Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rough road for sports section readers

The number of newspapers that can afford to send beat writers to every game is becoming as low as the frequency that print editions include all late games.

Both are a result of the increasingly dismal balance sheets at newspapers. No sports editor wants to make these decisions. But he or she is given a budget and doesn't have the luxury to run a deficit like the federal government. These are hard choices. But as with most choices made by people in power at newspapers these days, readers lose.

Newspapers covering teams on the road to the Final Four
at the Superdome in New Orleans often skip out on the
longest road trips for teams in their coverage area during
the regular season.
Depending on the level of the team in question, The Associated Press or another syndicated news service might offer an option with varied levels of quality for a newspaper that doesn't staff a road game.

AP provides alternate stories from the angle of the losing team for most of the highest level college and pro leagues, which is good for newspapers and readers. Not too long ago, if a newspaper's local team lost and it had to run AP's story, it was stuck with an angle focusing on the winning team.

In the old days, a copy editor could rewrite the AP story with an angle catered to the local team, inserting quotes provided by the school's sports information department or heard on a radio broadcast. In the old days, of course, there were more copy editors and there was more time for rewriting.

This is an issue everywhere, including the two major newspapers in the Triangle.

Canes road coverage frequently on ice

Granted, the Carolina Hurricanes aren't having a very good season. But it still is frustrating that The News & Observer hasn't sent Canes beat writer Chip Alexander to numerous road games this season. He does an excellent job covering the team, but he can only do so much when he is sitting on his couch during a road game.

The amount of money saved  by going without a copy desk in Raleigh or by having a part-time Duke beat writer obviously wasn't enough.

The AP story on Saturday's Islanders loss on the N&O's website and in the newspaper delivered to me in Durham on Sunday had a New York angle and no quotes.

When you have your reporter there, you get the local angle, quotes and tell the reporter when the story needs to be filed. When you depend on AP, you have no control. A later write-through of the AP story had quotes, but that must have come after the N&O's deadline. (Of course that doesn't explain why the story on the website wasn't updated.)

Many AP writers covering the NHL also are feeling the crunch. In some places, AP used to hire stringers to get quotes for a writer who always faces tight deadlines. That practice has been eliminated at least in some cities and likely in most cities.

I am a huge Hurricanes fan, but I understand that there still are a lot more fans who want extensive coverage of tradition-rich ACC basketball.

Beats tossed aside

The Herald-Sun used to cover the Hurricanes on a regular basis. Its Canes beat writer before the Paxton Media Group takeover also covered the Durham Bulls as well as N.C. Central football, men's basketball and women's basketball. The H-S only covered Canes road games during the playoffs.

Cost-cutting since Paxton's takeover in 2005 led the H-S to drop not only the Canes beat, but the N.C. State beat. The NCSU beat clearly wasn't emphasized as much as the North Carolina and Duke beats, but at least a writer was devoted to it. That hasn't been the case since 2005.

Although The Herald-Sun has saved money by not covering the Canes and the Wolfpack, with a weekday circulation that's gone from more than around 50,000 in the mid-2000s to around 25,000, it isn't enough. Like most papers, the falling revenue has forced further budgets cuts. The staff was trimmed and the paper laid off many folks last summer when it did away with its Durham copy desk.

A flexible no-fly policy

How bad is it? The Herald-Sun rarely puts its Duke and UNC beat writers on a plane to cover regular-season road games this school year.

There are exceptions. When coach Mike Krzyzewski broke the all-time men's basketball coaching wins record (he's still well behind Pat Summitt) with a victory over Michigan State in New York, Duke beat writer Steve Wiseman was there. UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann was flown to Carolina's huge top-5 matchup at Kentucky.

Carolina fans were spared during football season since all of its regular-season games were within driving distance (longest trip was to Georgia Tech), but the H-S didn't staff three Duke football games (at Boston College, at Florida International and at Miami.)

None of this would have been an issue back in the day when the ACC was a 7- or 8-team league. In those days, the longest ACC road trip from the Triangle was to College Park, Md. The second longest until 1978 years was to Clemson, S.C., before the addition of Georgia Tech and trips to Atlanta. Trips only got longer when Florida State joined the league in 1991, Miami (who came in with Virginia Tech) in 2004 and Boston College in 2005.

Basketball season has been different for UNC fans reading the H-S. Gutmann wasn't sent to one of the more stunning Tar Heels losses in years -- the blowout at Florida State. He also wasn't in Coral Gables, Fla., for the Heels' key win against Miami.

The H-S ran an AP story from Duke's win Sunday at Boston College and even its win at Florida State on Thursday night. The latter despite the game being a battle of two of the three teams tied for the fewest losses in the ACC.

An oddity of having a smaller (and overworked) staff is that more women's games seem to be staffed by the H-S than the N&O. While the N&O only seems to send Edward G. Robinson III to women's games for UNC, N.C. State and Duke, Wiseman and Gutmann also cover many Duke and UNC women's games. The N&O doesn't send UNC beat writer Andrew Carter or Duke beat writer Jack Daly to women's games.

Cuts hit wire women's hoops coverage

Suddenly, that could have an impact on the women's coverage readers get.

Last week, The Associated Press decided that it will no longer staff every Top 25 women's game unless it involves a team ranked No. 10 or higher.

A writer, whose name I'll leave out, was going to string a women's game for AP involving a team ranked lower than No. 10  this weekend. But calls went out Monday, and the writer was told, "AP will no longer staff games for teams ranked No. 11-25."

Like the H-S's no-fly policy, I'm sure there will be exceptions. But it shows that newspapers who are leaning more heavily on AP might find themselves writing up stories based on information from the schools' websites more often. That's yet another task for desks that already are overworked and understaffed.

So when you're watching on TV as your favorite team plays a road game, watch closely. The insights you'll get the next morning from the newspaper that hits your driveway might not be as good as they once were.

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