So here’s a development that shouldn’t surprise: the New York Times – the nation’s newspaper of record – is disbanding its entire sports department, instead counting on its ample, if recently downsized, staff of the recently purchased The Athletic for sports coverage.
Here’s another development that got lost in that news, which, as it turned from rumor to fait accompli, has dominated the print world for a couple days: the Los Angeles Times – the West Coast’s newspamphlet, er, newspaper of record – is greasing the skids under its own department, “introducing a new era for the Los Angeles Times sports section,” which has taken on “the look and feel of a daily sports magazine.”
Translated: they’re eliminating pretty much all the information – standings, box scores, even TV listings – from the newspaper, leaving in brief game recaps and news updates, plus feature stories.
In the NYT’s words, they’re focusing “on distinctive, high-impact news and enterprise journalism about how sports intersect with money, power, culture, politics and society at large,” while, “At the same time, we will scale back the newsroom’s coverage of games, players, teams and leagues.”
In the LAT’s words, they’re adapting “to how readers follow news and sporting events…while managing rising production costs.”
Before we analyze what this means, light a candle for those who are losing their jobs. While the LAT hasn’t cut anyone (yet) and the NYT says its 35+ sports journalists will all move to other duties at The Gray Lady, the reality is this: when coverage is reduced, headcount will be as well.
And like my friends in the electronic media who’ve been RIFfed, the print talents at both papers will, by and large, find the transition to whatever comes next very difficult.
That sucks. The sadding has already – and rightfully – begun. At the beginning point of these things, our focus should be not on the businesses and the decisions they’ve made, but rather on the people whose lives are affected.
Companies are business entities. Artificial creations we invent in order to facilitate making money and thus have a functioning economy. They’re important, but they’re hardly the most important thing at times like this.
People are what matters. Never forget that. Compassion for anyone affected by change, much less our colleagues in the media, matters most.
That said, here’s a rough note: I’m not sure what else either newspaper could have done. The unfortunate reality is this: where the local fishwrapper was once your key source for sports information, it hasn’t been that for a long time, and – like electronic media – print has got to adapt or fade entirely to black.
I say this from personal experience. The LAT sports section used to be my personal oxygen. Wherever radio took me – San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas – I sought out the Times every single day. I still read its sports page, but only because I pay next to nothing for it. I can get the information I want elsewhere.
Here’s where Marshall McLuhan comes into play: as the medium has changed, as digital distribution of content has surpassed analog distribution, and as sources of content have proliferated, sports is now oxygen for electronic media, particularly television.
Why? Because outside of breaking news, live sports is about the only thing that is both unique and that has to be consumed in a linear fashion that can be easily monetized through both subscription and advertising models.
On the other hand, sports is no longer oxygen for print. Sure, newspapers can (and do) provide live coverage of sporting events, but if you’re, say, a Lakers fan, your priorities (in order) will be to watch the games, listen to the games, or, if you have absolutely no other alternative, read about them as they happen.
I’m a reader, so I still pay for and consume two or more newspapers every morning. That said, by the time I hit the gym and start reading, I know the news. I want analysis. I want what we in broadcast call “color commentary.”
Sports is now within the purview of electronic media. The medium changed; now the message needs to change too.
So what is print to do? Change the message of course. What message(s) can print convey?
I just said it: analysis.
Tell me what I don’t know. Fill in the blanks. Paint a more colorful picture than I can experience in the heat of competition, whether that competition is a hockey game or a presidential debate. Give me something that I can’t get anywhere else and that either entertains me, enhances my view of the world and my community, or helps me in some way.
Do that because electronic media either can’t or won’t.
And what should my radio friends do? Why, the same thing of course. Just remember that your medium is different from print’s and comes with its own baked-in advantages and challenges. Your advantage isn’t in analysis; it’s in presence and immediacy.
You can be present in the moment in the way print can’t. Hell, you can be present in the moment in a way that television can, but at much greater cost and with far less flexibility.
Playing Led Zeppelin, Jason Aldean, or Ed Sheeran won’t get it done. Playing the Stones, Garth, or Taylor is what you do when you don’t have anything better to do. It won’t emotionally connect you with your audience the way it would have a couple lifetimes ago. You need to have something better to do.
And if you’re a leader of a business entity that’s trying to maintain its place in a functioning economy, you’d better find a way – okay, lots of ways – to give the audience what it wants when it temporarily chooses you to provide it with content.
That’s dang near impossible in these trying financial times, right? Too bad.
Find a way. (I’ve given you one left-field suggestion that could work if you’d commit to it.) Make it happen.
Either that, or get out while the getting is good – okay, goodish – right freaking now.