Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Future of Sports Team Beat-Writing

Must-read in today's Wall Street Journal. And a nice piece of follow-up analysis by Rob Neyer.

Does beat-reporting need to come in the form of a newspaper story? Is the newspaper the best promotional vehicle for a team? (Hey: A rare super-value for the physical newspaper!)

How many beat reporters does a team need? Could the responsibility be shared, or syndicated? What's the value of a game story? What's the value of the "notes" column? How many newspaper beat reporters have successfully embraced new technology (blogs, Twitter) to serve their readers?

Can the teams or the leagues themselves disintermediate? (See MLB.com's extensive and editorially mostly-rigorous beat system.)

And what do fans need from the beat reporter? Game recap? Quotes? I can find those elsewhere. How many of you are happy to read the AP recap on the ESPN.com scoreboard, then dive into the stats or the commentary elsewhere, like on a hyper-fan site, like a great team blog?

Analysis? I can DEFINITELY find that elsewhere. I need exclusive news breaks, yeah -- someone's gotta do that -- but as soon as it's broken, it's commoditized.

I think most bloggers would agree that -- of any part of the mainstream media -- the beat reporters are the most valuable. Columnists could all be replaced. Editors are mostly unnecessary -- in their traditional form. But the beat reporter provides the fodder for the conversation. You can't have an opinion without some news to base it on.

How many link-backs to a newspaper web site go to a columnist, versus a news story? It's probably not a bad thing to understand.

As for beat reporting in the physical paper? That ain't the beat reporters' fault -- or from a lack of interest by consumers. The print paper is simply bad economics.

Will teams and leagues suffer for lack of coverage in local print papers? I guess I think that every team needs to focus on their core fan first -- converting a casual fan into a core fan is folly. At best, you can convince the casual fan to show up a few times a year, for the fun of it.

And the core fans started looking for media sources beyond the physical newspaper a while ago.

The beat reporter is part of the mix. Not sure how many beat reporters each team needs, though.

Entrepreneurship alert: This is a big opportunity. MLB will subsidize their own beat reporters, but fans will always want something a little more independent. I'm pretty sure -- though not totally sure -- that major markets will always support at least one newspaper, and with that newspaper, at least one beat reporter per major-league sports team.

But if I approached a newspaper company -- or a sports team -- with a low-cost, high-quality alternative to their current economic structure? I think you could find the audience -- and revenue -- to support it.

So what am I saying? Patch.com meets Sports? Or maybe that ESPNChicago.com is the future of local sports coverage. The fan interest is there -- the coverage will follow, in one form or another.

-- D.S.

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