By Ben Brigandi
APSE 3rd Vice-President
Associated Press Sports Editors members remain confident in the future of the industry by a 2-to-1 margin as they cope with new technology, changing reader habits, and a sluggish economy according to an online survey conducted this spring.
The survey link was emailed to all APSE members in May and received 141 responses. Of the respondents, 19 percent were in the over 175,000 contest category, 23 percent were in the 75,000-175,000 contest category, 32 percent were in the 30,000-75,000 contest category, and 26 percent were in the under 30,000 contest category. The survey, conducted anonymously, did not restrict responses to one per paper should a paper have multiple members. Results may show multiple responses from a single paper.
The survey, the first of its kind in recent APSE memory, was drafted by outgoing 3rd Vice President Ben Brigandi, in part to help members learn some quantitative data about the state of the industry and one another in these changing times.
The survey posed 24 questions, which included a separate 2-question section on the APSE contest. The rest of the survey asked respondents to report on recent trends in staff size, news hole, web traffic, pay walls, social media, mobile apps, beats, content sharing and strengths for not just sports but the rest of the news room.
Most of the questions required either Likert scale or multiple-choice responses. There were also two open-ended questions to address additional thoughts.
The final Likert scale question, which stated “I am confident in the future of our industry” drew 12 “strongly agree” responses, 48 “agree” responses, 29 “neutral” responses, 20 “disagree” responses, and 5 “strongly disagree responses. Sixty of the responses were considered positive, and 25 were considered negative.
When broken down by circulation category, under 30,000 members were 50 percent positive and 14 percent negative, 30,000-75,000 members were 52 percent positive and 22 percent negative, 75,000-175,000 members were 50 percent positive and 24 percent negative, and above 175,000 members were 60 percent positive and 26 percent negative.
Highlighted trends for the rest of the survey showed average decreases of up to 25 percent for staffing and print news hole in the past 3 years, with numbers holding across all circulation categories. Smaller papers had more staffs at least unchanged in size, though they also had the most respondents say staffing levels dropped more than 25 percent in the last 3 years.
Bigger papers are likelier to lose print circulation, but are also making more gains with web traffic and social media followings.
High school and major college coverage are the most common beats across all newspapers, with content sharing playing a role in much of it. Also, most respondents felt that high school and college coverage is a strength, perhaps reflecting that as newspapers deal with cutbacks they still take pride in executing their available pursuits.
Less than half of respondents said they had a web pay wall, but a majority of those who did not were considering one. Slightly more than half of the respondents said their paper had a mobile or tablet app, with free apps outnumbering paid apps about 2 to 1.
Survey data will also be used by Ben Brigandi toward his Masters project at Lock Haven University on local news reporting in small media markets. Responses from this survey could lead to further detailed study.
Members are thanked for their time. It took them an average of 9 minutes to complete the survey, according to data on the survey engine www.kwiksurveys.com
Here are more detailed explanations of the results, with some breakdown by circulation category as deemed noteworthy.
The survey opened by asking members to estimate change in sports department staff size in the last 3 years. Just 3 percent of respondents said it had increased by more than 10 percent. It was “relatively unchanged” for 29 percent, “decreased 10-25 percent” for 48 percent of the respondents, and “decreased by more than 25 percent” for 24 percent.
Circulation size had some effect, as 34 percent of the under 30,000 respondents said staff size was unchanged. But 31 percent of them said they were down more than 25 percent, the most among any category. Sixty-one percent of the above 175,000 respondents said they were down 10-25 percent, with 18 percent saying relatively unchanged.
Newsroom staff sizes as a whole appeared to be trending slightly worse, as just 13 percent of respondents said they were either relatively unchanged or growing. Fifty-six percent of them were down 10-25 percent and 30 percent of them were down more than 25 percent. These numbers were similar across all circulation sizes.
Print news hole trends
The next two questions asked about the print news hole. Just 3 percent said it had grown in the past 3 years, while it was relatively unchanged for 37 percent, down 10-25 percent for 43 percent of respondents, and down more than 25 percent for the remaining 16 percent.
Again, sports departments fared better than the rest of their newsroom, as print news hole grew for 2 percent of them, was relatively unchanged for 18 percent, down 10-25 percent for 62 percent, and down more than 25 percent for 12 percent. Again, these numbers were similar across all circulation sizes.
