by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning readers. I’m in beautiful Pittsburgh on a sports media consulting gig.
I’m shutting down my radio podcast subscriptions until September, but will try to keep up with the work from folks given a shot at making a mark while the heavyweights bunker down in their cottages. As we enter the dead summer season I’ll be writing more abstract “state of the industry” stuff. Sportsnet Radio West is obviously the big story we are all watching, since it brings new jobs and a new forum for TSN and SN to compete.
As always, please continue to send along good and bad articles, interviews, and segments. If you have a radio show or podcast or blog you want me to promote, send me a link. DMs are open, and I read every comment posted here. It’s important to me to be receptive to constructive criticism so feel free to pass on feedback as well.
Save our Beats
The big industry news this week is the first glimpse we saw of what a government bailout for journalism might look like. The largest lobby group for traditional journalism put together a series of proposals for how to spend the not yet determined amount. The outline is here, and the details are here.
The most germane part is this: 35% subsidy for the salary and expenses of the news room, capped at $85,000 per journalist. So someone making $60,000 per year to cover city hall with an additional $10,000 in expenses would cost a newspaper $45,500 instead of $70,000. That’s a huge savings.
The reaction to the concept of a bailout was swift and castigatory from some of the public but also from people in the industry. Consider the following quote, which was repeated widely by many opponents of the plan:
“This is not a case of market failure, but industry failure. Nothing whatever prevents readers from buying what we are selling. There is only our own proven incompetence at providing them with a product worth paying for. As an industry we have made every mistake it is possible to make, sometimes twice. Now we’re going to make you pay for them.” Andrew Coyne (NP)
The Athletic Toronto Editor-in-Chief James Mirtle told me:
“Subsidizing the newspapers will give them an unfair advantage over start-ups like ours, which by design directly support the writers over executives and management. It will be subsidizing the considerable (and unneeded) overhead costs associated with legacy media companies. It will be subsidizing a business model we already know will no longer work, delaying badly needed innovation in the industry. If anything, the government should be supporting ingenuity and the creation of new media entities built by journalists […] The industry has to change. This won’t help that happen.” — James Mirtle (Athletic)
Others with whom I spoke worried about objectivity if the government were to be involved in distributing subsidies to newsrooms. Presumably these people have the same concern about the CBC. Personally, I don’t. I think we have a strong record in Canada of providing high quality relatively neutral public broadcasting.
The interesting question is whether we need more of it, and whether newspapers have proven that they can provide something the CBC cannot or will not.
One of the best comments on what’s ailing legacy journalism is this:
“While the medium in which you consume news continues to evolve, our jobs as journalists remains unchanged at the core. We still must shed light on the truth and tell compelling stories. That’s what you’ve paid us for by reading and subscribing for generations. The only difference now is it’s not as easy in the sports world as it used to be. And we could complain about that, or we could stop being lazy and go back to doing our jobs.” — Matt Stephens, The Coloradan
That’s from a sports writer complaining about local media accepting being denied access by coaches, and getting one-word answers from media-trained athletes. Even if sports writers take his advice and stop blaming everyone else for their problems, there remains the industry wide shift at the editorial level. Employers have changed their priorities and the written word is not at the top of that list. Richard Deitsch (SI) recently asked: “how can ESPN claim to be as committed to journalism today after the elimination of journalists?” (See here for discussion).
Fox and MTV have recently shifted to video stories over written accounts. This further reduces the number of jobs that journalists tend to be better at than the average media member.
MTV News is just the latest site to cut writers and say they're pivoting to video. Lots of big names let go. https://t.co/g3gfyHsjBW
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) June 29, 2017
Has anyone done the math on what is driving this trend? How much value is there in video content vs CPMs on traditional stories? https://t.co/L6bZZOWM1K
— mike in boston (@mikeinboston) June 29, 2017
And finally, looming large in the background is the fact that the lifeblood of the largest sports media employers continues to dwindle.
“The most recent Nielsen estimates have ESPN in 87 million homes — a loss of 13 million subscribers over six years. With a current affiliate fee of $8 per subscriber per month, that’s more than $1 billion per year in affiliate revenue that ESPN is not getting.”
To summarize: things are looking bad for sports writers. Before delving in to what this means for Toronto, it’s worth noting a few things:
- The current proposal includes money for digital-only publications, however the lobby body doesn’t allow these outlets to be voting members of their organization. (See here). So there is a significant concern that the subsidy will heavily go to supporting those outlets clinging to the past rather than those who are already part of the future.
- The publishing industry has an honesty problem. One example: Rogers took subsidies from the government for its magazines and then shuttered or reduced all of them … and kept the money. Another example: at launch we were told Star Touch had lots of operational budget in the bank to grow the product. So, the concern that outlets would take a government subsidy under one guise and spend it on content no one wants written by people whose opinion no one values is very real.
- In order to be eligible for government subsidy an outlet must be publishing news with a “civic” component.
This last point means that all sports sections would be ineligible for the bailout, and the first point means that digital-only outlets like The Athletic, TSN.ca, and Sportsnet.ca won’t be able to join this organization.
