreed, but limited his answer more specifically to baseball coverage.
“This is a problem that has been ongoing for a few years and seemed to have escalated during the current economic crisis,” he said. “Sad to admit it, but today because of the blanket coverage from radio, television and the Internet, newspapers are not as vital to the game’s well-being as they once were.”
With all that in mind, I still couldn’t help thinking that additional opinions needed to be sought. So I took the the e-mails and queried New York Times Yankees beat reporter Tyler Kepner, Gertrude Ederle biographer and editor of the Greatest American Sports Writing Series, Glenn Stout, Kansas City Star columnist and uber-blogger Joe Posnanski, Pepe and another of my ex-YES men, Al Iannazzone, who covers the New Jersey Nets for The Bergen Record.
As you’ll see, I asked each writer the same basic set of questions, including one standout from Banterer YankeeMama. The e-mails were exchanged over the course of several days in late April, hence the reason some of the material in the answers may seem dated.
I was impressed with everyone’s candor and genuine love for the craft of writing, and newspapers’ place — even now — as an outlet for that voice. Each recognized how technology has influenced the industry, and how a happy medium must be forged for bloggers, beat writers, newspapers and e-media to coexist. Money matters, however, skew the discussion.
On the topic of travel, Iannazzone said, “It’s mostly West Coast games because you’re not going to get them in the paper anyway. So it’s a way to save money wisely, I guess.” There were certain elements of the conversation that due to the sensitivity of the issue, Iannazzone would not divulge, but he did offer this nugget: “I know I traveled less this year than in my five years on the Nets.”
The individual Q&A’s are highlighted below:
TYLER KEPNER and PHIL PEPE
Weiss: the Times cutting sections and looking for ways to boost revenue, have their been cuts in terms of writer representation / travel to games?
Kepner: Not at all. At least not yet. I would guess that we sent more writers to more WBC sites than any other newspaper, and our manpower in spring training and the first couple of weeks of the regular season has not been decreased at all.
Weiss: You post quite frequently to Bats, and you bring some real interesting nuggets to that format. Do you find the blog format beneficial to your overall coverage, or a burden?
Kepner: It definitely enhances our coverage, no question about it. Yesterday, for example, I spoke with Alex Rodriguez’s surgeon around 11 a.m. Within an hour and a half, I had a 500-word story posted online under our blog heading. It
appeared in the early editions of the actual newspaper but dropped out for the final editions when the daily report from the game (Burnett’s dominance, Nady’s injury, etc.) took its place. Without the blog, I might have been upset by that. But knowing there are space limitations in the paper makes it valuable to be able to write things for cyberspace, where of course there
are no space limitations.
Our format is great because it allows you the flexibility to write almost anything you want, in any kind of voice. I almost never post on my days off. But on the days I’m working, if I don’t have at least one thought or observation or insight worthy of putting up on the blog (besides what is going in the actual paper), something’s probably wrong.
We’re also shifting more toward a hybrid blog/notebook, so items that before would appear under the heading of “Yankees Notebook” or “Mets Notebook” will now be presented as blog posts and then spun off into the actual newspaper when space allows.
Weiss: As more newspapers fold or go solely to an online format, how is the BBWAA accounting for this drastic shift?
Kepner: As a body, we’ve taken a more open mind to allowing writers from websites to have or retain BBWAA membership. It’s obvious that some of the best writers in the business are guys like Jayson Stark (espn.com), Gordon Edes (Yahoo), and many, many others, whose work appears online and not in print. Those writers are essentially doing their job the same way newspaper writers do — that is, depending on their access to games. It’s more a function of how the mechanics a writer needs to do his or her job than the publication it is for. (MLB.com writers are an exception; they have many tremendous journalists, but as an extension of Major League Baseball, they have not been approved as BBWAA members.)
