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Sharing sports beats: Can it happen here?

Struggling papers in Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Washington/Baltimore are taking a nearly unimaginable step: they’re divvying up sports beats and sharing stories. Could it happen here?
By David Brauer

I’ve told people if newspapers ever die, sports will be the last section printed before they succumb. But finances have gotten so perilous that radical change is coming for this most lucrative of subjects.

How radical? Struggling papers in Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Washington/Baltimore are taking a nearly unimaginable step: they’re divvying up sports beats and sharing stories. That’s a huge move for a subject that spurs newsstand sales and web hits, and a big bummer for sports junkies who crave every bit of copy on their local favorites.

Cut to the Twin Cities: We have the bankrupt Star Tribune, and a cash-strapped Pioneer Press which didn’t even send a beat reporter on the road trip where Timberwolves forward Al Jefferson tore his anterior cruciate ligament. (Prompting the question: if a knee pops and a beat writer doesn’t hear it, does it make a sound?)

So could we see Strib-PiPress beat-sharing here?

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Exhale, stick-and-ball junkies. “We haven’t explored that with any other newspapers or had any discussions about it,” says PiPress editor Thom Fladung.

Still, choices are being made. With the Wild and Gopher men’s hoopsters poised for the playoffs, PiPress sports editor Mike Bass decided that to make long-established budget goals, the lowly Wolves were the logical team out. “We’re looking at ways to section off some money to pay for other things,” he notes.

Bass found freelancers through the Houston and New Orleans papers, but of course, neither had the team knowledge or relationships to surround a big story. (Fortunately, news that Jefferson’s season was over broke after the Wolves returned to Minneapolis.)

Other calls are easier to make. Bass sent no one to the Super Bowl, which the Vikings again missed; ditto for the NBA All-Star Game, where no Wolves will play. But now he also has to figure out how to schedule everyone on his staff for five unpaid days off before April 30 — including his Twins beat writer.

The trends would indicate that one or more of the Big Six (Vikings, Twins, Wild, Wolves, Gopher football and men’s basketball) will see less-than-regular coverage. Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks’ blogging owner whose living with cutbacks in his city, is thinking ahead. He says newspaper coverage is so important that teams should subsidize it directly:

Bottom line is that despite the huge volume of sports coverage, the local coverage of teams for the most part sucks. There is little depth and certainly not the consistent coverage of a newspaper with a team beatwriter or 2.  Thats a  bad scenario for sports leagues. Teams in every league need as much local coverage as we can get. The more stories that are written by sportswriters and columnists, the more opportunities for fans to connect and stay connected to our teams. …

My suggestion to the powers that be in the leagues I have spoken to is to have the leagues work together and create a “beatwriter co-operative.” We need to create a company that funds, depending on the size of the market and number of teams, 2 or more writers per market, to cover our teams in depth.  The writers would  cover multiple teams and multiple sports. They will report to the newspapers where the articles will be placed, who will have complete editorial control. In exchange, the newspapers will provide a minimum of a full page on a daily basis in season, and some lesser amount out of season.

That the coverage will include game reporting that is of far more depth than is currently in place, along with a minimum number of feature articles each week in and out of season.  And most importantly, these articles will be exclusive to print subscribers.  They can do all the ad supported short summaries online and minute by minute blog posts and tweets they would like. To make this work, print editions and subscriber only online sites have to become the defacto destinations for in depth and unique coverage.  They have to become the local version of ESPN.com’s for pay  “ESPN Insider”

Buying anything more than small ads in papers  to promote price promotions for the Mavs has not worked for us. I would far rather subsidize in depth coverage of the Mavs, even without any editorial control then spend more money on advertising.

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I can’t imagine newspapers going for this, primarily because of the ethics. But then again, I couldn’t imagine competitors sharing sports copy, either. Would fans rather have less copy or a suitable disclaimer?

Before Cuban’s recommendation comes to pass, I suspect we’d see ESPN beef up its local coverage, or more in-house efforts like MLB.com, which states that coverage isn’t controlled by the league. Baseball’s effort resembles the “new marketing” approach John Reinan talked of in his recent MinnPost piece. It may be better than nothing, but I suspect the rabid consumers of sports journalism would find this inferior indeed.