The next question dealt with print circulation. Two percent said it grew in the last 3 years, while 33 percent said it was relatively unchanged. It was down 10-25 percent for 53 percent, and down more than 25 percent for 6 percent.
Smaller newspapers appeared to fare better with print circulation, as 45 percent said it was relatively unchanged and down 10-25 percent for 42 percent. The bigger the paper, the likelier it was to lose circulation, as 59 percent of 30,000-75,000 members said it was down at least 10 percent, 65 percent of 75,000-175,000 members said it was down at least 10 percent, and 69 percent of above 175,000 members said it was down at least 10 percent.
Web traffic trends
Newspaper-wide was a bright spot for everyone, with it growing more than 25 percent in the past year for 48 percent of the respondents. It was up 10-25 percent in the past year for 37 percent, relatively unchanged for 10 percent, and down for 4 percent. Seven percent were not sure. There was no separate question for sports department web traffic. The time frame was changed in hopes of more accurately measuring new media trends.
Smaller papers saw the slowest web growth, with 24 percent of them increasing by more than 25 percent and 38 percent of them increasing by 10-25 percent. Numbers improved for each larger category, with 74 percent of above 175,000 papers saying web traffic grew by more than 25 percent and 18 percent of them saying it grew by 10-25 percent.
Social media trends
Sports department social media followings are also on the rise across all circulation categories ahead of the rest of the newsroom. Twenty-two percent of all respondents said their followings had increased more than 100 percent in the past year. The question referred to social media such as Facebook and Twitter and considered accounts for sections, editors, and reporters. Thirty-five percent of respondents said followings were up 35 percent, while 34 percent said they were up 20-50 percent. Five percent were relatively unchanged none were decreasing, while 4 percent were either discontinued or non-existent. The time frame and growth rations were changed in hopes of more accurately measuring new media trends.
Larger paper saw the biggest increases. Eighteen percent of under 30,000 papers had seen followings double while another 20 percent had seen them rise more than 50 percent. The above 175,000 papers were at 30 percent for 100 percent growth and 39 percent for 50-100 percent growth.
Numbers as a whole were slightly better than those of the general newsroom, where members estimated the 16 percent had followings double, 35 percent increased by 50-100 percent, and 27 percent rose by 20-50 percent. Twelve percent were unsure. Numbers were similar across circulation categories.
High school and major college sports were the most common beats at all papers, though NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL beats were just as common in the largest papers, which makes sense since they’re hometown beats for many. Ninety-four percent said they regularly cover high school sports, with 4 percent responding “occasionally” and 2 percent saying “none.” This was a question where responses varied the most, since 20 different beat areas were addressed. Respondents were asked “Wich beats does your section cover with your own staff or correspondents? This does not include content sharing or the wires.”
Among under 30,000 papers, 97 percent covered high schools regularly and 55 percent covered major college sports regularly. Forty-eight percent covered small colleges regularly, and 34 percent covered outdoors regularly. Just three percent said they covered community/rec sports regularly, but 83 percent said they were covered occasionally. Numbers were similar for youth sports.
All of the 30,000-75,000 papers covered high schools regularly. Seventy-nine percent of them covered major college sports regularly, 62 percent covered minor-league sports regularly, and 55 percent covered outdoors regularly. Many college towns and affiliated baseball/hockey minor-league teams are located in markets within this circulation category.
Among the 75,000-175,000 set, 96 percent covered both high schools and major colleges regularly. Forty-six percent covered the NFL regularly, the highest number for each of the traditional four sports. Youth and community/rec sports were less common, with less than half being covered occasionally and slightly more than half covered none. Much of the community/rec and youth coverage is hyperlocal, and editors here may not feel that it is of interest to enough people to dedicate regular coverage.
All of the above 175,000 papers covered major college sports, and at least 80 percent of them regularly cover the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. Seventy-eight percent cover high schools regularly and 69 percent regularly cover the Olympics.
This question attempted to address not only beat areas, but online media as well. Respondents were asked “what types of material does your paper and/or web site run as part of a corporate or content/sharing agreement?” I was curious to see if some places considered their online content proprietary and not to be shared, even with sister papers.
