Economic realities bring industry changes June 14, 2011
Jennifer Osieczanek was pleasantly surprised when she left a fiscal meeting at the Boulder Daily Camera in April. As sports editor, Osieczanek knew that her department will cover the University of Colorado’s transition from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 this fall.
With that change comes new travel destinations — and expenses. She worried what the paper’s editor would say when she submitted her projected budget.
“Nobody batted an eye,” she said.
Osieczanek and other sports departments such as the Chicago Tribune and Grand Island (Neb.) Independent are feeling less pressure in 2011 than they did in 2009 when the recession hit newsrooms the hardest.
Though some are still trying to pick up the pieces of their downsized staff, others have completely reinvented the way they do business. Many are looking at the sports news industry with a new philosophy that emphasizes online content, social media and breaking news updates.
The Camera sports department has been downsizing slowly for the past 10 years. The paper, which has a daily circulation of about 30,000, is 30 miles from Denver– home of the Rockies, Avalanche, Nuggets and Broncos. The Camera used to send a reporter to all professional games, but it has decided gradually to focus on the Buffs and high school sports.
“We decided to do CU better than everyone else,” Osieczanek said.
Though expenses certainly had a role in the gradual change, Osieczanek said it was more about convenience and practicality.
MediaNews Group, the nation’s second largest newspaper company and owner of the Denver Post, purchased the paper in 2009, providing more options for coverage of Denver sports. That change solidified the sports desk’s decision to focus primarily on CU sports.
The biggest difference Osieczanek sees from 2009 to 2011 is that her staff members have multiple duties as the demand for breaking sports news, blogs, videos and commentary increases.
“No one gets away with writing just one story anymore,” she said. “Sometimes one reporter will put together the entire prep page. Columnists are responsible for statistics, the leader board, Twitter.”
The Chicago Tribune’s coverage went in the opposite direction. Tim Bannon, sports editor, said his department was reduced by a handful of people in 2009. Instead of cutting down on coverage, the Tribune underwent a complete makeover.
“We sat down and said, ‘If we built this paper from scratch, what would we do? What wouldn’t we do?” Bannon said.
The sports department decided to emphasize coverage of Chicago professional sports — the Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs, White Sox and others. Bannon has since added a few people back to his department.
The economic downturn may have improved the Tribune’s coverage. The department gets less space in print, but that means a greater online presence. In October 2009, the Tribune started the online Chicago Breaking Sports, dedicated to up-to-date sports news.
“We’re digital first,” Bannon said. “It’s story on top of story. All of our writers update it constantly with quarter updates at football games, pitching changes. We want to get it out there as fast as we can. Get it right, but get it fast.”
Once the game is over, Bannon’s staff writes for tomorrow’s print newspaper. The change has been good, Bannon said.
“I think with the addition of online, the industry is more dynamic,” he said. “Lots of web sites, lots of bloggers, lots of people weighing in on things. It’s great competition not only to break the news, but to do great stories. It seems more vigorous than ever.”
As for the smaller sports departments, Bob Hamar, a 21-year veteran of the Grand Island Independent, said business in Nebraska sports has improved significantly in recent years.
The Independent has a daily circulation of 18,000. In 2009, the paper faced layoffs, pay cuts and a week-long furlough.
“We pushed through it, everybody worked a little more,” Hamar said.
A year before the recession, the Omaha World-Herald purchased the Independent, giving the sports department access to World-Herald content. That meant fewer trips to Lincoln, about 90 miles away to cover Nebraska football, basketball and volleyball.
Recently, the sports department has been able to hire a few part-time staffers.
Hamar, who writes in addition to being sports editor, said he thinks the Independent weathered the recession much better than larger papers did. He said the paper doesn’t plan to have anymore furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts in the near future.
“It sure seems like things are improving a lot for the paper,” Hamar said. “We’re optimistic anyway.”
Sarah Kuta is a Sports Journalism Institute and Association for Women in Sports Media intern from Northwestern University.