Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The demise of the local investigative sports journalist

image Has the era of the local investigative sports journalist come to an end? In recent months, an awful lot of bandwidth has been used to question and criticize what many are convinced is the local newspapers’ lack of coverage of college athletics “extracurricular activities.” Radio talk show callers, blogs and internet message board denizens have expressed both outrage and bewilderment over the fact that national news organizations like ESPN, New York Times, CBS Sports, FOX Sports and Yahoo! Sports are the first to break blockbuster stories regarding scandals at major universities. In no state is the criticism more loudly expressed than the state of Alabama. People want to know why they didn’t read it in their local daily newspaper first.

I have the answer, and it may surprise you.

Earlier this week, I had a brief conversation with a senior staff member at one of the state’s major daily newspapers. I won’t say which one because frankly, the man is a complete professional and 100% newshound. I don’t want to risk outing or embarrassing him for speaking frankly with a blogger.

One thing was very clear—He’s not any happier than you are about his desk being unable to get the story first, but his professionalism demands that he get the story right.  He’d prefer to get it right and get it first but if he is forced to choose between the two, he’s going with getting it right. I admire that because as a blogger, credibility is lifeblood. I’d love for you to read it here first, but I’m really concerned over your ability to take what you read here to the bank. That’s why you will never see this blog float anything like that Brent Calloway story that AuburnSports.com’s Jeffery Lee ran with several weeks ago. But I digress.

Sadly, Senior Staffer really doesn’t have much power to change the situation unless things change in the newspaper industry. To put it bluntly, the newspaper industry—especially the smaller-market dailies that make up the al.com network—is the sick man of the modern mass media. Papers are seeing shrinking subscription and circulation numbers. Advertisers have other options besides print and aren’t paying premium rates for premium space. At least not like they used to “back in the day.”

“People just aren’t buying newspapers like they used to,” Senior Staffer told me. “If they did, I’d have the resources to put someone on a story like the Cam Newton or Terrelle Pryor cases. I just don’t have the manpower to dedicate to something that might take weeks or even months to develop. It’s not feasible in this business climate.” There’s something of a vicious cycle at work here, too. The less likely people are to believe they’ll get the story first from their local daily, the less likely they are to rely on it for hard news and investigative journalism, which in turn reduces the paper’s ability to get the news that people are starving for.

Today’s news consumer has many more choices to gain satisfaction. Indeed, of the five national news organizations I listed above, all have major online presence and three of them reach millions through television and radio broadcasts. By the time you pick up your local paper in the morning, you’re reading about something the whole world was talking about yesterday. People also read blogs like this one and in many cases, their favorite blog has more credibility than what they read in print. That’s a responsibility that isn’t taken lightly here, but there is real danger in leaving the vetting of news outlets to the consumer. Caveat emptor.

The impact of these processes made itself felt with the recent reorganizations of the three major daily sports desks at the papers affiliated with al.com. No longer does the Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times have dedicated beat writers assigned to covering sports at the two major schools in the state. Each paper shares the combined efforts of four reporters—two each at the “Tuscaloosa Bureau” and the “Auburn Bureau.” There are still sports reporters and columnists employed by each of those organizations, but again, limited resources limits the amount of time one of those papers can let their reporters work a developing story. Factoring in the risk that a reporter might spend weeks or months working on a story and come up empty further reduces incentive, and there’s always the ever-present risk of litigation. So, the four beat writers at the two Bureaus continue to inform about the day-to-day events at the schools they cover, the other sports reporters and columnists pen their op-ed pieces, and ESPN breaks the Cam Newton story in the midst of the 2010 football season.

One unfortunate consequence of the reorganization is that the beat writers appear to be engaging in outright homerism, and not many regular readers in the state believe that either Bureau is capable or willing to write critically or dig for facts that might cast the school in a bad light. If one of the beat writers falls out of favor with his assigned program, three papers see half of their beat coverage put in jeopardy. If you’re Izzy Gould or Evan Woodberry, are you seriously going to risk ticking off the head coach and getting shut out of interviews or getting your access to the program cut?

ESPN has the resources to dedicate a Mark Schlabach or Joe Schad to a story. Yahoo! does, too. And the New York Times, and… You get the idea. The only way one of our state’s major dailies will break a major story like those we’ve seen the last several months is if something happens to fall in their lap.

It’s not a lack of interest or professional drive that keeps your local newshound from breaking a major story. It’s a lack of resources, and no one feels the frustration more than the local newshound.

For the record, I have been a daily subscriber to the Mobile Press-Register for three decades. I still read the sports section from cover to cover, every morning. I miss the depth and breadth of the stories that filled the section years ago and on some summer mornings, the sports section is a scant four pages, with Soduku and other such stuff on the back page. Maybe if more people subscribed to their local daily, the papers could afford a little more latitude to chase down the next Tee Martin or Cam Newton story and scoop the national media.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Extra Point: http://www.al.com/mrsubscribe/ and https://subscribe.bhamnews.com/AL/ and http://www.al.com/htsubscribe/

Follow one of those links and do the right thing. If your local paper is different from one of these three, then look up the number, call and consider subscribing. The future of sports journalism in this state could be hanging in the balance.

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3 comments :

Jeremy Coleman said...

I disagree with the premise that newspapers don't do true investigations anymore due to resources. If they had all the money in the world, they would still not do anything that could truly hurt the University for several reasons. First, if the U doesn't like the reporting of a paper or even a group of papers, then the U can just shut out that group. The U's don't need the paper to get their message out. U's have their own TV stations for Pete's sake. Secondly, papers admit that they sell more papers when the school they cover does well. That doesn't mean that reporters won't do their job, but the management of the paper is not motivated to encourage the NCAA to investigate the school they cover. So, they won't/can't justify putting a person on a story for an extended period of time.
Basically, internet killed the newspaper star. That is a good thing. I don't hate newspapers, but they are the buggy and whip makers of the 21st century. If you like them then keep buying them, but just don't demand that Woodward and Bernstein haunt the press boxes in the SEC. The investigative newspaperman has walked into a cornfield in Iowa.

GulfCoastBamaFan said...

I think the state's dailies would do a story if it fell in their lap. But the point of the post is that dedicating resources to finding a story and developing it are probably a thing of the past.

Senior Staffer really is a dedicated professional journalist and whether or not his story raised the ire of the school wouldn't factor into his decision to go to press with it.

That's the impression I got during our conversation.

Jeremy Coleman said...

Like I said, the reporter would go where it leads. The problem is the managment, usually out of state, that sees it from a Cost/Benefit standpoint. Meaning, that if School A does poorly, then that hurts sales. Papers make money on special editions after champions, not on breaking down LOI's.