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American Journalism Review
Charge the Error to Sports Editors  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   July/August 1995

Charge the Error to Sports Editors   

It's not wise to ignore hunting, fishing and bird-watching.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


One way a newspaper can learn what interests its readers – information of immense value in shaping editorial content – is to figure out how they spend their time and money.

Not only do time and money suggest content that can create more loyal readers, something newspapers surely need in this era of waning circulation, they also may represent a reservoir of untapped advertising revenue. The New York Times, for example, never carried much grocery advertising until it started its Living section with heavy emphasis on the mysteries of food preparation.

The wisdom of serving readers' interests seems so obvious that I wonder why newspapers are often oblivious to it in their sports sections. With few exceptions, these pages are filled with stories and statistics about spectator sports, yet rarely have more than a brief item or perhaps a weekly column about a category of sports activity that attracts more consumer spending than all the spectator sports combined.

This category, which I will call "field sports" for want of a better label, also actively involves more people than spectator sports, if you don't count those who watch games on TV.

Field sports most notably include fishing and hunting, but extend as well to sport shooting (skeet, trap, clay, target) and wildlife watching. According to a 1991 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 40 million people, or one out of five Americans 16 or older, annually spend more than $1,000 each ($40.9 billion total) on goods and services directly related to fishing and hunting. Bird watching, according to the same survey, attracts 65 million adults who spend $5.2 billion on seed, feeders, books and binoculars. Other forms of wildlife watching generated $12.9 billion in retail spending.

Another survey, conducted by American Sports Data Inc. in 1994, found that 73.5 million Americans six and older had fished at least once in the previous year, 25.4 million had fired a gun and 20 million had hunted.

In contrast to the millions of participants and the billions spent on field sports, Americans spend only $5.9 billion a year to attend professional sporting events. (They also spend only $5.8 billion to go to movies, which also command extensive editorial space, but that's another story.)

During a recent week I counted stories in the sports pages of two newspapers that I read regularly. The Washington Post carried 355 separate news items about spectator sports and just one involving a field sport – a one-paragraph story about a 12-year-old setting a Maryland striped bass record with a 67-and-a-half-pound catch. The Post did publish a small-type roundup of fishing conditions in Maryland and Virginia in its tabloid Weekend section, and to be fair the paper does occasionally carry a piece on an outdoor subject.

During the same week the New York Times ran 225 stories about spectator sports and none involving field sports, although it occasionally publishes a column on field sports.

The disparity in the Post and the Times between the coverage of spectator sports and everything else is much more stark than the story-count comparison, since I didn't bother to measure the voluminous columns of statistical data and photographs, all concerning spectator sports.

Now there are good reasons for devoting a lot of space to spectator sports. Interest is high, and since games involve conflict and resolution, the subjects are easy to write about.

Yet of all the stories that I read as a youngster in the Kansas City Star's sports pages, the only ones that stick in my mind are the lengthy, Hemingwayesque essays about float trips down the Current River in the Ozarks or shooting for pheasants in Western Kansas. Nary a game can I remember.

A few newspapers still do right by field sports. Portland's Oregonian each week carries the equivalent of two to three full pages on field sports plus a Sunday column by the outdoor editor, Bill Monroe. Until the recent sharp increase in newsprint costs, the Oregonian carried the equivalent of three-and-a-half to four pages each week.

In addition to the editor, there are two full time writers and part time help from a graphics artist and a clerk.

Other newspapers known for solid field sports coverage include the Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho, and the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah.

Some might argue that these three papers are published near heavy-duty fishing and hunting areas, making extensive coverage understandable. But these activities go on everywhere there is water and wildlife, which means in every state in the nation. It may be jugging for catfish in a muddy river in the Midwest rather than steelhead or salmon fishing, or shooting doves on a parched Texas plain instead of chasing antelope in the Grand Tetons, but it goes on. Apparently only sports editors are unaware of this. l

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