A friend who works at an East Coast newspaper called the day after the election and mentioned that every copy was sold out all around town. They had printed up 20,000 more copies of the daily paper than usual, and even that hadn’t been enough. Many people, it seemed, wanted a keepsake.
Considering the freefall that newspapers are in now, it was a bittersweet reminder that something being “on paper” hasn’t lost all its importance in our electronic world.
During election night, I was reminded of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” episode, “The Snow Must Go On,” where a blizzard hits the Twin Cities on election night and WJM-TV can’t get any results.
So all night long, Ted Baxter has to keep repeating the early numbers they received for the mayoral election: “Turner 85, Mitchell 23.”
And how does the gang at WJM discover how it turned out? Early the next morning – by this point, Rhoda has gone on air to sub for the punch-drunk Ted – Mary is greeted by Chuckles the Clown carrying a newspaper. He shows her the headline: Mitchell actually beat Turner.
Now, admittedly, this is a sit-com script from the early 1970s and, frankly, throughout the run of the show there is very little to suggest WJM is a very savvy news-gathering organization. Still, it was interesting that the writers for this episode figured that even if the TV folks were snowbound and couldn’t get the news, the newspaper folks still WOULD get it.
And when Mary sees the headline, she doesn’t say, “Hey, we need to verify that ourselves.” Instead, she immediately accepts it must be true – it’s in the newspaper, after all – and pushes Chuckles in front of the camera to deliver the result.
Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about newspapers – their past, present and future – since my job at The Kansas City Star was eliminated in September. (Consider this part 2 of “What’s the deal with you and The Star?”)
The current economic crisis in our country has had a devastating effect on newspapers that is ongoing. But newspapers had been struggling for many years even before the current global downturn with how technology has changed everything about how people gather, disseminate and need information.
Newspaper writers have been hearing for several years that their readership was, literally, dying. That there was a generational cut-off line between those who still relied on and wanted the actual paper product … and those who got their news almost exclusively electronically. To the latter, the concept of news being several hours old by the time it hits your driveway was archaic.
The newspaper industry is trying to reinvent itself to serve both audiences, while growing more, of course, in the direction of the future than the past.
And another challenge for reporters is finding ways to keep being “heard” now that the Internet has provided everyone a “voice.” It’s not that that is inherently bad … it’s just that you have to work all the harder and be all the more on top of your subject matter to separate yourself and give people a reason to seek out your writing.
I’ve always squirmed when I’m referred to as a women’s basketball “expert” at ESPN.com, because that sounds so ludicrously high-falutin’ to me. I liked the term “obsessed devotee with little social life” better because it’s so much more palatable (and true).
And, in all seriousness, let me point out the most important part of that latter title: devotee. That’s what I’ve been working my whole career for: the opportunity to devote my all my time as a reporter/writer to women’s sports, especially basketball, and cover that subject matter as thoroughly and professionally as other things are covered.
That isn’t rah-rah coverage. It’s the kind of comprehensive _and sometimes critical _ coverage that women’s sports needs.
Admittedly, there’s a mindset you have to battle in this business when you openly declare such an ambition. That’s the idea that you’re going to write all “positive” stories about that subject matter. That you will be just a “cheerleader.” When, in fact, what you want is the opportunity to report professionally and completely.
It’s not just those who cover women’s sports who deal with this misperception of their journalistic goal. Anything that is out of the so-called “mainstream” of the standard American sports department has that “tag” put on it in many places. That still frequently includes soccer and _ to a lesser extent in recent years _ auto racing in regions other than the South.
Furthermore, you have to realize and be prepared for some hard facts if you decide to be a “devotee” for covering women’s sports. Those facts include:
*-You’re almost certainly going to get less space (in the newspaper) and less travel budget – but have to work harder to convince editors to give you either.
*-You’re not going to have the respect or support of those colleagues and readers who think women’s sports are a waste of time/money and that you’re a joke of a journalist for covering them.
*-You have to make it clear to the people in your coverage realm that you are not just there to report the “good” stuff. You sometimes have to write about things they don’t want you to.
*-You’re going to leave yourself more “exposed” _ in other words, easier to “eliminate” _ in financial hard times for papers. Because if things get bad and cuts have to be made, you are likely to be high on the list to be cut.
Which brings us back to the decline in the newspaper business. Women’s sports continue to grow in popularity, and there is a demand for serious written journalism about them. But the industry’s problems are leading to more cutbacks on things that are not “big-ticket.”
At a time when technology and expanding interests should make newspaper sports departments’ coverage more diverse and comprehensive, it seems the opposite is true. They instead are making the spotlight bigger on fewer things.
While that doesn’t really answer the problems newspapers are facing, it’s a short-term fix that has, unfortunately, troubling long-term implications.
Diversity in sports coverage tends to “gain” ground slowly and only with a lot of effort. However, it can “lose” ground very quickly.
Think of it like the difference between painstakingly climbing up a mountain … or having the rope severed and falling down it. There is definitely a worry about how many ropes are being severed – and how many of those people will attempt to climb the mountain again.
*-Update: The Star eliminated 50 more jobs on Monday, Nov. 10.