Pepe: I can’t speak for the BBWAA because my involvement is with the New York chapter only and, frankly, I haven’t seen much of a change around here. The local papers, with a few minor exceptions, still cover the teams in full force as they always have, so I am not missing any coverage. In fact, I counted 12 people from the Daily News who were in Florida at one time another for spring training and/or the World Baseball Classic, so that paper must not be hurting.
I don’t get to the ballparks these days so I have not witnessed the missing members in the press box that was alluded to in the piece. But I have heard the alarming news about papers scaling back coverage (the Detroit News is printing three times per week, the Star Ledger is picking up game stories from the Daily News, etc) or going out of business (the Rocky Mountain News, no newspaper in San FRancisco, etc).
As for the NY Chapter, I have seen no reduction in our membership. We have been able to replenish our rolls with Japanese writers and dot.coms, so the purge has really not hit us yet. But I will admit the future is bleak. I remember when press coverage was so important, the Knicks, Rangers, Jets (Titans) would pay the writers’ expenses to have them cover on the road. I think the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers did the same in the early days, but if they did it was before my time.
Weiss (to Kepner): And this question from a BB reader, on a similar note … Journalism is in danger of becoming fragmented if solely in a web-based form. How can journalism stay alive online while maintaining the integrity of the newspaper as a viable form of spreading a wealth of information? Will we all own Kindles? Are we destined to become as fragmented as an iTune? Or just plain ignorant?
Kepner: I’m not really sure how to answer that. I’m probably naïve, but I know that for lots of people there’s a real value in having an actual paper as opposed to an online-only product. I suppose we’re headed in that direction if ad
revenue continues to fall, but I can’t predict what will happen. I think the most important thing is trusting the credibility of what you are reading. That’s the vital difference between a beat writer and someone who does not travel with a team and take advantage of the access we have. Both types of writers have worthwhile things to say. But, to me, following the work of writer who’s around the team all the time (and does the job well, of course) is the best way for a fan to know what’s really going on — and why.
Weiss: What do you see as the major cause for newspapers shuttering their operations: the economy or the prevalence and immediate availability of information on the Internet?
Stout: I don’t think it’s an either/or question — you can’t separate the two, although I would argue that changing economic expectations in the newspaper industry, in advance of the recent world wide economic downturn, which has escalated the problem dramatically, had more to do with the contraction than the immediacy of internet information, and the internet info that has hurt newspaper the most is the info they themselves provide, for free, and not so much what appears elsewhere. And by giving it away for free, there’s little reason to keep buying the cow, hence the contraction. Newspapers made a grave error in the last decade when they failed to realize, industry-wide, that anything they put on the internet for free should have been put there ONLY to drive traffic toward print –- rather than the other way around, or should not have been accessible to non-subscribers. Had that model been instituted early, we’d be accustomed to it now and this conversation wouldn’t be taking place. But they — the publishers and experts — blew it. But also understand that “contraction” has been going on for most of the last century. One hundred years ago, big cities like Boston and New York sported seven, eight, nine daily papers, all of which covered the teams, and there was also some coverage by papers from the surrounding region. That kind of saturation coverage has been dwindling for a hundred years.
Weiss: A few beat writers have mentioned that posting to Blogs give them a different forum with more freedom and allow them to provide information that won’t appear in the paper. Do you see that as a benefit?
Stout: Benefit for who? It’s benefit for the reader, but I’m not sure so much for the writer, not always. I mean, on the one hand it increases his or her exposure, but it is also an added responsibility, and more work, usually for the same pay, and can take time away from producing and researching a story for print. In general, too (and I know this is a sweeping generalization with many exceptions), many blog posts, which are increasingly taking on the brevity of tweets, are often written with more haste and less attention than work for print. I think it’s difficult to improve your craft, or craft something really lasting, in that format. I know there are writers whose work I respect a lot whose emphasis on blogs has, I think, detracted from what they do in print. But there is also some freedom in not always having to write unified, complete stories, and being able to fire off observations, anecdotes and breaking news without having to wait, and without having to worry about the format so much. There are some readers who will always prefer more crafted work, and others who just want info and data. I think it’s a tough balance for a writer, and real difficult to do both well.
