Earlier Post Deadlines Cut Sports Results

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, September 27, 2009

The health-care debate is raging. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. There's fresh concern about domestic terrorism.

But here's the big issue on the minds of a growing number of Post readers: What's happened to the late-night sports scores?

Beginning this summer, and increasing with the start of the high school football season, readers have complained that they can no longer count on The Post to learn who won or lost the previous night.

They're right. A move to earlier deadlines, driven by cost-cutting, has reduced the number of scores and stories. The biggest casualty has been results of Friday night high school games, the kind of local news readers can't get by turning on ESPN.

"It's a huge deal," said Matthew Rennie, one of the Sports editors handling the coverage. On a typical Friday night, there can be from 90 to 110 football games in The Post's circulation area.

"We get in about 40 percent of what we used to" for the edition that circulates beyond the inner suburbs surrounding the District, said Rennie.

It's also affecting Major League Baseball results. West Coast night games have typically finished too late for The Post's deadlines. But now some games in the central time zone aren't making it. Rennie said that if there's a central-time game after postseason play begins Oct. 7, "odds are we won't get it in."

The results of some Sunday or Monday night NFL games may not appear the next morning, although deadlines will be adjusted to accommodate late Washington Redskins games.

The impact has been minimal in other sections of the paper. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who oversees local news coverage, said "nothing glaring" has been missed.

The problem is with Sports, whose readers are stats junkies and thrive on box scores. As shrinking space for news has forced The Post to reduce the scope of statistics for pro and college games, readers have been able to turn to the many Web sites that carry such stats.

But there are few alternatives for high school games. This kind of localized information makes The Post essential to many readers. While The Post puts game stats online as quickly as possible, many older readers won't go to the Internet. They still turn to the newspaper to see whose kid scored the touchdown or how a rival school fared.

"I hear about it," acknowledged David C. Dadisman, The Post's vice president for circulation. Dadisman said readers often complain: "You're giving me a paper that's printed too early."

It's a move driven by necessity. To cut costs, the money-losing Post closed its College Park printing facility in July and consolidated operations at its remaining plant in Springfield. It saved millions of dollars, but the same number of papers must now be printed on fewer presses. That puts stress on the production process.

At the same time, growing numbers of readers have told The Post they are starting their pre-dawn commutes earlier, often to avoid worsening traffic congestion. The Post has moved up delivery to ensure that they get their paper before leaving.

The production and delivery of The Post involves intricate choreography. Presses must start on time to print the early edition that goes to readers as far away as New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Presses must be "re-plated" for the two later editions. Trucks take papers from the Springfield plant to 30 distribution centers; from there, carriers deliver them to homes, businesses and vending boxes. A hiccup along the way can throw everything off schedule.

"You often hear of the newspaper being a 'daily miracle,' " said Hugh J. Price, The Post's director of operations planning. "As complicated as it is, it goes off remarkably smoothly a remarkable percentage of the time."

But there's a limited window for the daily miracle. Earlier morning delivery means earlier deadlines the night before. A difference of even 30 minutes can keep dozens of Friday night game results from making the paper.

"To make the delivery deadlines we've promised, we have to make those kinds of choices," said Dadisman.

Given The Post's financial predicament, it's the right choice. Readers are complaining that they're missing game results. But they'd howl if they missed the entire paper.

Compared with that of many other newspapers, loyalty to The Post remains high. The latest published figures put circulation at 622,700 daily and 858,100 on Sundays.

Fewer sports scores won't cause cancellations. But combined with other cost-saving cutbacks in content, they might bring many readers closer to a point where they may decide The Post isn't worth the expense.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog .

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