The End of the Road

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

Good morning sports media fans. I have been sitting on this post for a while, waiting until I could talk to enough people in the industry to have an informed opinion of my own. Unfortunately there is no place where Canadian sports media can discuss issues that affect their industry so our site often ends up serving that purpose. With the loss of media columns and disinterest from places like Canadaland et al this means that if it is not being written about here then it is not being written about at all.

 

In what follows I have tried to capture most sides of the issue but, as always, my approach starts and ends with the perspective of the consumer. This is primarily a site for readers, listeners, and viewers because that’s the only viewpoint from which I am qualified to comment. It would be great if real journalists were also writing about this topic somewhere.

 

With that out of the way, let’s get to work.

 

The Star’s Travel Ban

 

In February of this year The Star announced a series of cutbacks aimed at keeping the company afloat while financial losses continue to mount.

 

“On Monday, the company tightened its belt one more notch, cutting 13 jobs in its digital and sales operations, slashing the Toronto Star’s travel and freelance budgets and suspending its summer and year-long internship programs.” — Globe&Mail

 

Torstar board chair John Honderich talked to the Globe about their strategy going forward, mentioning what he sees as one of the problems for legacy media

 

“And added to the dynamic is something that is the greatest competitor to newspapers online and subscription: CBC.ca. It’s government subsidized. That provides a competitor for free.”

 

According to Honderich, the existence of CBC.ca draws advertising dollars away from other digital news outlets, including newspaper sites. He uses this premise to make his case:

 

“Countries around the globe have argued that, often, culture does not pay for itself and it requires some form of public subsidy. We accept that for TV production for the CBC, for the Canadian film industry, we see it for magazines, we see it for some weekly newspapers. But we don’t see it for daily newspapers. Help me understand how that makes sense. One per cent of what the CBC gets from the government – which is $1.1- billion, so 1 per cent is $11-million – that would pay for one half of the Toronto Star newsroom.”

 

Before talking about the specific issues for sports, I’d like to pause here to point out how misguided this argument is. If CBC.ca can render news websites obsolete while at the same time providing a cultural service to all Canadians then this mostly shows how redundant all these legacy digital news websites are. The high cost of running a for-profit newsroom is a big waste of money since the bulk of that content is already available to the audience coast to coast. If I can get most of what I need from the qualified journalists at the CBC then why would I need to pay for a subscription to The Star?

 

This is a bad argument. This kind of legacy thinking is a symptom of the poor management that infects traditional media. I’ll come back to this point later.

 

At Star Sports, the travel ban went into effect mid February with beat reporters for the Leafs and Raptors being kept at home through the last month of the season before columnists stepped in to resume full road coverage during the playoffs. Doug Smith (who is back on twitter and seemingly recovering well from a heart issue) wrote in his Star blog that this was not a permanent decision as far as he knew. However during the first month of the baseball season The Star has not sent anyone on the road for any of the four series and all indications are that this will continue into May.

 

The Jays beat has been the province of Richard Griffin for decades now, and Laura Armstrong joined him in the last year, replacing the talented Brendan Kennedy who moved to another department. Both writers have been in the press box and locker room for home games. Both have also filed stories for games they did not attend in person. Griffin was at spring training, though this travel was booked before the travel ban went into effect.

 

By comparison, The Sun has been at every road series in 2018 and The Athletic has sent John Lott to two out of the four. More broadly, The Sun has made a serious commitment to being at all road events for the local teams. The Athletic covers all Leafs games home and away, and picks their spots with Raptors, TFC, and the Jays. The Globe rarely travels for regular season games but has been on the road for Leafs and Raptors in the playoffs.

 

At the networks, TSN has radically cut back its Jays travel since Scott MacArthur was taken off the road a couple of years ago. That role has morphed from beat coverage into a multi-platform position that is based out of Toronto most of the time. Sportsnet, obviously, travels to all games as part of their television and radio coverage but also sends Ben Nicholson-Smith or Shi Davidi to almost every game.

 

The main question I’d like to delve into today is: what value is lost when writers don’t travel with the team?

 

I’m going to separate out the various constituencies in order to isolate different issues that are often conflated in this discussion.

 

Audience Interests

 

There are two big considerations from the standpoint of the consumer when reporters don’t travel with the team.

 

The first is that they might miss a big story. As a reader I want every story covered from every angle. If there is a blow-up between a manager and a player in the tunnel after the game then the more eyes there are on the ground the likelier someone will witness it and write about it. If a reporter is not in the scrum then he or she might miss a chance to ask a question that would prompt an interesting quote. If a player has an open spat with a reporter I want someone else to write about it objectively. If someone gets traded or suspended or charged you want as many people working the story as possible on the ground.

 

This is a plausible point but it is hard to argue that it justifies the expense of the flights, hotels, per diem etc. of sending someone on the road. Players are very tightly controlled by PR departments and so almost everything that happens comes behind closed doors rather than in public view.  For every unique event there are hundreds of generic games and scrums consisting of nothing more than “pucks in deep”. The Star’s decision not to send people on the road won’t be seriously challenged by this argument.

