Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Washington Times to Kill Off Only Really Good Section of the Paper


A story broke today, still unconfirmed, that if true would signal the plague killing off traditional media outlet by outlet has finally arrived in Washington, no another corner box rag has not disappared, no other longtime niche papers with a better web model than paper model have not stopped printing, it is much worse than all that.

The Washington Times, Washington's other enterprise daily, is ceasing regular sports coverage at the end of this week.

This was foretold to those watching the long slow death of traditional media, back on 4 December, Editor and Publisher, a 125 year old outlet that itself is shutting down in print and online raising questions about whether these links will be active in a year, reported that the paper's new publisher was preparing to announce some radical changes, one of which was revealed the day before Christmas, that the paper would no longer publish a Saturday or Sunday edition.

That same piece presaged cutbacks in news coverage and a shrinking newsroom, I just never imagined they would cut out the best part of the paper. And although this selfishly means less Redskins coverage for me and my ilk, check Dan Dan the Sports Bog Man for what this really means, to the business and to area sports coverage (op. cit.).

David Elfin, Ryan O'Halloran, Dan Daly and the other guys that covered the Redskins first hand for me, I have no idea what will happen to them, I hope they get something lined up, the Times has a great sports section and those guys deserve to keep doing what they do best.

Now I am no economist but I do know a thing or two about how the news business works and what stories sell. The Washington Post regularly publishes its most popular online stories and the Redskins always dominate, even in the offseason.

Sports stories have something that many so called straight news or hard news stories do not have and that is the burning urgency of now combined with binary emotional reactions and an essential harmlessness. Fans want to know what is happening with their favorite team or sports figure TODAY; yesterday's news is too late.

Sports stories have a tendency to draw a smile or set off the grinding of teeth with readers; stories covering sports do not inspire the meh shrugging of shoulders the way HEALTHCARE IN PERIL EXCEPT UNLESS IF ITS NOT or THINGS STILL REALLY BAD IN BAD PART OF WORLD stories do.

Finally, only in a very small number of cases do sports stories deal with death or essential loss, meaning they are low risk for intrusion of the real world into our escapist diversions. When bad things do happen, like Sean Taylor getting shot and killed, these cases tug back at that emotional response that reminds us that although sports is an escape, it is one that takes place in the sadness of reality.

Back in September, after the Redskins first two games, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander ran a Sunday column asking rhetorically whether the Post ran with too much Redskins coverage. Of course as you might expect I did a coffee spit take at the breakfast table because I never think there is ENOUGH Redskins coverage but I digress.

Andrew wisely cited hard fact: reader demand. The Redskins dominate WaPo Sports coverage in the online paper and Redskins Insider is the site's most popular blog. Their case for so much Redskins coverage is not homerism, it is a solid economic case based on advertising revenue. The money goes where the eyes are.

So the Washington Post and Washington Times are not the same paper, I know that, and here is how different they are: The Washington Post has a daily circulation around 623 thousand (op. cit.) and the Washington Times has about a tenth of that (op. cit.).

However it is logical to posit that Sports and the Redskins command a similar percentage of total eyeballs and I am comfortable predicting that reader surveys and visitor logs to the website reveal that Sports and Redskins coverage pay for themselves and more at the Times, an important matter at a news concern that is rumored to receive as much as forty million dollars a year in operating subsidies from the Unification Church (ibid.).

E&P's 24 December story indicated that some or all over the areas of coverage that were going to be terminated in the print edition would persist online (op. cit.), so maybe the sports team will stay more or less together and simply move to a more virtual existence. Unfortunately though it looks as though they are about to drop the axe, none of the beat writers are with their teams traveling today (ibid.) and beat writing is the source for all sports coverage.

Near as I can tell, in yet another example of how clumsy management is in dealing with the established reality of 7x24 news cycles, the Washington Times sports staffers know only as much as I do about the plan and at least one has already taken to the Times itself to say thank you and goodbye.

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

An oldie but a goodie Washington Times front page from here via here.