Weiss: Do you see journalism becoming more fragmented?
Stout: I think fragmentation has been a reality in journalism ever since journalism has existed. Evolutionary new formats and methods of transmitting information, and the attendant influence of those changes on the field, has been a constant. Over time, journalism has always had to adapt to changes in the speed and method by which information can be distributed –- it has never remained static -– and so too now. The wisest people in the field understand and embrace that. It’s Darwinian -– adapt or die -– and always has been. When I started writing as a freelancer the industry was still in the “write it out in longhand and then type it out” stage. Had I not adapted and evolved, I wouldn’t be working today.
Weiss: Do you think newspapers cutting costs by not sending writers to road games, etc., is a disservice to hometown readers?
Stout: I think anything that constricts the direct access journalists have to their subject is a bad thing. It’s basic math -– two reporters covering a team are probably going to miss stuff that five won’t. And given the way that teams and leagues are trying to control their own information flow these days on their own ersatz journalism platforms -– think mlb.com and the MLB Network -– it’s never a good thing to be in a situation where you are dependent on the industry to self report. They will always leave things out that would otherwise be reported.
Weiss: If you were a newspaper editor, what measures would you take to combat the shifts in coverage that are taking place?
Stout: If I were king of the newspapers I would make each of them locally owned, ban chains, and then, in a sweeping edict, have them all dramatically reduce fee web content. That’s the only way for newspapers, as we have known them, to survive. But you know what? It’s too late for that. That battle is lost. So if I were a newspaper editor I think the best thing I could do would be to hire the best, most energetic and creative writing staff possible and just let them rip. Don’t overmanage and don’t over edit. I’m convinced that if given the chance the writers will always find a way, through their own creativity, to produce work people will want to read. Most assuredly the solution to industry problems will not come when being dictated from on high, or delivered by consultants.
Weiss: What effect has the news of the Seattle P-I going online only and the Rocky Mountain News shuttering operations had on the local papers in Kansas City, including yours? Does it make you wonder where the hammer will fall next?
Posnanski: Well, the PI and Rocky closing did not have any specific effect on the Star other than we were left very sad for those cities and for the good friends we have there. Those were both excellent newspapers. And these are tough times. Every newspaper is going through a transition right now. We’ve had a series of layoffs and various other cost-cutting measures at the Star and throughout the McClatchy chain. But I think it’s important to just try to keep going; the economic downturn has had a harsh effect on a lot of businesses, not just newspapers.
Weiss: You’re a career newspaper man and you maintain your own blog. Do you prefer one medium over the other?
Posnanski: Well, I guess I would say I much prefer newspapers because I actually get paid to write for them, unlike my blog. But beyond that, I really like writing for both mediums. I was not one of those kids who knew what I wanted to be at a young age, but ever since I figured it out I wanted to write stories. I love the daily grind of newspapers, the tight deadlines, the camaraderie, the opportunities, the access. And I love the blog writing because there are fewer rules, no limits, and no pressures. I tend to see the newspaper as a job I love, and the blog as a hobby that I probably spend too much time on.
Weiss: Has the KC Star changed its philosophy on coverage of baseball or any other sport due to either a) the economy or b) loss of revenue or c) demographic shift in readership to online?
Posnanski: Sure, I think we’ve changed our philosophy a little bit, but I don’t think in the way that most would think. We are writing more about the Royals than ever before. Sam Mellinger writes what I think is an excellent blog about the Royals called “Ball Star,” and Brad Doolittle takes a statistical approach, and for me Bob Dutton is the hardest-working and best beat guy in the country. So I think we are doing more with the Royals now than ever, and I think we will continue to do more. I know that there has been some talk in places about cutting back, maybe traveling less, etc. And I’m not smart enough to know … but best I can tell the thought at the Star is to do the opposite. Covering the Royals is something we can do better than anyone else. And I think that as times get tougher, it’s MORE important that we do that, not less.
