AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   November 1999  issue

The State of The American Newspaper
Follow the Ball   

Why these are the best of times in the sports department, too.

Related reading:   The State of The American Newspaper
Follow the Money


By Lewis M. Simons
Lewis M. Simons is a magazine writer whose work appears regularly in National Geographic, Smithsonian and other publications. A longtime Asia-based correspondent for the Associated Press, Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers, he has won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards.     

Yes, sports fans, everything really is bigger in Texas, including the bait a newspaper will dangle in front of a prize catch. Fully a year after top sports columnist Randy Galloway bolted the Dallas Morning News for the competing Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I found envious and incredulous staffers in both newsrooms still buzzing about the affair. Galloway, for 32 years a magnet for sports readers in the two-city area known as the Metroplex, had been the highest paid writer at the Dallas paper, says Morning News Executive Sports Editor Dave Smith, earning "well into six figures." But the rival Star-Telegram apparently landed him with a Texas-sized raise. Published accounts put his current salary somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000. Beyond that, the popular Galloway enjoys lucrative broadcast tie-ins, just as he did at the Morning News. When I ask Fort Worth's executive editor, Jim Witt, about these reports, he teasingly replies, "The published figures I've read have not been accurate--which you can take to mean that he's being paid more..or less."

Either way, prices sure have gone up in the Toy Department.

For writers who have a special knack with words, a love of games and a willingness to mix it up with equally fanatical fans, the biggest bucks in newspapers today are in sports reporting. Just three years ago in this magazine, Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Tim Sullivan observed that the staggering salaries athletes now command were driving a wedge between players and the writers who cover them. "You can't say to a guy making $3 million a year, 'Hey, can I buy you a beer?' It would just seem ridiculous," Sullivan said. But the day of the millionaire sports columnist--a journalist who can go mano a mano (well, financially speaking) with the player he's writing about--may be approaching, if it isn't here already.

The high cost of buying marquee sportswriters like Randy Galloway is just another sign that sports, like business, has become one of the hottest, most competitive and sometimes even contentious fields in newspapering. Beyond the salary budgets, you can see it in the sheer increase in volume that virtually all U.S. papers are giving over to sports coverage. According to a Project on the State of the American Newspaper analysis of 10 top regional papers, the percentage of total newshole devoted to sports jumped from 16 to 21 percent in the past generation. And since overall editorial space doubled in that period, sports' increase in real terms is even more dramatic. Sports agate alone has risen from an average of two columns to two pages. And in sports-crazy markets like the Metroplex, the space devoted to sports today is nothing short of cavernous.

Clearly, the sports department has come a long way from being a haven for a newsroom's cutups and Peter Pans.

Unlike the concurrent explosion in business news, which is fairly easy to grasp as a dollars-and-cents phenomenon, the reasons for the growing appetite for sports are more ambiguous. Ask around and you'll get a lot of valid explanations--that sports have become big business, that franchises are more iconic of their communities than ever, that these ballyard entertainments are among the few things that bind increasingly transient populations. Then there's television, and the "ESPN-ization" of the nation. (In fact, ESPN's various TV, radio and magazine outlets regularly feature some of the best--and best-paid--newspaper sportswriters, such as Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe and Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post.)

Dave Smith, 60, is a legendary sports editor, having emigrated to Dallas 19 years ago from the Globe, itself a sports powerhouse, by way of the late Washington Star. While in Dallas I asked him to take a stab at an explanation. "It's an escape, and it can be a healthy escape," he tries for starters, figuratively scratching his head. Then: "The more troubled the times, the more people attend sports events. Well, yeah, these aren't troubled times, but we have a lot more time and money to spend, and sports is the outlet." And finally: "A large percentage of men will always be little boys."

Well, yes, but what about the fact that girls are on board too--as athletes and, increasingly, as readers (and writers) of the sports section? The popularity of the World Cup-winning U.S. women's soccer team and the WNBA attest to the fact that our fascination with sports has definitely crossed the gender line.

We'll just say that, like business, sports is a genuine cultural phenomenon. And regardless what is fueling it, America's newspapers are happily riding the boom--in different ways in different cities, and for very different reasons.

Randy Galloway's upper lip is swept by a graying, Texas Ranger-style (we're talking lawmen here, not baseball players) brush. Still fun-loving at 56, Galloway has about him the smoky air of a good ol' boy, a persona that goes down well around here with readers and journalists alike. It's hard to overestimate the shock of his defection, so identified was the columnist with the Morning News. "Even Randy Galloway's 81-year-old mother, herself a lifelong journalism veteran, couldn't believe it when he told her the news," wrote the weekly Dallas Observer.