 

COLE BURSTON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

 

A more compelling version of this point is that reporters who travel build relationships with players and managers. These sometimes lead to reporting that would not come to the surface otherwise. The best example of this is Colby Rasmus’ interview with TSN’s Scott MacArthur from 2014. Colby really opened up about his struggles and his childhood in ways that never would have happened (or been allowed) in a traditional scrum environment. There is definitely a distinctive value to be found here and it is definitely threatened when reporters are not on the road, where there is less pressure on athletes’ time from friends and family and other reporters. If you want the best out of your staff then you need to empower them to build these relationships.

 

The second big consideration is transparency. As a reader I don’t like the idea that editors are assigning writers to sit on their couches and watch the same game as I am, and then tell me what I just watched. Why would I bother reading that? I wouldn’t. My clicks have been going elsewhere since the travel ban went into effect.

 

Of course some people won’t have seen the game and will benefit from the couch-coverage, but this raises a few different issues. First, unless you’re paying attention to placelines — the bit under the author’s name that lists (or omits) a location — it would be a natural assumption by the reader that the story is being written from the road. This is especially true if the game story includes quotes. The trick that stay-at-home reporters will use is to add “… told reporters” or “with files from …” when using quotes they did not get themselves.

 

Is it ethical for a reporter to include these quotes without clearly indicating this is not firsthand information? Have a look at this piece and decide for yourself.

 

Sometimes teams will release quote-sheets for general use. Other times the scrum or press conference will be aired on websites or social media. But in some cases a reporter is literally sitting at home reading other people’s tweets or stories and then using these to write a game story. So, whether you watched the game on TV or not, there is a potential problem when a paper writes a game story without fully disclosing that they were not there and are relying on the ears and eyes of others for content. This 2nd and 3rd hand information really dilutes the journalistic value of what is being offered. If you knew this about the story going in, would you still read?

 

This leads to a related problem: if you’re writing your story off TV then you are constrained by the images and sounds they choose to broadcast. You are also going to be influenced — consciously or not — by the narrative that is spun by the local broadcasters. Things have improved since the addition of Wagner and Shulman, but when your coverage is mediated through Hawk Martinez this is going to have some effect on the written work over the course of a season.

 

Putting these two points — loss of relationships and loss of original reporting — together I do think there is something of value to the audience that is threatened by losing road reporting. However, given resource constraints, this is natural place to cut back for the sake of saving the sports department. In my opinion The Star cut too deeply. A strategy like The Athletic’s seems like the best one: when something is brewing then make sure you are there. Otherwise, save your dollars and let the other guys or the wire services write the game stories.

 

Reporter Interests

 

Some reporters to whom I spoke were passionate defenders of the necessity of beat reporting. Others were more phlegmatic. As a reporter you are trained (ideally) in the art of reading subtle cues, asking good questions (ideally), and conveying your findings (ideally) in an interesting manner. When this all goes well, the audience is well served and you have added something to the pool of knowledge.

 

With that said, game stories are arguably the least critical form of sports writing in 2018. I don’t mean to malign the fine work that can be done. But when every at bat of every game can be seen live or immediately after it happens, the value of telling people about home runs and strikeouts is minimal. This is not the case with news, where “what happened” can be a mix of fact and interpretation and good reporting is essential in order to untangle the two. If I can watch a clip of a double-play or a 10 minute condensed version of the game then I don’t need someone to explain it to me.

 

As mentioned, the facts on the score sheet are just one element of a game story. There is also what comes before and after, as well as the implications for the next game and the rest of the season. However, much of that can be written about without being at the game. So we come back to the point that when resources are tight, travel can be cut without a significant loss in terms of core job function.

 

One way to respond to this is to point to the leaders in the field and the way they gained their stripes. Bob Elliott is Bob Elliott because of his contacts, his credentials, and his credibility with the players. He gets the respect from his subjects in part because of his presence from game to game and season to season. If he is not on the road then he never becomes Bob Elliott, and he never writes some of his best work. Players read that work and come to trust his judgment. There is a positive feedback loop here.

 

I have a lot of time for this argument. First, beat reporting is great job training for young reporters. If you take this away then you are professionally handcuffing those in most need of experience. Second, if only team-friendly media are on the road then there is a huge potential for big stories to be swept under the rug. With the new “fan experience” focused media relations department running things for the Jays and Sportsnet, the audience needs independent voices more than ever.

 

Another point is that there is a symbiotic relationship between beat reporters and columnists, again in the ideal. A columnist can’t be on the road all the time so he or she …. (Ha! A Toronto outlet hiring a female sports columnists. We don’t even have a word for that!) … can work with a colleague to get all the information out there.

 

 

When this works well the columnist is able to say things the beat reporter could not, for fear of risking existing relationships. This ecosystem makes everyone better off, especially the audience.

 

This is a good argument for why both roles are important and interdependent. If you want Steve Simmons to be able to do his job then you need Lance Hornsby and Ryan Wolstat to do theirs.

