Since I was a little kid, I’ve always read the sports section of the daily newspaper before anything else. When I was a newspaper carrier, I would get my bundle on the corner, pull out the sports, and sit on that bundle until I read every column and box score and injury update.
I don’t sit on the bundle any more, though I still do usually read the sports section first. But the interest is waning, and a lot has to do with how the daily newspaper – specifically our own Fort Worth Star-Telegram – feeds us those sports nuggets. As with many in this business, I have been watching the fallout as the local paper laid off or gave buyouts to so many editors and reporters. Among those at the S-T who got the axe were two veteran sports reporters, hunting/fishing writer Bob Hood and car racing beat reporter John Sturbin.
Hood had been there for more than 45 years, Sturbin for more than 30. We all know why they were let go: More experienced reporters cost more, in both salary and benefits. But experienced reporters also know how to do their job well, and they know their local audience.
I don’t hunt or fish much, don’t own a gun or a fishing rod. I pay only a little attention to car racing, mostly at Texas Motor Speedway. So for me personally, not having an outdoor column or the latest NASCAR news is not a big thing.
But for many of my friends, hunting and fishing and car racing are big deals. This is Texas, and that stuff is ingrained in the culture. And those sports represent big money – about $2 billion a year in this state according to a recent study. The NASCAR races at TMS draw about 200,000 fans, more than Super Bowl games or basketball’s Final Four. So I was curious at to how the local paper would cover these two beats after their reporters were canned. In recent weeks, I’ve seen wire service stories on NASCAR and IndyCar races around the country. Sturbin wouldn’t have been sent out of town to cover them, as there was no local angle.
But what about the outdoors? There is always some local hunting season, from exotic deer at this time of year to feral pig roundups. Hood was not great at what he did, but he kept readers informed on what was going on around the state. Since he was let go, the S-T has made some rather odd choices in outdoor coverage – like that article a few Sundays ago on fishing for swordfish in the Florida Keys. The story was done by a reporter for the Miami Herald, which is owned by the S-T parent company, McClatchy Newspapers. And that is what the fallout will be for the local paper from out-of-town corporate ownership: the headquarters suits telling local editors that a story on local hunting costs too much – just run this piece from our wire service on fishing in Florida, to fill the space cheaply.
It’s that attitude that is ruining daily newspapers, and the sports section is my strongest evidence. Being a local paper means covering local sports, from the big ones like the Dallas Cowboys to the little ones like the Fort Worth Cats. That means giving the local hunters some news on where the action is this week. It means understanding that your audience might care about sports beyond the National Football League. One basic rule of the journalism business is to give your audience what they need and what they can’t get elsewhere. The online world has given those readers more choices; by the time I get my morning paper, I have already watched the game, read the box score, and digested all the quotes about groin pulls. But what I do not get elsewhere is the local angle.
The page count for sports is dwindling, and something has to give. Down the road, that will mean less coverage for women’s college athletics, less local minor league coverage, less local writing about something as popular as hunting. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of reeling in swordfish as something that lots of North Texans are lusting to know about. It’s hard to increase your circulation – and therefore your attractiveness to advertisers – when you’re pushing away readers. So I guess I’ll have to read about something else besides the la-la land of sports, as I sit on my bundle. Maybe I’ll turn to the local news section first from now on. Or not. The suits are cutting back coverage there, too.