Weiss: Do you think newspapers and print media in general are becoming obsolete? If so, is that a good thing? (If you’re an environmentalist, I know the answer is yes).
Posnanski: Well, I do care about the environment a great deal, but I also think that people might be surprised by how much life is still left in print. I know that you hear on a daily basis that print is dying, but a lot of newspapers are still making money. Many advertisers still will only advertise in print. I do think that America is shifting, and I think that printed newspapers will play a different role over the next few years. But I would not be surprised if newspapers, in one form or another, are around for a lot longer than many people seem to think.
Weiss: As more newspapers fold or go solely to an online format, how is the BBWAA accounting for this drastic shift?
Posnanski: Well, again, I don’t want to sound like I have my head buried in the sand — times are very tough for newspapers, and everyone is cutting back, and at the moment everything looks very bleak. But, you know, newspapers have been folding for a long, long time. When I was younger, it was afternoon papers folding. The Cleveland Press. The Charlotte News. The Chicago Daily Herald. Some great papers. There used to be a dozen papers in New York, and more. So we’re really going through another cycle here … and none of us know how it’s going to end up. Will there a be major city without a newspaper? Will there be a one-paper town that gets all its news online? Will newspapers simply fade away? How soon will those things happen? I don’t know. So, it’s hard to say how that will affect the BBWAA. I’m really happy the organization has opened its doors to online sites — I think that was long overdue. I mean, ESPN and Yahoo and SI.com and so on, these are giants in sports journalism now. They should not just be in the BBWAA, but they should be helping shape the future. The real question for me at this moment is not for the BBWAA but the Baseball Hall of Fame. You know, it’s the Baseball Hall of Fame that handed over voting privileges to the BBWAA — the Hall of Fame is not like the Cy Young or MVP awards which were created and are entirely run by the BBWAA. No the Hall of Fame asked the BBWAA to vote in Hall of Famers, and it has been that way since 1936, and I would say for the most part that has worked well.
Well, now I think the Hall of Fame has a bit of a crisis on its hands. Numerous great players — Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield and quite a few others — have a steroid stain, and right now it appears that there is no movement in the BBWAA to vote for any of those players. And the people running the Hall of Fame is going to have to face the reality of a museum without the all-time hit leader, the all-time home run leader, perhaps the best pitcher ever, etc. Maybe they’re OK with that. Maybe they’re not. I’d keep an eye on that.
Weiss: And this question from a BB reader: Journalism is in danger of becoming fragmented if solely in a web-based form. How can journalism stay alive online while maintaining the integrity of the newspaper as a viable form of spreading a wealth of information? Will we all own Kindles? Are we destined to become as fragmented as an iTune? Or just plain ignorant?
Posnanski: Whew, deep questions all — I don’t think any of us know how this is going to shake out. That’s the real trouble right now. Newspapers are facing a double whammy now — technology is shifting AND we’re facing the worst economic downturn in decades. Those two punches coming at once make it hard to see clearly. It also makes it easy to panic. My gut feeling is that journalism will stay alive — online, in some form of print, and in whatever the next thing is — because people want journalism. People want to know the news. People want someone watching out for them. People want to be informed and entertained. I think some of that is found in blogs. I think some of that is found in books. I think some of that is found in magazines. And I do believe that there is still a market for professionals who know how to find the story and who know how to tell the story. Of course, I have to believe that. One thing I think a lot about is how fragmented we already have become as a society. We watch different shows, read different Web sites, rent different movies, listen to different music … there isn’t as much connection as there used to be with everyone in the neighborhood. It’s one of the reason I love sports so much: That’s one thing that has made it through, the one thing we do share. Maybe everyone doesn’t watch the tonight show or listen to the same morning show on the radio or even read the same newspaper. But in Kansas City, everyone still cares whether the Royals lost last night. I think that’s important.