Witt, pleasure shining in his eyes, recalls ushering Galloway around the Fort Worth newsroom on his first day. "He pumped everyone up. When I introduced him around, it was like meeting a big rock star."

Still, charisma per se isn't why he's worth the kind of money Fort Worth is paying him. Galloway is the biggest shot yet fired in the battle between the Star-Telegram and the Morning News, an entertaining scrap that is largely and fittingly being waged on the field of sports. He's the kind of talent that pulls both readers and advertisers. Says Witt, still enjoying himself, "To steal their No. 1 asset was a big thing. And it was fun. It says something about our commitment to do what we have to."

"Is Randy Galloway God's gift to sports columnists?" asks Gary Hardee, a Star-Telegram editor instrumental in attracting the writer. "No. But in an age when every media outlet is trying to bring attention to itself, Randy Galloway is a lightning rod. If a reader has only 15 minutes a day, why, he'll turn to Galloway. He says something outrageous and people love it. You could spend hundreds of thousands more and still not get what he brings you. Like a fishing buddy of mine told me, 'When you got Galloway, you became legitimate.' "

While sports coverage has taken off all over the country, the Dallas-Fort Worth arena is in a class by itself. The newspaper sports war here is especially ferocious, the fans especially voracious. Texans' well-documented obsession with sports runs from the pro and college levels down to junior high. If one paper doesn't satisfy their near-insatiable craving for more and better sports stories, photos, columns and stats, they're tempted to look elsewhere. So the Morning News and the Star-Telegram go to great lengths to win sports fans. When Rangers pitching star Nolan Ryan was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in July, both papers put out fat commemorative sections. Fort Worth commissioned high-priced graphics artist Robert Silvers to create a photo-montage of Ryan for its cover, and the special section was printed on heavy stock. Dallas went to similar extremes.

To truly grasp the role of sports in this state, however, you have to look at the high schools and understand that Texans never seem to break their links to them, especially where football is concerned. "I'm 44," says Hardee, a native who left San Antonio for the Metroplex 20 years ago, "and I still look at the paper every Saturday morning to see how my high school and my wife's high school did [in football] the evening before. I'm already going to games at the high school my son will go to when he gets old enough."

Weigh these numbers: The Star-Telegram, with a circulation of 250,000 on weekdays and 350,000 on Sundays, fields a full-time sports staff of 90. And of that impressive figure, fully one-third is devoted to high school sports. The Morning News, with a circulation more than double its competitor, maintains a similarly sized sports staff. Both papers run in the range of 120-125 columns--more than 20 open pages--of sports coverage on Sundays, and roughly half that daily. Declares Jim Witt, as though awed by his own contemplation, "That's incredible!"

The competition is particularly fierce in the epicenter of the Metroplex newspaper war: Arlington and surrounding Tarrant County. Here the Star-Telegram assigns a full-time reporter to each of the area's 13 high schools. The paper publishes, in addition to its regular daily sports pages, a daily eight-page section on prep sports. At the start of football season, both the Star-Telegram and Morning News put out 100-plus-page special sections. "There's nothing like it anywhere in the country," says Witt, "except Dallas."

With that depth of coverage, parents of Arlington-area jocks may expect to find something written about their kids in at least one of the papers at some point in the season, even if they've never gotten off the bench. And that, say editors, makes a huge difference. "If your kid's team wins on a Friday night, even if you get home delivery, I guarantee you'll be down at the corner box Saturday morning, scooping up extra copies to send to the grandparents," says Hardee, who oversees the Star-Telegram edition zoned for Arlington.

Adds Witt with unintended drama, "Sports is king here. So this is where we fight the war."

I met with Witt and Hardee in the sun-baked single-story building the paper acquired in 1996, when it more than doubled its editorial staff in Arlington to 75 (and boosted its marketing, advertising and business ranks) in response to the Dallas paper launching the Arlington Morning News. Now it houses the Arlington Star-Telegram, essentially the Fort Worth paper with its own replated front page and banner and zoned editorial. "After the [Dallas] Times Herald collapsed, we decided that we just couldn't lose Arlington to the Morning News," says Hardee. "Our circulation here is 50,000 daily, 70,000 Sunday. A paper of this size in the boonies somewhere might have a sports staff of four or five. While school is in session, we have 22 staff people, including a separate editor, devoted to covering the local schools."

