Newspapers and Benner/Sports and Indianapolis Star and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Communications and Media & Marketing and Sports Business

Will local paper keep covering your favorite team?

April 27, 2009
As a (former full-time) ink-stained wretch, witnessing the demise of the daily newspaper is heartbreaking. I can't imagine a day without the "morning miracle" in my hands over a cup of coffee.

Nonetheless, major metropolitan newspapers have disappeared (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Rocky Mountain News), reduced circulation (The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News are printed only three days a week), or have gone into bankruptcy (too numerous to mention).

On the sports front, I was reminded of the industry's troubled present and future during the Big Ten men's and women's basketball tournaments at Conseco Fieldhouse, the NCAA Midwest Regional at Lucas Oil Stadium, and the Men's Final Four at Detroit's Ford Field.

Media work rooms and press rows were decidedly less full as newspapers either eliminated or reduced the number of writers they assigned to those events.

One of those was the local daily. For the first time in my memory, going back well more than 40 years, The Indianapolis Star did not send a writer to the Final Four.

I don't blame the decision-makers at the Star. The overall news staff has been hit by reductions and mandatory furloughs, and is now looking at a 12-percent cut in wages. Given that, local coverage of a national event that is covered by the wire services might not seem a prudent expense.

More concerning is local coverage of local events and teams. Those in the newspaper business who haven't lost their jobs are being asked to do more with less—personnel, resources, space—even as the sports world continues to grow.

I couldn't help but notice when the state's largest newspaper used wire service to cover three of the four IHSAA boys state championship basketball games in Conseco Fieldhouse. Of course, that could be a statement as much about multi-class basketball as it is about newspapers.

But as an old scribe, I pay attention to such things as bylines and content. My guess is, the general reader didn't give it much thought.

It's also accepted now that the Star relies on its fellow Gannett Co. newspaper, the Lafayette Journal & Courier, to provide most of its coverage of Purdue University sports (as it does with the Muncie Star-Press in covering Ball State University). Many local Purdue fans chafe at the notion of not having an Indianapolis writer covering their teams—especially with the Star still having staff writer Terry Hutchens to cover Indiana University athletics.

What really would be interesting is reader reaction if the Star took Hutchens off the IU beat and replaced him with a correspondent. Same goes with the coverage of the Indy Racing League or, especially, the Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers.

Again, I'm not being critical of the management at 307 N. Pennsylvania. They have to do what they believe they must. As an aside, back in 1974 when I became the Star's beat writer for the Pacers, Publisher Eugene S. Pulliam decreed that we would not cover (nor would The Indianapolis News) any Pacers games west of the Mississippi River. Oddly, that included games against the Spirits of St. Louis, who played in the Checkerdome only a couple of miles west of the Big Muddy, but west nonetheless. We arranged to have stringers cover the Pacers in the cities where we didn't travel.

Did the readers complain? No, not many, anyway. As time went on, Pulliam relented somewhat and allowed us to go. And over time, it became a matter of course for all Pacers (and Colts, after they arrived in 1984) road games to be staffed.

Nonetheless, I worry that the difficulties facing daily newspapers might force them, here and elsewhere, to use stringers or generic wire copy more often. I worry more that readers won't notice or care.

Then again, we are transitioning into a new age of information dissemination, one cluttered by blogs, Web sites and 24-hour cable coverage. Sports, long considered the "toy department" of journalism, could be an easy target for cost-conscious accountants and editors.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, under the headline, "Baseball Writers Brace for the End ... As Newspapers Cut Back, Press Boxes Grow Lonelier," detailed the decline of coverage of Major League Baseball teams by their local newspapers. That certainly makes this old ink-stained wretch shudder.

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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