Local microsites offer a future for sports reporters

“As newspapers cut budgets and payrolls, the press boxes at major league ballparks are becoming increasingly lonely places, signaling a future when some games may be chronicled only by wire services, house organs and web writers watching the games on television.”

This was the chilling vision of the future of sports reporting as laid out recently in the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps it is just coincidence that the WSJ is now under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, whose digital colours were nailed to the mast when he declared his view that all newspapers will ultimately migrate on to the web, and whose Sunday Times is reported to be investigating placing its premium online content behind subscription.

But while the lonely press boxes at baseball may be a new phenomenon in America, in some cases with reporters actually receiving their redundancy notices in the midst of their running match report, in Britain, the cut-backs and TV-based reports have been a growing feature of our business for the last five years at least.

It is the first, and easiest, corner to cut for a sports desk. Why send a reporter and photographer to any sports event, with all the associated costs of transport and hotels, when agency pics can be accessed off the wires and an eager young sub can cobble together something immediate for the website by watching the television coverage?

The short-termism implicit in such a policy misses the fact that any newspaper or national sports agency doing its reporting this way has little added value in its coverage to distinguish it from the hundreds of bloggers out there in virtual reality essentially doing exactly the same thing.

As Simon Owens has reported recently for the MediaShift website, one regional newspaper football reporter has come up with his own online business solution for this dilemma.

The SJA website first reported Rick Waghorn‘s innovation in 2007, when the Norwich evening newspaper reporter was “let go” after 14 years and he used his redundancy money to carry on reporting his Norwich City beat online, rolling out the concept as a franchise to apply to every league club throughout the country.

Waghorn’s idea was that once he had coverage arranged for all the clubs, he would be able to work with an ad sales team to sell advertisements both locally and nationally.

In his interview with Owens, Waghorn said that the nature of online sportswriting has changed, with clubs, sports federations and even the players and athletes going into the business of media coverage.

“Because you’re now web only, and you’re not beholden to print deadlines, your No1 competitor is the football club’s own website,” Waghorn told Owens.

“Each and every one of our sports clubs became a publisher, assuming they opened their own website, and because they own the players, the head coach, etc… they own that particular piece of news. For official news, or whatever, 9 times out of 10 the official site will be first. So clearly the rules of the game have changed fundamentally the minute the sports clubs opened their own websites. It’s just a matter of realigning ourselves in terms of content and analysis, using your brand and your experience to provide the kind of sticky content that a football fan wants.”

Waghorn believes his template could operate for the many American sports writers who have recently lost their jobs, although his hope for investment to launch and a similar series of sites for basketball, ice hockey and American football last year did not materialise.

Perhaps the major difference in the United States media at present is the web awareness, and its approach to acquiring worthwhile internet propoerties, of the Disney-owned ESPN sports network.

ESPN is already the owners of Cricinfo and, through its Indian-based Star network is involved in the production of the official ICC Twenty20 World Cup, and it is reportedly poised to acquire a serious presence in the UK with English and Scottish TV football rights in the event of the collapse of Setanta.

ESPN has already launched a series of local sports sites in the US that act as news aggregators.

Waghorn, though, believes that his niche model for local sports coverage could still be applicable on both sides of the Atlantic. “If you have an elegant structure and you have all the bases covered, what you could do is rather than being a Tuscon reporter who flies to LA one week and New York the next, instead you can just swap your content with your network partner in that city,” Waghorn told Owens.

“So if you look at the economics of the web and what we could realistically afford to do, can we afford the hotel fees, plane fees, and all those travel expenses? Maybe we should go back to the basics, start afresh with a clean sheet of paper and say, ‘How would we do this if we had to start from scratch?’.”

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