Verdict: sporting hot mess.
Is Sports Journalism Worth Saving?
These are early days and public policy is always a negotiation between various interested groups. So let’s posit, just for the sake of discussion, that sports will become eligible in the fullness of time. On that assumption, here are two questions:
1) What kind of sports journalism should we fight to keep from disappearing?
2) How much of the best kind of journalism is currently being done by newspapers?
Mull those questions and consider some evidence from the last week.
TSN’s Rick Westhead wrote a very long piece about the NHLPA and the three agents who are challenging the leadership of Donal Fehr. The piece is a great example of what real journalists do best: lots of research, lots of interviews, digging up some dirt, putting everything in context, and letting the reader decide what conclusion to draw.
(My conclusion: if the NHLPA chases Fehr away, they will regret it for decades. The 2004 lockout was before his time and escrow is the price the players paid for not being unified during that lockout. Gary keeps his owners on a short leash. In a 700+ member organization there will always be malcontents and people who think they can do it better. Keep that in-house! The only group to benefit from publicity about NHLPA strife is the owners. Let Don do his job.)
When TSN’s story broke on Wednesday the 28th at 7pm I asked people at Sportsnet and elsewhere who would be covering this developing story for them. A few people told me that they expected Sportsnet to assign it to Johnston or Friedman or Shannon.
On June 29th at 7pm a headline popped up in my feed pointing to Sportsnet.ca to read about “Player Agents Respond to Talk of Discontent.” The published story is a summary of Westhead’s article — without attribution or mention of TSN — plus some transcriptions of PTS interviews with Walsh and Thun. The cherry on top is that in addition to doing no original reporting, Sportsnet.ca credits the story to “staff”.
You have a major story, and you employ lots of very skilled journalists. Yet the best you can produce in 24 hours is aggregated content? When I tweeted about this, someone from Sportsnet took umbrage:
Kinda like "Mike in Boston" https://t.co/qSSU9rOx5H
— John Grigg (@John_Grigg) July 1, 2017
If, like me, you have no idea who this is, his bio boasts the title of “managing editor” for Sportsnet.ca. This explains the reason he is upset, and I can sympathize. If my editorial vision was to devote resources to Leafs fishing trip controversies instead of genuine journalism I wouldn’t want people drawing attention to that either.
So, instead of chasing down a developing story with major implications for the future of the NHL, Sportsnet leadership are reading the feeds of bloggers they don’t follow, and publicly displaying their struggles with reading comprehension. To compound the embarrassment, if you’re going to deign to admit to reading the basementdwellers you would hope your cunning takedown would get more plaudits from co-workers and fans. At least when Steve Simmons makes sarcastic remarks about me he gets more than one retweet and zero likes.
Bonus: I searched my notes for any records I have of this chap. What popped up was more evidence that Sportsnet’s Managing Editor has some work to do when it comes to the English language before his next promotion.
— John Grigg (@John_Grigg) April 7, 2016
I'm pretty sure we inferred sweep. The rest stands.
— John Grigg (@John_Grigg) May 22, 2016
Back to the issues at hand: who is Westhead’s counterpart at Sportsnet? Or The Star or the Sun or the Globe?
We will see in the days ahead if those outlets are able to add to the public discourse on the NHLPA that TSN has started. This is exactly the kind of story into which I would expect trained journalists to want to sink their teeth. Between the local papers and the digitals there’s around 40-50 real journalists employed by sports outlets in the city. That’s a lot of person-power. What will the industry have to show for itself on this sports story about our national sport?
When you add up the number of bodies and the amount of content produced every week, one question that comes to mind is this: what is the special value that newspaper journalists add to the marketplace?
Here are a few possibilities:
- access – arenas credential reputable outlets
- credibility – papers have track records to back them up
- money – newspapers have travel and research budgets
These criteria are obviously contestable. Many arenas credential bloggers and people who have professional affiliations but don’t work at a paper. Further, how many important stories depend on being at the rink? Next: newspapers do have track records (good and not so good), but how many sports stories depend on the credibility of the outlet? Quick challenge: name some story from the last couple of years where you thought “I don’t really believe this but since it’s Paper XYZ publishing it, I guess it must be true.” Same point about money: name some big sports story that wouldn’t have been written but for the huge research resources of a newspaper?
So I’ll come back to my two questions above and kick it over to you: 1) what’s the kind of sports journalism that needs saving, and 2) how much of that journalism are papers publishing right now?
Media Ethics 101: Giving Credit
I’ll come back to this another week. Thanks to those with whom I spoke this past week.
Insider Free Agency
With the silly season upon us I thought it might be fun to have our own sports media free agency period. Here’s the task: suppose every hockey insider is available for hire and you run a major network that pumps out content on TV, radio, and the web. Who are your top 5 insiders?
The consensus #1 is off the list due to the Gretzky Rule, but everyone else is up for grabs. Pick your top 4 from the randomized list below and we will see whom the market trusts to deliver NHL inside info after The Bobfather. I included everyone I could think of who appears on one of those hockey panel shows. Other options have been crowd-sourced. If I forgot someone important, let me know and I can add him/her in. Names have a Toronto focus, obviously.
