washingtonpost.com
With Readers, the Sports Pages Can't Win

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 14, 2007

No readers of The Post are more passionate than sports fans.

They want late sports scores in their home-delivered editions. Robert Miailovich of Arlington: "While the fate of the world does not rise or fall with sports scores, seeing how your favorite team [did] is one of the pleasures of newspaper reading."

Readers consistently want more coverage of their favorite local professional, college and high school teams, women's sports, the Orioles as well as the Nationals, and NASCAR. Always more. And, by the way, why aren't the box scores up-to-date?

The Post, like most big-city newspapers, is suffering from decreasing revenue and so is doing less -- against a backdrop of intense competition, not only with ESPN and USA Today, which has more late scores in some parts of The Post's market, but also with team Web sites such as the Redskins'.

For perspective, not getting late sports scores is a perennial complaint at most newspapers and has to be balanced against getting the newspaper to the doorstep on time. The Post's guaranteed delivery time is now 6 a.m.; it had been 6:30. Most of USA Today's circulation is not home delivery.

Autumn brings more subscribers, which means longer press runs. That affects newsroom deadlines. When deadlines move up, late sports results suffer. In my umpteen years in the business, production and circulation executives almost always win the deadline fight.

There's nothing in newspapering more frantic than being in Sports late at night with lots of games ending, especially a Saturday night in college football season when the deadlines are an hour earlier than they are on weekdays. Extra innings or overtime create a nightmare -- and a game that seesaws in the last minute, such as Monday's game between the Buffalo Bills and the Dallas Cowboys, is a double nightmare. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for sports, said that it is a struggle every night for Sports -- "by far the most deadline-intensive department in the paper" -- to cram in every last bit of information.

Late games, especially on the West Coast, may make only the last edition or miss the paper altogether, so the stories will run in some editions of the next day's paper and then be dumped for accounts of later games, especially in baseball. Sometimes the box scores don't keep up.

Garcia-Ruiz said the decisions on what to cover are based on news interest, fan preferences, attendance figures and TV ratings. Washingtonpost.com can count every mouse click to determine interest as indicated by Web readership.

The Post's research shows the Redskins are kings, commanding by far the highest interest among readers. The Nationals are second.

Then it gets tough -- the Washington Wizards and University of Maryland basketball and football are all within a few percentage points of each other. Then come Baltimore's Orioles and Ravens, and there is substantial interest (in order of popularity) in Virginia Tech football, Georgetown University basketball, the Washington Capitals, University of Virginia football, DC United, the Mystics, U-Va. basketball and Virginia Tech basketball. If the teams are doing well, interest rises.

Budget cuts in the past few years have left Sports with six fewer reporters and less travel money, but The Post also added a Virginia college sports reporter. Space for sports news has been left mostly intact. If Garcia-Ruiz had his druthers, he would add a third Redskins reporter and fill two beats that have been lost -- the business of sports and an investigative reporter.

Local baseball lovers had hungered for a major league team ever since the Senators left town. They rejoiced at the arrival of the Nationals, but that meant a huge added expense at The Post. Baseball is more costly to cover than any other sport because there are so many games and the travel costs are so high.

To cover the Nationals, Sports gave up minor-league baseball. Do it with stringers, one reader begged. Stringers cost money. The Post also dropped horse-racing results.

Because of a tight budget and the Orioles' poor record, The Post stopped covering their road games this summer. That brought a lot of heartfelt complaints. Readers don't want wire stories; they want Post stories, especially when it's something historic such as the Aug. 22 game when the Texas Rangers set an American League record, scoring 30 runs to the Orioles' 3.

So why don't readers tap washingtonpost.com for scores? Many just don't want to go there, though that is the future of breaking sports news. Miailovich again: "Let me also say that the gratuitous brushoff to look at The Post's Web site . . . really angers me."

Lawrence Watthey of Frederick wrote: "If I can't get my sports information from the newspaper . . . [do] sports editors think I am going to go to The Post's Web site when I can bring up ESPN's just as easily? . . . What The Post can offer is the aesthetic feel of reading a newspaper with my morning coffee." Ralph Blessing of the District e-mailed to say: "Gee, if I wanted to rely on the Internet for my sports info, why would I bother subscribing to The Post in the first place?"

These problems will not be solved until there is an integration of The Post in print and on the Web that readers welcome.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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