Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Bottom Line

We are forever being reminded that baseball and its coverage by newspapers are businesses.

No matter how much we speak of sport, in the final analysis nearly everyone who runs the game views baseball as “entertainment” and understands job one is to assemble the best product and compete for the public’s “entertainment dollars”. One of the biggest issues facing baseball for many years running has been how to re-establish the game’s central position as America’s pastime. There are many people, myself among them, who believe that status has been permanently usurped by football. Moreover, with basketball and hockey playoffs extending deep into the spring if not early summer and soccer an ongoing enterprise around the globe, baseball can no longer rely on its traditional seasonal exclusivity and concomitant claim on the public’s entertainment dollars.

The newspaper business isn’t any different when it comes to economic objectives. No matter how much we speak of information and opinion, at bottom the people who own newspapers want to sell their product and make a profit for their owners and shareholders. The biggest issue confronting the people who run newspapers these days is how to expand advertising in and readership of its print editions while exploiting the internet, which is draining off the former in the form of Craig’s Lists and Ebay (among other sites) while attracting the latter in larger, unpaid numbers. The main story in today’s Business section of the Inquirer addresses these issues in depth.

Despite my recognition of these operating principles, it was with particular dismay that I opened my Sunday Inquirer only to discover that Jon Lieber’s gem in Cincinnati the night before, easily the most impressive performance by a Phillies’ starter this season and entertaining to boot, was relegated to page 7.

Instead, the lead story was the Eagles’ mini camp. Other stories making page one were the Dad Vail regatta and the decision by some St. Joseph University seniors to forego graduation and row for the gold, and the upcoming Preakness. I have to conclude the editors of our only seven-day-a-week newspaper determined it was in their best business interests to bury the Phillies deep within the Sunday edition convinced as they were that their morning toast was best buttered by the ongoing obsession of Eagles’ fans with Donovan McNabb and the post-T.O. Birds.

Plenty has been written and spoken about the Phillies’ failure to capture the hearts and minds of the local citizenry after years of on-field failure and disappointment. The most frustrating residue of those years of dashed hopes is that when they finally put together an exciting team, too few people seem to notice. Even following The Catch by Aaron Rowand and its aftermath, precisely the kind of story fans relish and, frankly, public relations people exploit, the Phillies can’t get much respect in their own backyard. Undoubtedly the story and accompanying pictures sold a lot of newspapers, but a few days later it was back to, well, page seven.

What do the Phillies have to do? Win twelve out of thirteen games?


Mark said...

I had the same thoughts this morning. Even Steven A's (yet another) horrible opinion piece came before the Phillies.

enrico said...

Perhaps this is why I go straight to the internet for my sports news. I think my tendency now seems to 1) check what the blogs think and 2) check what the MSM thinks.

RickSchuBlues said...

Page 7? Boy, that is horrible. This is a team that's lost one game in May. It's not like it's August and they're 20 back. The obsession with the Eagles and football makes me personally nauseous, as I have a profound distate for all things football; but like you say, Tom, the reality is that even in the off-season football reigns in the sporting mentality.

Hasn't some national publication offered Smith a damn job yet? Not that I think he deserves it, but his ESPN status indicates that he's becoming too large a figure to continue with a local paper. Maybe that's just wishful thinking, because his tired platitudes are the biggest waste of space in that paper since Bill Lyon's strings of five-word paragraphs.

Nat said...

Well, that's interesting. My edition of the Inquirer had Lieber and the Phillies on the front page, albeit beneath two (two!) Eagles stories. Stephen A was relegated to page 5.

I don't know where ya'll live, but I'm in the city and get a late edition. So it makes me wonder if somebody on North Broad Street noticed the misplay and had it corrected in later editions.

There was also a good Zolecki story inside on the Rowand catch, based mainly on interviews with Ken Williams and others who knew him in Chicago.

Still, that doesn't take away the fact that Eagles mini camp (mini camp!) rates two page one slots ahead of the Phillies. And another half-page story inside. Did I mention that we're talkin' effin' minicamp here? Even Ray Didinger took the weekend off.

I dunno... I enjoy football as well as baseball, but the Eagles obsessives around here are starting to get to me, so much so that part of me wouldn't mind seeing the demise of that team. At least I wouldn't mind not hearing so much about them in goddam March April, May and June.