The trend of replacing text news with video stories seems to be driven by bad intel on what younger people want. Is it possible that it’s the 55+ crowd who don’t want to read?
Star Touch is dead and 30 people are out of jobs but management is “justifiably proud” of their accomplishments. That must be comforting to the people who lost their jobs. I loved Star Touch and would pay – a lot – to be able to read all my sports news there. First company that buys the tech from La Presse and offers a Netflix type subscription, perhaps with various tiers, gets my money for a good long while.
Speaking of subscriptions, DK on Sports in Pittsburgh has 40,000 subscribers in a market of 2.3M people, somewhere around 1/3 the size of the greater Toronto market. They are cheaper than The Athletic, but don’t have as large a network of writers. They also offer a lifetime subscription. If The Athletic is thinking of fundraising, this would be a good option to try. I would pay. Email for info on how much I would be willing to pay for a lifetime subscription.
La Presse, whose technology is being used by Star Touch, is on its way to being paper-free.
Pride Week item #1: WEEI-FM in Boston has a podcast hosted by two gay sports media members called Two Outs. For reference, in terms of stature Steve Buckley is a combination of Richard Griffin and Steve Simmons. He was a major player in driving Red Sox opinion for decades. He came out on the Boston equivalent of PTS about 7 years ago.
Pride Week item #2: nothing has been written by the legion of local writers about Kevin Pillar and LGBTQ issues since June 2nd when it was announced he would be donating salary to a related cause. I’m disappointed and surprised no one followed up this past week. American outlets did a better job with this local story.
With all the Vegas celebrations this past week, let’s not forget that Quebec City was lauded by hockey media for biding its time and staying quiet. I wonder how the city and province feel now?
Low Hanging Fruit
- Eric Smith has been filling in on the FAN morning show and sounding great. Given that it’s off-season for NBA, perhaps they can find him a permanent co-host gig somewhere.
- A National Post columnist called out someone in the sports media without naming names re: the Ken Pagan story. “The greatest crime in the story of Pagan the beer tosser may have been the chance it gave the cerebral-prone sportswriter to wax indignant, to point out that as one put it, “Aleppo matters. The Blue Jays in the playoffs does not matter.” If you don’t know the reference your life is blessed beyond measure. (I’m just making an educated guess).
- TSN’s The Reporters (sometimes featuring people who are not actual reporters) is back on Sunday mornings and more importantly is going to be syndicated on TSN radio’s network of 7 stations. I have been a big advocate of TSN radio trying to do more inter-market programming, so this is a promising step.
- If you needed more proof that sports media is the ultimate locker room and will be the last place to professionalize when it comes to gender equality … Seriously, WTF Howard?
I know I'm getting older. Used to keep an "eye" on the girlfriends of players at the #NHL draft. Now, I'm looking at the mothers.
— Howard Berger (@Berger_BYTES) June 24, 2017
- Speaking of women in sports, Andrew Walker can tweet about his cats and Eric Smith can tweet about his haircuts, but god forbid Kristen Shilton tweet about rainbows. Who doesn’t like rainbows?
- (note re: above: if all sports media restricted use of their work verified accounts to tweets about sports, I’d be OK with that. Until they all do, try to make fun of their non-sports tweets without referring to gender. It’s not that hard.)
- Which highly paid Bell/Rogers employee did a better job stoking tribal loyalties among the rank and file workers this week?
- Dean Blundell’s non-compete clause has expired and he is going head to head with Mike Richards this summer. Let’s check in on what he is tweeting for his 81k followers (that’s a few hundred fewer than the number he had 2 years ago, and strangely the same number he had for basically his entire tenure at Sportsnet.)
- (note: I did not receive compensation for the above promotional mention of Blundell’s new site and its roster of 24 writers. That was a freebie.)
- Dirk Hayhurst on Osuna (Overdrive June 26, hour 3), paraphrased: “Here you have a key cog saying “I need to take time.” Think of how empowering that is for everybody else.” 10/10 from Mr. Garfoose. Get this man back to Toronto full-time.
- No one does a better job of repeating opinions into facts than Gary Bettman. See his 5 minute interview with the Bangbus Crew (Overdrive Friday June 23rd, 3rd hour). None of them were able to handle Gary Houdini’s magic assertion act. Everyone had a good time though, and 1050 got some fun soundbites. Win-win.
- We now have our homegrown equivalent to the Madden Curse. Since being featured in Stephen Brunt documentaries, Estrada is giving up a hit to roughly every other batter he faces, and Sanchez can’t get off the DL.
- Happy Canada Day. Thanks to all the Toronto media who put up with the nonsense in this space.
Note: A small website like ours doesn’t drive enough traffic to generate revenue in the current digital economic structure. Maybe in the future there will be a way for us to make a few bucks without resorting to obtrusive ads, subscription fees, or clickbait sponsored content. In the meantime I am going to put a tip jar at the end of my posts. If you like what you read here, consider dropping a few bucks in. Thanks – mike
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thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)