September 30, 2008
"Economy bodychecks NHL coverage" was the headline on William Houston's story in the Globe & Mail today, in which he discusses how newspaper sports departments are scaling back coverage for hockey.
As I read it, I wondered if he used his story "Newspaper coverage is way down in Canada, U.S." from back in May, took out all the references to Canadian newspapers that chose not to cover an all-U.S. Stanley Cup final, and then added in some extra doom and gloom for hockey in America.
There is some disturbing news in Houston's piece: The Los Angeles Times will have just one beat writer on both the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings this season. And Brian Biggane, the Florida Panthers writer for the Palm Beach Post, has been taken off the beat and the paper will "discontinue staff coverage" of the team. (Panthers fans will have to make due with the fantastic and prolific George Richards of the Herald. At least until the team improves and the Post adds the beat back.)
You'll notice these examples come from warm-weather NHL cities, which was no doubt blood in the water for Canadian fans who would like to see every team from St. Louis down to the equator relocated to the Yukon. The story doesn't mention the Columbus Dispatch, which has two beat writers, a columnist, two blogs and a podcast dedicated to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then again, the paper owns a piece of the team; if only the Palm Beach Post had a stake in the Panthers.
As some of you know, I worked at a community newspaper for close to a decade before
making poop jokes and posting funny Photoshops of Gary Bettman becoming a full-time hockey writer. The print business sucks right now. Bright, hardworking people are packing up their desks due to economics. Years of ignoring innovation and reader preferences have made the business model outdated. It's depressing as someone who grew up, loves and continues to read fish wraps.
Both Eric McErlain and Chris Botta sound the alarm about staff reductions at newspapers. They're completely correct when they say those jobs aren't coming back; they're being consolidated, like the LA Times is doing with its hockey beat.
Many U.S. newspapers now have their own hockey blogs that churn out about 20 times more copy per week than ends up in print. When staff is cut, what we lose is solid hockey reporting on a local level; like the kind Mike Heika and Tarik El-Bashir and Tom Gulitti provide their readers.
But staff cuts aren't completely the issue; coverage is.
Pick up a local paper in any city and look at the bylines. Many mid-sized dailies are regurgitating wire copy for game stories for many sports, to go along with the opinion pieces people are picking up the paper to read.
The NHL should be more concerned with its real estate in the sports section than whether someone local is flying from Miami to Vancouver for a game story, or if someone from the local paper is staying for both days of the draft. There needs to be stories covering these events. That's essential.
If there isn't an AP story and a photo for every Panthers game in the Palm Beach Post ... well, that's reason for concern. It's the same concern that should be felt if the local news stops showing highlights.
But going back to Houston's story, here's the significant issue for hockey coverage in the U.S.: It's all about the editors, baby.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's long-time hockey writer, Tim Panaccio, accepted a buyout after he was taken off the Flyers beat and assigned to cover the Philadelphia Eagles. Panaccio says he was told by the newspaper's sports editor, Jim Cohen, that hockey was "an irrelevant sport" and that in Philadelphia, the Eagles "far outweighed anything else."
Panaccio was replaced on the Flyers beat by a former high school sports reporter who was the Philadelphia Phillies' backup reporter.
Philadelphia is among the NHL's leading U.S. markets. A call to Cohen was not returned.
Cohen is, of course, painfully misinformed. Hockey will never be irrelevant in Philadelphia. Or Pittsburgh. Or New York. Or Boston. It's a part of the culture.
But it's also part of the culture in Washington, D.C. And in Dallas. And in Anaheim. It's up to an editor to decide what percentage of that culture, thus his or her readership, follows hockey. It's up to an editor to dedicate space and personnel to hockey, whether that's a beat writer or a blogger or a columnist.
(There was a time here in D.C. when Michael Wilbon's and Tony Kornheiser's names would be found regularly on the Washington Capitals' press box list. They never showed up. But on the off chance they did opine about hockey in the Washington Post, wrongheaded as it usually was, that publicity was worth 20 game stories to the team management, guaranteed.)
I remember when a newspaper called The Journal in Virginia hired a new sports guy one year. Suddenly, every single day, The Journal sports page was dedicating Redskins-like space to D.C. United, the MLS team whose fan base is dwarfed by the Capitals. Why? Because the editor was a soccer fan, and he was the boss.
So, to put a cherry on top: Most newspaper sports editors either don't care or don't understand or completely hate hockey. At least the ones I've interacted with at daily newspapers. And that's why coverage suffers.
If readers demand coverage of the NHL, enough to balance out the attendance or TV ratings the editor is using to justify his or her decision, then hockey coverage will increase. Look at how the Capitals were covered for most of last season locally; then look at how they were covered when the team caught fire. Demand calls for supply.
What this unavoidably all comes back to is the decentralization of the hockey media in the U.S. There are fan blogs that cover their local teams as well as the newspapers did. Hockey fans in every city can follow news online, whether it trickles down from Canada or originates from Kevin Allen's keyboard. Losing local newspaper coverage is a bitch; but as Ryan Corazza writes, the blogs aren't going anywhere.
This isn't some "Viva la Revolution!" blog call to arms here. It's an understanding that coverage of the NHL is changing, and we still have teams who refuse to credential alternative media for even an exhibition game.
It's evolution, baby. No one wants to see an NHL press box in a struggling market filled with one newspaper guy, the AP, injured players and interns. There are those who want to provide coverage old media claims it can no longer provide.
So let them provide it.