Among beats, major college sports were the most commonly shared, with 50 percent either frequently or occasionally sharing. High schools were next at 42 percent either frequently or occasionally shared. The NFL and MLB were frequently or occasionally shared by about 30 percent, with the NBA at 21 percent and NHL at 15 percent.
High schools and colleges of all sizes were the most commonly shared beats among under 30,000 papers. Sixty percent of papers frequently or occasionally shared high school stories, and 50 percent share major colleges. no pro sports league was shared by more than 20 percent in this category. It appears other than the 15-25 percent who cover a major pro sport themselves, the rest rely on wire copy for this. Less than 15 percent frequently or occasionally share blogs, video, audio, or multimedia.
Larger papers said they were likelier to share pro sports copy and online content. Forty-two percent of all papers larger than 75,000 circulation said they shared video frequently or occasionally. That may be a result of a larger staff having greater capability to create content, which in turn gives them more to share.
This survey also tried to learn what members thought they did best in these evolving times. It asked members simply, “What does your section do well? For this you may consider corporate or shared content, plus the wires” and to rate themselves as i, good, fair, poor, or not applicable. Beats and types of content were asked. Eighty-five percent of all respondents said they are excellent or good on high school coverage, the highest overall number. Other common strengths were game stories (90 percent excellent or good), columns (76 percent), features (93 percent) and major college sports (76 percent).
The highest percentage of poor responses came with MLS, at 36 percent, though that and other beat weaknesses may be a reflection of priorities. Other weaknesses (or low priorities) were investigations, at just under 36 percent, boxing 32 percent, tennis, 28 percent, community/rec at 27 percent, the NHL at 24 percent, and youth sports at 21 percent.
Among under 30,000 papers, investigations received the most “poor” responses at 51 percent, followed by boxing at 48 percent and mixed martial arts at 44 percent. Investigations were also the biggest weakness among 30,000-75,000 at 41 percent.
The biggest weaknesses among 75,000-175,000 papers were boxing, MMA, community/rec and tennis, at just over 30 percent. Investigations were just under 30 percent. The biggest weakness among papers more than 175,000 was small colleges, at 35 percent. Many papers in the largest two categories answered “not applicable” to community/rec and youth and other lower-tier sports.
This appears to be one area where sports and news are in lockstep. Respondents were asked their sports department’s practices on putting web content behind a pay wall. Seventeen percent said “all of it’’ while 20 percent said “some of it” and 42 said “none but we are exploring possibilities” and 21 percent said “none with no immediate plans in the near future.” All responses were within one percent of the rest of the newsroom.
The smallest and largest papers were likeliest to use a paywall. Forty-five percent of the under 30,000 respondents said at least some content was behind one, while 39 percent of the above 175,000 respondents said at least some content was behind one. About 30 percent of the middle two classifications said at least some content was behind one.
Respondents were also asked what effect, if any, pay walls had on web traffic. Forty-four percent said there was either a minor or major decrease, and 12 percent reported a minor or major increase. Nearly a quarter of those with a pay wall were unsure of the effect on traffic.
The final pay wall questions asked what types of content papers put behind a pay wall. Responses did not appear to vary between different types of sports content, but digitally unique material such as blogs, audio, video, and multimedia were less likely the be there than agate, columns, high schools, colleges, and the pros.
Responses for the newsroom as a whole also did not vary much between different types of content, though op-ed and letters to the editor were slightly likelier.
This survey did not address metered pay walls such as The New York Times, which allow the reader a limited number of free visits before charging. This omission was noted by some of the respondents in an open-ended question seeking additional thoughts, and some others did not feel the questions adequately addressed their pay wall practices.
Respondents were also asked about their sports and newsroom practices on mobile and/or tablet applications. Newsrooms as a whole were slightly likelier to have one, perhaps showing that sports content for a digital application is likelier to be put on a newspaper-wide digital app than on a sports-only one.
Fifty-one percent of newsrooms have a free digital application, while 16 percent have a paid one. Twenty-one percent do not have one but are exploring possibilities, and 12 percent do not have one with no plans in the near future.
Among under 30,000 papers, 35 percent have a free app, but none had a paid app. The majority of other categories showed a majority with at least a free app. Free apps outnumbered paid apps in the top two combined categories by a 29-13 count.