Dying newspapers, vanishing coverage

Amateur-run Web sites a poor alternative

by Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. February 7, 2009

'I don't care if all the farmers and ranchers go out of business. I get my food from the grocery store." A silly comment, eh? Because, of course, the grocery stores don't produce their own food; they sell food that is grown by farmers and ranchers.

Some people say, "I don't care if all the newspapers go out of business. I get my news from the Internet." But as Rocky Mountain News sports columnist Dave Krieger pointed out in a Jan. 21 column about Broncos coverage, the vast majority of news on the Internet comes from old- fashioned newspapers.

To see what kind of sports coverage we'd have without traditional newspapers (and the wire services that were created for them), I examined coverage of the Monday night National Hockey League game in Denver, in which the Colorado Avalanche beat the Calgary Flames 4-3. Rick Sadowski of the Rocky and Adrian Dater of The Denver Post each penned lengthy, well- written stories about the game.

Now hypothesize there's no Rocky (perhaps as soon as March) and no Post (perhaps around 2011). Where do you read a game report?

On the Internet, you would find The Associated Press story by Pat Graham. On newspaper Web sites, his story was greatly condensed, but the Web sites for Yahoo! Sports, MSNBC, CBS Sports, and Fox Sports published longer versions. ESPN.com linked to the Rocky story.

Scott Cruickshank, of the Calgary Herald, also wrote a good story. In a Web search, you probably would have first found it at the National Post, one of Canada's two national newspapers.

The game was summarized in very few paragraphs in NHL round-up articles on the English-language Web site for Chinese Central Television (cctv.com) and by Chris Wright for The Sun (a British tabloid).

So, consistent with Krieger's thesis, the game coverage on the major national Web sites for sports was provided by traditional newspapers and wire services. If newspapers don't exist, neither will this content.

What would be left?

To start with, there's the Avalanche's own Web site. It featured a 10-paragraph, workmanlike article by Avalanche employee Craig Stancher, summarizing the game's action. The article was fine for what it was, but did not have much analysis or perspective.

The Avalanche Web site does publish one or two articles most days, and some of the articles - such as reports on the Avs' farm team, the Lake Erie Monsters - provide detail far beyond what appears in the Denver papers.

Then there's Examiner.com. Headquartered in downtown Denver, Examiner allows unpaid authors to register as subject-matter experts, and to spend several hours a week producing stories on their particular topic. There are scores of Examiner editions for different cities, and a national edition.

The Denver edition has nine Examiners (that's what an individual writer is called) for local sports, including one for roller derby which, to be frank, has not been thoroughly covered by the Rocky or Post.

The "Colorado Avalanche Examiner" is Brian Thompson, who wrote a 17-paragraph article about the game with Calgary. He did a pretty good job, and his article showed in-depth knowledge of the Avalanche. For example, he noted that in the remainder of the season, the Avs must address "their ever present inability to dump the opponent's fore check."

I would say that the Rocky and Post articles were better, though. First, they supplied quotes from players and coaches. Presumably, Examiner authors could obtain press credentials, and also gather pre-game or post-game quotes. But when your writing is a part-time labor of love, rather than a full-time paying job, the time you can spend gathering facts is relatively limited.

Second, the Rocky and Post writers were better at supplying precise details. In Examiner: "The Avalanche, in arguably their most physical performance this season, matched the Flames hit for hit, shove for shove, scrum for scrum." In the Rocky: "The Avalanche played a physical game, registering 36 official hits, nine by Ian Laperriere." This was followed by two paragraphs of quotes from the Avalanche coach about Laperriere's hitting.

Finally, the Examiner article had some clever writing ("Arch villian [sic] Todd Bertuzzi was booed mercilessly by the Pepsi Center crowd"), but also some sports cliches ("Wins will be at a premium and the margin for error now is razor thin.")

Eliminate most of the editors, the cost of printing and delivery and don't pay writers a salary and you've certainly reduced the cost of newspaper production. In a sense, Examiner's use of unpaid writers is a massively scaled-up version of the what the Rocky and Post have been doing to local coverage with YourHub.

Surveying the reporting of one hockey game doesn't tell us how well the Examiner covers hard news. But in any case, the Examiner might represent what will replace daily newspapers in many cities.

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