Oh yea... the Dad Vail. Buncha college kids rowing boats. Talk about stories that oughtta be stuffed.

George S said...

You can partly blame/credit Manuel and Gillick for this. What sells papers and what today's sports fan seems to want is one of two things: celebrity worship, or controversy.

The Phillies have had even less controversy this year than last, which was also low. What controversy there has been has been about things that you need to be a follower of the team to be interested in: When to bring up a prospect, who is the #5 starter, etc..
Any potential controversy, such as why Padilla got shipped out for virtually nothing, are handled in house. The only real ink of late was hot air from Wagner, which all came from him.

The McNabb-TO soap opera guarantees headlines for a couple of seasons at least, even when nothing happens. Iverson's adventures are also always good for a few stories. None of it is related to what is happening on the field/court.

As for news in general, the same is true. Readers are lazy and do not want to make the effort to learn enough background on ANY topic to be able to understand it (except for scandals and Hollywood). That makes the over-simplified 'bullet' stories of USA Today very popular. It has also helped blogs become so popular. Why read a long news article when you can have someone else do it and then give their opinions and interpretations in their blog?

I will make only one statement about the general state of affairs of the newspapers and their writers. You can no longer assume that they know more than you do. About anything. Not anymore.
On any topic from the weather to the stock market, they are often uneducated about the basics and too lazy to do the background work to learn. So why read or listen to them? They have little credibility.

As for the Eagles, their PR people are apparently taking better care of the members of the media than the Phillies PR people are, that's all. How else does a non-story like football mini-camp get more ink than a run at a perfect game? How else can you explain 24/7 Eagles coverage when absolutely nothing is happening? How else to explain that the local media still consider the Eagles as 'winners' after going 6-10 and self-destructing amid ego-driven character assassination and petty bickering, while still labeling the Phillies as 'losers' despite 3 straight winning seasons, 2 straight 2nd place finishes, and a current team that is 1 game out of 1st place?
Have you ever noticed how any time an Eagles draft pick becomes a successful player it is credited to the great scouting, background checking, and shrewd talent evaluation of the organization, while the Phillies draft picks and farm system are now churning out all-stars and potential all-stars apparently due to pure blind luck?

I'm an Eagles fan, and follow the team. But they have their season, and it's not in May-June-July. Give it a rest.

Deanna said...

I suppose the one really nice thing about my long-distance relationship with the Phillies is that I don't have to deal with their loud attention-seeking next-door neighbor.

Eagles mini-camp. Bah.

But I agree with Enrico. I think even if I was still in Philly I'd probably use the internet for my sports news and only have to read what I wanted to read about, namely baseblogs and articles.

Tom Goodman said...

Responses to many:

1. The article I mentioned in the Inquirer about newspapers and the internet contained one very surprising item. Other than the WSJ, which has made an enormous committment to paid Internet access, the author of the article notes that major newspapers around the country have determined that paid internet access is not economically viable. Very surprising. I would have assumed most newspapers would recognize them migration to the net by many readers and begin charging them either for access or, like the NYT does for those who do NOT subscribe to its print editions, access to certain content. ESPN does that now on its site.

I get a suburban edition of the paper, which might explain why Nat's edition carried the story on the front page.

The odd thing about the Eagles' possibly cozier relationship with the local media is that recently many people who cover the Eagles for the DN complained on air about the arrogance of the organization and the feeling that they are forever telling the media and the fans, trust us, we know what we are doing, don't question us. Despite those tensions, the Eagles and football generally dominate in every market, especially here where Phillies fans have suffered too long to forget let alone forgive.

Smith's ongong presence in print or on television confirms what a lot of you say, i.e. controversy sells. And so does volume and bombast. If you want intelligence, however, you are going to have to pay for premium access (there it is again, eh?!!) and listen to someone like Bob Costas on HBO>

Ruby Legs said...

I believe the primary reason for the Phillies trouble in reaching the hearts and minds of Philadelphians is that you can't watch them on TV!!!

Unless you have Comcast, you can't watch the games.

If the Eagles were in the same boat, they wouldn't be nearly as popular.

I wrote it extensively in a post a couple weeks back: