But there was a problem: Mike Sherman, sports editor for the Tampa Bay Times, was not around to lead the paper’s coverage. He was laid off the previous week. The paper replaced Sherman with an assistant sports editor and covered Brady’s arrival well but still had lost a veteran, widely respected sports editor.
Sports journalism, once a mainstay of daily newspapers and local TV news across the country, already was teetering from the upheavals of the digital era. But while many news organizations have taken a severe financial hit in recent months, sports departments have been devastated by the novel coronavirus, which has wiped out sports schedules and media advertising revenue virtually simultaneously.
Furloughs and layoffs have hit sports staffs seemingly everywhere, from the Miner in Kingman, Ariz., to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to the New York Post. Sports Illustrated cut nine employees, further gutting its staff after some 40 editorial employees were let go last year. Even onetime digital darlings such as SB Nation, one of the earliest and most successful sports websites, have not been immune. The Vox-owned outlet announced furloughs in April affecting nearly its entire staff of national writers.
“We face a new reality, precipitated by the pandemic. To achieve necessary cost savings … there will be consequences to people’s income and livelihood resulting from the actions we are implementing today,” Jim Bankoff, the CEO of Vox Media, said in a memo to staff.
Without live games for the foreseeable future, the grim new reality has forced many in sports journalism to confront difficult questions about what their storied profession will look like even when they do resume — from what kind of budgets they will have to work with to what kind of access they will have to coaches and players.
“There’s a real professional desperation,” said Robert Lipsyte, a retired New York Times sports columnist and former ESPN ombudsman. “I haven’t seen anything like it since New York sportswriters lost the Dodgers and the Giants in 1958 and thought, ‘What do we do?’ How could you urge anybody to go into sportswriting right now?”
When athletes began to achieve celebrity in the 1920s — starting with Babe Ruth — it came with a big assist from sportswriters chronicling their exploits, plenty of them, such as Grantland Rice, with larger than life personalities of their own. Over the decades, the profession produced some of America’s most acclaimed writers: Sports Illustrated had stars such as Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford, and the New Yorker had Roger Angell; local columnists such as Shirley Povich in Washington and Jim Murray in Los Angeles were civic icons. The stadium where the Chargers and Padres once played was named after Jack Murphy, a former San Diego Union sports columnist.
Now? A daily drumbeat of furlough announcements, retirements and layoffs. “It really sucks to go on Twitter every day and see all these amazing writers without jobs,” said Marisa Ingemi, who was laid off from her job at the Boston Herald covering the Bruins.
The hope for many is that as organizations from the NFL to Major League Baseball begin to plan, however tenuously, for some version of a return that the jobs come back, too. As Chad Millman, the former head of editorial at ESPN turned head of content for the Action Network, a sports gambling media company, said, “The appetite for sports when they come back is going to be incredible, and you’re going to need people covering it.”
But with budgets depleted, corporate consolidation among newspaper chains accelerating and the structure of sports’ return up in the air, it remains to be seen how — and also by whom.
“There are more important things going on in the world, but I think we’re f-----, honestly,” said Chicago Tribune sports columnist Paul Sullivan, who is about to start a three-week furlough. “Whether sports come back or not.”
Loyal readers, fleeting revenue
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the plight of local journalism is well known: Ad dollars have gone to Google and Facebook while private equity firms have bought and merged dozens and dozens of newspapers, then squeezed staff and slashed budgets. But even as local papers retrenched, giving up Washington bureaus and travel beyond state borders for news reporting, many continued to throw considerable resources into covering local sports teams.
They did so for a reason: Readers wanted it.
Rick Thames, the former editor of the Charlotte Observer, recalled that during the football season, Carolina Panthers coverage could make up half the site’s traffic. Kansas City Star sports editor Jeff Rosen said traffic around the Chiefs’ Super Bowl championship this year eclipsed the newsroom’s entire first-quarter traffic goals.
“We gave up national stuff and poured everything we had into local coverage,” said Glen Crevier, who retired in 2018 after 20 years as sports editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “We’d publish a Twins story, and half an hour later it would be the most-read story on the site.”
But sports departments weren’t immune to the bigger economic forces buffeting the industry. Even if the online traffic was good, there wasn’t enough digital ad revenue to offset the declines in print circulation and advertising. With many papers struggling, plenty of sportswriters figured they weren’t safe but merely next. When the Athletic, a venture capital-backed company, began hiring sports journalists four years ago to cover local professional and college teams around the country, many jumped at the raises and opportunities they were offered. And plenty were not replaced by their former employers.
The Athletic continued its hiring spree in recent years, but it remains an outlier in sports media; most of the best-known national outlets have cut sportswriting jobs for myriad reasons. Fox Sports fired all of its writers in 2017 in a pivot to video. ESPN a decade ago assembled a vaunted team of writers and editors to further its journalistic credibility with an expanded website and a glossy print magazine. But it has had several rounds of layoffs in the past few years as cable TV revenue declined and the company refocused on its live sports and streaming video service businesses.
Last year, the devastation was particularly brutal. Sports Illustrated — the preeminent legacy sports publication — shed about a third of its staff as its new publishers fired highly compensated national writers and pushed a plan to hire low-paid contract workers to cover teams. Deadspin, the website that rose to fame as part of the Gawker network, imploded when around 20 of its writers and editors quit en masse in a clash with new management over editorial direction. USA Today and Yahoo Sports cut writers, too.
The result was an industry that already had taken a gut punch. Then the pandemic hit, and sports staffs became an expense without a cause.
A distant future
It seems almost quaint to recall that in early March coronavirus-related discussions in sportswriting circles centered on the importance of locker room access as the National Basketball Association, most prominently, began limiting access to reporters to protect the health of its players. Sports journalists have long viewed their ability to talk to athletes in the less-formal confines of a locker room as one of their most valuable opportunities to gain insight.
Whenever the games do resume, reporters almost certainly will be among the last people allowed back into locker rooms as teams seek to limit the health risk to players. But some wonder whether restrictions will remain in place.
Well before the coronavirus, professional sports leagues and teams began covering themselves, hiring writers and videographers to produce content for their websites that effectively competed with newspapers and broadcast outlets for fans’ attention. As local outlets struggled and scaled back coverage in recent years, leagues and teams doubled down to fill the gap.
“For a while now, the biggest growth in sports media jobs has been for teams and their websites, and you kind of figure that will only accelerate,” said J.A. Adande, a former sportswriter for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and ESPN who now teaches journalism at Northwestern University.
The problem with teams covering themselves is they get to determine which athletes speak and which ones don’t and the questions that can and can’t be asked. For far too many newsrooms, any restricted access would further diminish the value of sending reporters with teams on the road, which often facilitates deeper reporting and source-building but comes at considerable expense.
“I’m not going to have the same travel budget I had,” said Bud Geracie, sports editor at the Bay Area News Group, which publishes the San Jose Mercury News.
Geracie, who was furloughed along with his entire sports staff of 21 in March, already had been keeping his columnist at home to cover games off TV broadcasts before the pandemic. “I also don’t know if it’s going to be worth sending people on the road,” he added.
Ingemi said the Boston Herald, which like the Mercury News is owned by Alden Capital, a private equity firm that has a reputation for buying papers and then slashing staffs and budgets, already had begun reducing travel by having writers from other Alden papers cover road trips. The Herald used a writer from the Denver Post last season to cover a Red Sox road trip against the Colorado Rockies.
“I got all my good stories from going on the road,” Ingemi said. “But if there's any excuse not to send reporters on the road, papers will take it.”
During the pandemic, reporters have been nearly exclusively at the mercy of teams for interviews with players, which suits plenty of teams just fine. Sullivan, who is also the president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, started an email chain with reporters around the country in March to track how MLB teams were handling availability, but it quickly fizzled.
“Some teams are just totally not cooperating,” he said, later adding that he asked MLB how it would handle media in its tentative return plan and has yet to hear back. “I haven’t heard from the … Cubs since before the pandemic started, and it’s only going to get harder. But what can you do? Force them to make people available?”
Taken together, the trends of diminished local media, potentially less access and teams able to reach fans on their own have Geracie thinking about the original covenant between independent sports journalists and the teams they cover.
“There’s a reason 100 years ago that we were getting press passes from teams,” Geracie said. “It was an unspoken exchange of free advertising, and here’s your means to do it. But has our media become nonessential to them? We and they are about to find out if that’s really the case.”
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