 

Is this an argument for being at every single road game? Probably not. However it does mean that being at no road games is a mistake. Again, The Star seems to have cut too deeply without giving enough thought to whether they are being pennywise and poundfoolish when it comes to the overall health of the department.

 

I’ve Seen The Future, Brother. It is Murder.

 

We know how this ends. There will be cuts upon cuts until the last ones left are told to turn off the lights after filing their game stories. The only hope for saving newspapers is to think about what you can offer in a saturated market that others cannot. As soon as you identify what that is then you should double and triple down on that while abandoning the rest.

 

I have written often about how content these days is disposable. No matter how much research you put into something it will have the tiniest life cycle before it gets buried in people’s feeds. Things are never going back to the way they once were. No one is going to own the sports conversation for 24 hours at a time and that is OK. The challenge is to stay on top of good stories and put your assets to best use so that when everyone is talking about something important you are part of the conversation.

 

One way to create economies is to stop trying to capture the same eye balls as everybody else. This applies to print as well as subscription based services. Yes, this might mean your sports section has fewer people working in it. But it also means those who are on salary are doing something sustainable and worthwhile. Let’s be honest: it doesn’t make sense to hire the same number of people to cover sports in 2018 when everything is on TV as it did 20 years ago. You can make do with fewer, as long as you are writing about the right things.

 

The lesson for all outlets, at home or on the road, is the same: stop chasing the same stories as everyone else. Taking this maxim seriously will free people up to do good original work, assuming they have the talent and skills to do so. There is an opportunity here for The Star to be radical in an industry that is dogmatically dedicated to the pre-internet ways of doing things. Kevin McGran did some great stuff on HNIC from home. So did Laura Armstrong with this piece on Joe Siddall. If The Star can figure out how to afford the cost of allowing some travel then they can just run AP/CP stories for the other road games and let their people pursue more interesting stories instead of sitting on the couch.

 

This is why Honderich’s complaining about the unfair advantages of CBC.ca is tone-deaf but also highly illustrative of the kind of conservative thinking that dominates the executive level of traditional media. The Star has been trying to do the same thing as 20 years ago despite the loss of the cash cow revenue that came from obituaries and classified ads. How long has it been since the business model was shown to be unsustainable? How long since their bread and butter stories became irrelevant? Yet the top minds at The Star think the issue is that they don’t have a level playing field with CBC.ca? This is fiddling while 1 Yonge Street burns.

 

SN/RUSSELL MONK

 

To bring this discussion to a close, in an era of unprecedented control over athletes by teams and media companies the value of the unaffiliated journalists is critical. This is especially true with the Jays since they are a Rogers-only property. This creates huge advantages for the people who work there in terms of access, whether that’s Stephen Brunt being able to visit Roberto Osuna in his hometown in Mexico or Jackie Redmond being able to play poker with the Jays.  This doesn’t mean that affiliated journalists don’t do valuable work, but rather that the audience needs both if we are going to have the complete picture.

 

Speaking purely as an audience member I can envision a world where The Sun owns the road, The Star picks and chooses while using the leftover resources to chase more investigative type stories, and The Globe focuses on big picture opinion. This would cover all the bases while giving each a niche of their own. More likely is that they continue to do the same thing they have always done while cutting budgets and hoping the audience doesn’t notice.

 

One final point here. As much as we decry the slippery slope of paying people to watch TV instead of going to the rink, this is not new. People have been writing stories without either seeing the field or asking a question of their own for decades. While a press pass gets you in the door, at any big event many travelling media are going to be doing work they could just as easily have done from home. What a waste of company money.

 

Considering the Evidence

 

  • If you want to compare a game story from the road to one from home, here is The Star’s Richard Griffin (no quotes) and here is The Sun’s Steve Buffery. No contest in terms of depth of reporting. Assigning Griffin to do that story is an insult, and the work reads almost as a protest.

 

  • If you want to think about the kind of stuff that gets omitted by team-friendly media consider that Rob Manfred recently breezed through town and said two noteworthy things: 1) The Dome needs upgrades, 2) Sportsnet angered the league by intimating the Facebook game was “radio only”. Guess which item was left off Shi Davidi’s story? For complete coverage, you have to read a non-Rogers outlet. Here is Griffin, who thankfully covered the whole story.

 

  • Cathal Kelly recently covered The Masters for three straight days from his living room. To devote this much space to an event without sending someone there to do any actual reporting is, in my opinion, ridiculous. You might as well pay him to livetweet the broadcast instead. This speaks to the rudderlessness of GlobeSports and the terrible approach they have taken to running a sports department on limited resources.

 

  • Kevin Pillar spoke about what steps he has taken since his use of a gay slur during a baseball game. If beat reporting is how you acquire Ken Rosenthal‘s stature then beat reporting has to be protected. This article is the best thing I have read in 2018. Here is a Buffery piece around the time of the original incident.

 

Over to you: mountain or molehill? 

 

Once again, a big thank you to the folks who spent time debating these topics with me over the last few weeks, as well as to those who managed to decline politely.

 


 

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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