Hardee, Witt and others I spoke with in Fort Worth say they, as well as the paper's owner, Knight Ridder, consider the money being spent on Galloway, high school coverage and other sports initiatives a sound investment. For validation, they point out that this year's sports section was cited as one of the 10 best in the country. While Dallas regularly wins this accolade from the Associated Press Sports Editors, it was a first for the Star-Telegram.

The Star-Telegram people make no bones about the size of the battle against the respected and influential Morning News. Over a quick lunch in a downtown Fort Worth pizzeria, Deputy Sports Editor Mitch Krugel marvels at what he called "Dave Smith's incredible sports machine."

But over in Dallas, Morning News executives barely deign to concede the existence of a serious rival. When I raise the subject of "your fierce competition with Fort Worth over sports coverage" with Bob Mong, the Dallas paper's president and general manager, he replies with the equivalent of letting the air out of the ball. "Sports has a strong readership, but it's not No. 1," says Mong, who came up on the editorial side of the Morning News. "It's part of a larger package--different people pick up the paper for different reasons." He goes on to praise his paper's Mexico coverage ("more than anyone else"), its regional section ("larger than anyone else"), and its increases in foreign, science and technology news. "The goal is always a complete newspaper, and we've become more sophisticated in everything we do," Mong explains. "We don't rely on one section to drive the paper."

Still, he acknowledges that when the Dallas Cowboys win, there's a 10,000-paper jump in Monday morning's circulation.

And Sports Editor Dave Smith says his staff's travel budget "is as much as all the other departments combined."

In late 1989, the National, a high-flying daily that wanted to be to sports what the Wall Street Journal was to business, burst onto the print landscape with a buzz that hadn't been seen since the launch of USA Today. In large part that was attributable to the National's conspicuous recruiting of top sportswriting talent and its flamboyant check-writing to pay for it. Eighteen months and $100 million later, the elegantly written sports daily was dead. For many still-disgruntled newspaper publishers and editors, its only lasting accomplishment was the inflated sports salaries (some would add egos) they are still coping with.

Meantime, much-derided USA Today kept plugging away. Not only would it outlast the National and countless detractors, but it would come to influence contemporary sports coverage more than any other paper in the country.

Few could have predicted anything like that when Gannett's Al Neuharth sprang his pet project on a dubious world in 1982. A heavy emphasis on sports coast to coast was a key part of the Neuharth formula. This approach might well have backfired, given that so much of a typical sports fan's passion is local, but USA Today had little choice. As Monty Lorell, the current managing editor for sports, puts it, "We have to take a national focus because we have no hometown team. Every team is our home team."

But the paper made that philosophy a strength rather than a weakness, one of many ways it changed the assumptions and the rules of sports journalism.

For instance, USA Today was one of the first papers to acknowledge that it was time to join, rather than try to beat, TV in the business of covering sports. The paper's attitude may be best symbolized by columnist Rudy Martzke, who from the early '80s has been America's proto-sports junkie. Martzke's job is to watch sports on television, then write about anything he finds interesting--not so much about the games themselves but about the commentators and the broadcasts and the experience, as shared by millions of people around the nation.

And clearly, says Lorell, TV has been the unifying and revolutionary force in the sports explosion. To cite some figures: In 1979, TV aired 2,100 hours of national sports. This year, that will soar to a staggering 41,000 hours. In 1979 there were six networks televising sports; now there are 79. In 1979 there was no such thing as all-sports radio stations; today there are 251. People may be "inundated" with sports, as Lorell says, but "it seems they just can't get enough."

Recognizing that passion, USA Today decided early on that it must come across as being as timely as the broadcast media. That meant, at minimum, printing late sports scores--a lifelong nightmare for Eastern papers saddled with West Coast games. But owing to USA Today's unique printing arrangement--more than 30 sites around the country crank out three editions nightly--it managed to have most of the late scores when the papers hit their TV-inspired newsracks. That timeliness made more than a few metro papers look bad and has inspired them, with faster presses and later deadlines, to do better, at least where their own teams are concerned.

