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Newspaper sports sections heading toward a permanent off-season?

When the Washington Times announced in December that it would cut a large portion of its staff, drop its Saturday edition and refocus its coverage, the rumors started to fly. How could a Washington newspaper drop local news, features and sports? D.C. cherishes its struggling sports teams. As it turned out, the rumors were true, and the Times’ sports and metro teams found themselves jobless in the new year when the paper refocused its coverage to politics, national security and investigative reporting. But the shift is not surprising given the coverage changes at other publications over the past year.

Newspaper sports sections heading toward a permanent off-season?

Newspaper sports sections heading toward a permanent off-season?

As newspapers attempt to cut costs and hold their ground, sports desks are finding themselves on the chopping block. In February 2009, the UK-based Financial Times decided to drop its sports coverage but said it would still cover “the business of sports” and major events. Meanwhile, its four editions in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East replaced its sports section with other content.

A more common compromise is to share coverage between newspapers in the same geographical area. Two Texas papers started sharing some arts coverage and photos in late 2008. Then in February 2009, the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram added to their joint distribution agreement by sharing sports coverage. The Morning News now provides coverage of the Dallas Mavericks in basketball and Dallas Stars hockey, while the Star-Telegram covers the Texas Rangers in baseball. Both newspapers still cover the Dallas Cowboys, but some college sports coverage is shared. When necessary, one newspaper supplements the other’s coverage. Morning News editor Robert Mong said at the time that the agreement would reduce expenses and eliminate double coverage of stories while still providing quality content.

The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun adopted a similar plan in late 2008 by sharing local news coverage of the slice of Maryland that lies between the two cities. The Post covers the Redskins, the Nationals and college sports at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. The Sun covers the Ravens, Orioles and horse racing. University of Maryland sports and Maryland state government were not included in the deal, but sharing some national and international stories is permitted.

The decline in independent sports coverage was noted during the 2009 World Series matchup. Of the 60 newspapers that cover major league teams, sports blogger Murray Chass wrote that only 29 of those went to the World Series. While the matchup’s mid-Atlantic focus may have been a factor, it’s worth noting that some papers, like the LA Daily News, have stopped covering baseball on the road altogether.

Keeping reporters at home saves thousands of dollars for any newspaper trying to avoid layoffs and furloughs, but Chass noted, “That daily [sports] coverage has also served as an advertisement to buy tickets. Promoters of concerts and shows have to purchase advertising space in newspapers. Baseball’s space, as with other sports, comes at no cost to the teams.”

An exception to the trend is the Wall Street Journal, which expanded its sports coverage from one day a week to six last March. The financial paper’s Web site is loaded with sports news and blogs collected under the “Life and Style” tab along with entertainment and other features that appeal to a wider audience.

Regardless of the WSJ’s expanded sports section, when all eyes turn to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, newspapers won’t be there like they used to. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) reported in November that of the nearly 500 credentials that were issued to news outlets, 135 were returned by newspapers that will reduce their presence or not travel to the games at all. The cost of sending reporters to the Games has been cited, tied to the state of the economy. Some papers are expected to cover the Games from home, relying on the USOC’s “Hometown News Bureau,” which will provide information about local athletes to newspapers. Cell phone interviews will become essential for regional newspapers hoping to add a personal touch to their coverage of hometown competitors.

By the way, those returned credentials? They’re all being redistributed — to Web sites like ESPN and Yahoo. Aol reportedly holds five credentials for next month’s Vancouver games.

When the Washington Times re-launched this Monday, the sports department had already been shut down, relying on the Associated Press to pick up the details of Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn’s firing. All that remains of the section is its Twitter page, which has provided links to articles about the paper’s changes, laid-off writers’ new independent blogs, and a few snarky comments about the demise of the section.

Coverage of D.C.-area sports teams will pick up where the Times left off with the help of sports Web sites: The Washington Post’s sports blogs, sports leagues’ own reporters (for example, MLB has its own reporters who cover a specific team like the Nationals), a few independent bloggers, and a variety of sports pages that are gaining speed. Aol’s Fanhouse, which retains vocal Chicago Sun-Times veteran and ESPN panelist Jay Mariotti, had the Redkins’ coaching change in a “breaking news” banner on its homepage Monday morning.

Despite dwindling sports sections in newspapers, sports news appears to be gaining popularity. Last year, ESPN launched local sites in Chicago, Boston, and Dallas before debuting in Los Angeles in December. And for every powerhouse regional sports site, there seems to be a fan parked on a couch blogging live games and press conferences in ways that newspapers could not even begin to replicate on paper. Sports coverage is alive and well, but it can’t always be found tucked between the business and features sections anymore.

— Lisa Rowan

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