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Reusse’s ‘newspaper death knell’ column misses changing realities of sports, media

A farewell column?

A farewell column? With all its reminiscing about copy paper, a cub reporter’s newsroom lessons, curmudgeonly bosses and lovable colleagues past and present, Star Tribune sportswriter Patrick Reusse’s “inside baseball” piece in today’s newspaper sure read like one.

Another death knell for mainstream media? It read a little bit like that, too.

Reusse, to the best of our knowledge, isn’t going anywhere, professionally or personally. He remains the dean of Twin Cities sports journalists — as opposed to, say, personalities — and figures to be around as long as a) the paper stays solvent, and b) its bean counters don’t start eyeballing his veteran’s salary as if it’s a Thanksgiving turkey, all dressed out, browned and buttered and piping hot.

But Reusse’s unprovoked defense, in the final few paragraphs of his column, of the sports reporting in the Strib these days read like someone protesting too much. Someone spooked, also, by the incessant drum beat of the Internet. A real Buzz Bissinger moment.

Now, worrying about his — and his cronies’ — livelihoods is a legitimate hand-wringer. Sweating out buyouts, layoffs, newshole and travel budget cuts, and even  potential wage givebacks  has become part of the daily grind for newspaper people, as routine as sharpening a pencil, changing a typewriter ribbon or slipping out for a cigarette break was for previous generations of journalists.

After all, an industry that essentially gives its core product — its news coverage — away for free in one form (its website) while moaning about the declining interest in its paid version (newsprint) is complicit in its own demise. Add to that a business model reliant on advertising revenue — once “owned” in near-monopolistic conditions by daily metros but now fragmented across hundreds or thousands of Internet options — that clearly is broken. Then prop it all up, not with the deep pockets of family fortunes and civic sensibilities of founders and heirs named Cowles, Graham, Sulzberger, Chandler or Field, but with the bottom-line demands of shareholders in a public company or, apparently worse, absentee landlords and private-equity profiteers.

Result: A perfect storm for journalism in crisis.

Internet poised to supplant newspaper sports sections
Despite Reusse’s noble defense, though, the one coverage area in which the Internet is fairly well-equipped to supplant daily sports sections as providers of news and information is, in fact, Sports.

No one — repeat, no one — in all of journalism has a better-funded and deeper website full of trained journalists doing original reporting than ESPN.com. You won’t find anything comparable in news, politics, lifestyle or business reporting, a new-media operation staffed with dozens of reporters, writers and editors committed to breaking and then analyzing sports stories, nationally and globally, from big-kahuna topics such as the NFL and Major League Baseball down to small-college programs, high schools and other amateur athletics. OK, Politico.com was staffed and performs with great creds and ambition. But in sports, we’ve also got SportsIllustrated.com, CBSSports.com, FoxSports.com and even the original sports reporting on Yahoo!, all strong performers.

Not local enough for you? That’s where blogs and other websites come in. Every major franchise or team in the Star Tribune’s coverage area — just like most franchises or teams in most newspapers’ coverage areas — has multiple blogs devoted to it, featuring the work of both passionate fans and inflamed critics. To use one example, at any random Timberwolves games this past season, there were no fewer than three or four writers from alternative media sources, representing online outlets such as Hoopsworld.com, SLAMonline.com and the thinking fan’s site of choice, Britt Robson’s “On the Ball”  from rakemag.com. Me? I was there a lot, too, representing both MinnPost.com and SI.com, where I’m a regular contributor.

You still don’t get that sort of blanket coverage across multiple outlets when the Legislature is in session, when the mayor calls a press conference or when a United HealthCare executive starts blurring ledger entries.

(Further disclosure: I covered the Timberwolves for 13 seasons for the Star Tribune, worked at the place for nearly 21 years and have logged three decades in daily journalism. I left the paper in April 2007 in a botched buyout-cum-layoff and was followed out the door by about 70 other newsroom types who were more ready to go than I was. And I consider Reusse to be a friend, though I’m a little bummed — along with the likes of Don Banks, Bob Sansevere, Jim Souhan, Jeff Lenihan, Jeff Shelman, Jon Roe, Mark Vancil, Howard Sinker, Jay Weiner, Chris Snow, Tom Jones, Rachel Blount, John Gilbert, Curt Brown, Selena Roberts and a few others — that we apparently can’t crack his Dream Team of sports beat writers currently assembled at the Strib.)

Bloggers and sports-talk radio hosts don’t break news? That’s the easy dodge, but it is becoming less and less true. Especially as the advantages long held by the daily papers dwindle.

It used to be that the sheer investment of time and money made by the big boys — the Strib and the Pioneer Press here, the Tribune and the Sun-Times in Chicago, and so on — guaranteed that most news about the local teams would be found first in their pages. They assign people full time to those beats, for home and away games and every practice or off-day in between. To this day, they have the manpower advantage.

Publishers finding it hard to afford massive sports coverage

But it is getting increasingly difficult for publishers to afford them. And their travel costs. And their expense accounts. It certainly isn’t a cost-efficient way to troll for new stories: Spending countless hours traipsing around the country, navigating airports and hotels and arena parking ramps, long before or long after the teams’ charter flights have come and gone. All the while, the meter’s running. (Frankly, it is astounding that the nation’s newspaper sports editors haven’t put together a consortium to save costs, a gentlemen’s agreement of  “we’ll cover yours [team in our town] if you cover ours.” That way, for the scheduled events, no one has to pay for airfare.)

Then there is this: Within the sports, the level of access has shrunk dramatically. “Media availability” is measured by the tablespoon now, compared with the ladles of yore. Coaches get quoted too often; players get talked to too seldom. The informal stuff — shooting the breeze with a rookie while you both wait for the same commercial flight or linger in the same hotel lobby — is gone. There are barriers to familiarity everywhere. Even the teams are in competition, building and operating their own websites for the fans, staffed by content providers on the payroll with the very best backstage passes.

What it means is that every media person gets, more or less, the same thing nowadays. Or — and this is the point — can.

Contrary to Reusse’s claim, a “doesn’t-cost-a-nickel, stand-alone Internet site”‘ can offer a high percentage of the stuff that matters most to sports fans: Analysis, speculation, predictions, opinion. It might not be the first to tell you about a rumored free-agent target or a sordid Lake Minnetonka boat cruise, but it can pile on soon thereafter with the best of them.

One more thing: If the worst-case scenario for journalism happened and all newspapers succumbed tomorrow, the thing that the culture and a democratic society would miss most — whether it realized it quickly or not — would be the hard news, the investigative reporting and the watchdog journalism. The lack of proper funding and institutional muscle to cover the competition at right cornerback when the Vikings open training camp in July wouldn’t be, by comparison, much of a problem at all.