Perhaps even more influential has been USA Today's widely imitated colorizing of the daily grind. "Since sports has always been one of the drivers of our paper, it's benefited perhaps more than other sections in the use of color," says Lorell. But the paper did pioneering work at the other end of the gray-scale, too. From the beginning USA Today jammed its sports section with pages and pages of agate: detail-packed box scores, a page of team-by-team stats for baseball and football twice weekly, and a page of basketball and hockey once a week. Sports geeks, especially the nation's millions of fantasy baseball and football enthusiasts, simply can't get enough of the tiny type, and newspapers around the country have followed suit.

Lorell, 47, was at the launch pad--Rosslyn, Virginia--when USA Today took off 17 years ago. In 1996 he moved from being managing editor of the front page to head up the 91-member sports staff. "It's the best job I ever had," he says without hesitation. "I get to look at sports all day and then I tell my wife I've been working hard."

Meantime, across the Potomac in Washington, D.C., where most grandstanding takes place outside stadiums and the players wear dark suits instead of polychrome spandex, an interesting experiment is under way. The decidedly No. 2 paper in town, the Washington Times, has focused on sports in the longshot hope of making inroads against its dominant rival, the Post.

Sports would seem an unlikely hook for the Times, with its deeply conservative take on the world and its Unification Church affiliation. "Our franchise has always been, is now, and always will be politics," affirms Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden. "That hasn't changed. But sports are on the rise around here and we decided to try to ride the crest."

The Times, with a daily circulation just under 100,000, felt it had to do something dramatic in its combat with the Post, which has eight times more readers. Worse, on Sundays, unlike most other papers, the Times' circulation actually goes down. "We're only 18 years old, while the Post has been here forever," says Pruden. "We're a teenager and the Post is a 900-pound gorilla."

So this summer the Times reconfigured its Sunday sports section and began wrapping it around the rest of the paper. Sections on art, entertainment, comics and TV were moved out of the high-volume Saturday edition (which consistently outsells the Sunday paper, owing to its heavy dose of features, including a very popular continuing series on the history of the Civil War) and transferred to Sundays. This rearranged paper was then folded inside a newly designed and somewhat fattened sports section, et voila! --something new with brunch.

Pruden, a short, chunky son of Little Rock, nattily attired in a blue-and-white seersucker suit and black-and-white perforated wingtips, admits to having mixed feelings about what he terms "the sports obsession in this country." Nonetheless he tells me his original inclination for the Sunday makeover was even more daring: Turn the day's entire paper into a sports journal. "But the more we considered it," he says, "the more we realized that would shortchange readers who don't take any other paper, and we certainly didn't want them to go to the Post."

The paper has been "quite heartened" by response so far. "We've had some complaints from readers who don't like sports, but I expected that," Pruden says. According to one Times editor, newsstand sales received a whopping 40 percent initial bump from the change. The Times had done almost no promotion for the new product during Washington's notorious dog days, using the slow season for a shakeout cruise and launching a concerted promotional campaign with fall's football season.

Although politics is, of course, the game in Washington, once you toss in the outside-the-Beltway Maryland and Virginia suburbs, with their heavy preponderance of middle-class families who have real jobs and lives, and then stir in Baltimore, only a short spin up Interstate 95, you have the makings of a pretty lively sports scene: NFL, NBA, NHL, WNBA, Orioles baseball, Major League Soccer and half a dozen major college programs.

Of course, it ain't Texas. "We don't cover high school sports at all," says Pruden, although the Post does somewhat. "I'd love to, but there's nothing imminent." And the Times doesn't pay its columnists half a million dollars--or, for that matter, anything above the high five figures. "This is a Ford," Pruden says with a sniff and a shrug, "not a Lincoln, and certainly not a Lexus."

With a sports cover on Sundays, the Times has been slipping more sports stories onto the front page during the week. Editors, let alone readers, can be ground down by a steady page-one diet of politics, war, riots, hurricanes and crime, so those at the Times--and the sports reporters--welcome a break in the sturm und drang. The paper still prides itself on fronting more hard news each day than the Post, but sports seems to be providing the narrow end of a wedge that eventually will push more features outside.

With the newly invigorated sports section have come three new writers and three new editors, all hired from outside. Gary Hopkins, the assistant managing editor who directs the Times' sports coverage, is delighted with his heavied-up firepower. "I don't know of any other sports section in the country that's doing what we are," he says. "I think it's the most interesting, most dynamic section in the country, and I'd stack it up against any other, anywhere. I'm expecting the Post to respond soon and then we'll be slugging it out, trying to break stories and beat each other out. That's what sports is all about, isn't it?"