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ISSUE 120 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/20/2007

New ways to see the game: Analyzing trends in sports media

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer


Friday, April 20, 2007

Blogs. Podcasts. Streaming video. Wikis. Web sites. Interactivity. Mobile content. Ten years ago, these would have seemed like made-up terms to most people. Today, they represent a fundamental shift in the way we disseminate information.

“New media” is one of the hottest buzzwords in society today, but what exactly does it mean? Simply put, “new” media is any form media of that does not fall under the umbrella of “traditional” media (newspapers, network television, magazines and radio) and usually involves a computer or the Internet. In recent years, there have been many signs of decline in traditional media outletsdaily newspaper readership is down 6.3 percent over the last three years, network news lost another million viewers in 2006, and even cable news lost 12 percent of its prime time viewerswhile new media forms are steadily growing in size and scope.

Here in Minnesota, the recent sale of the Star Tribune (it went for $530 million, a far cry from the $1.2 billion the McClatchy Company paid in 1998) prompted the paper to cut seven percent of its newsroom staff, with more cuts undoubtedly on the way. How best can we understand these obviously important trends? Surprisingly, the answer may not lie in the classroom or conference room, but in sports stadiums and arenas around the country.

“"There is not a better case study than sports to explore the issues of persuasion and media technology,”" said Ben Shields, co-author of the book “The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace.”

Blogs: A New Staple in Sports

Most people know that blogs are a popular form of discussion for topics such as politics, entertainment or popular culture and personal journals. Yet sports blogs comprise an ever-growing segment of the “blogosphere,” and their popularity has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream media. To capture a portion of this audience, the Star Tribune now hosts six sports blogs on startribune.com, dealing with the Vikings, Wild and Twins. Many of the blogs are very popular (“Access Vikings” generates several hundred comments per entry), and several of the paper's prominent journalists have already made the switch to blogging.

“"The best thing about [my blog] is the feedbackthere's instant commentary,”" said veteran sportswriter Britt Robson, who writes a Timberwolves blog for TheRake.com. “"When I worked for the newspaper, I might only occasionally have somebody a week later say, 'Hey, I remembered your piece from the other day!'

“"Now, when I write something and go to bed, by the time I wake up there are already two or three people that have responded in an intelligent fashion. That's great for my ego, and kind of inspires me to keep doing it,”" he said.

While blogging has given Robson a new way to showcase his writing, the Star Tribune's Steve Aschburner has a different opinion on newspapers asking their writers to pull “double-duty” as bloggers.

“"I think newspapers have to be careful as to what they ask us [reporters] to do,”" said Aschburner, one of two dozen Star Tribune employees to accept a contract buy-out in early March. “"The Star Tribune has always had a clear distinction between reporters and columnists. If you're going to ask reporters to do blogs, and there's going to be opinion and sass about the team, I think it's going to be harder to remain objective.”"

Aschburner, who has spent 20 years at the Star Tribune (13 of them covering the Timberwolves), believes newspapers should focus on their core competencies.

"“I think that newspapers are, in a sense, almost like the 50-year-old who's either wearing her skirt too short with too much makeup or the guy who's squeezing into a too-tight T-shirt,"” Aschburner said. “"We're trying too hard to be all things to all people. There's been a rush by the traditional media to keep up with the alternative media, and we've neglected what we do best. That's the danger in this.”"

Economics: Something Must Be Done

While some traditional journalists like Aschburner don't believe newspapers need a “makeover” to survive in today's marketplace, others feel that with declining readership and an ever-fragmenting audience, change is inevitable.

“"The fact is that audiences are getting their information from so many different platforms right now. The newspaper is going to have to encompass all of these platforms in order to remain relevant with its readership,”" said Shields, a Ph.D. student in Communications at the University of Northwestern and host of a regular podcast at theelusivefan.com. “"The newspaper is going to have to multi-platform its own content in order to remain relevant.”"

The Star Tribune's new online content (in addition to blogs, the website also now also features podcasts, video content and photo galleries) may be popular, but the fact remains that it is still freeand those viewers are no longer paying the 50 cents for a physical newspaper. Is such a model economically viable, or will traditional forms of media continue to experience financial difficulties?

“"Newspapers have to go where the readers are and the readers are on the Internet,"” Shields said. “"Their best chance [economically] is to monetize that Internet experience through advertising, since they're not getting as much revenue from subscriptions anymore. They have to create new products that they can actually sell advertising for.”"

Content: Where (and How) You'll Get Your Sports Fix

Today's sports fans have more options than ever before as to where they can get information on their favorite games, players and teams. In addition to newspapers, there is sports talk radio, a multitude of all-sports cable television channels and sports magazines, not to mention the behemoth that is the Internet.

Mike Trudell, Timberwolves team reporter for timberwolves.com, has identified a distinct shift in the way many fans now get their sports news.

"“I think there's certainly a clear trend shifting towards the multimedia realm,”" Trudell said. “"We're shifting from print to online content, and with television, instead of getting your news from your local newscaster, you're getting it from ESPN.”"

More often, Trudell says, the teams themselves are skipping the “media middleman” and supplying fans with content directly.

“"People want inside access,”" Trudell said. “"You might not be able to get as much inside access from the newspapers as you might from the teams themselves. Teams are becoming their own media corporations."”

Shields noted a similar trend in football with NFL Network, a league-owned cable channel that debuted three years ago. Last season, NFL Network broadcast eight live regular season games, something that drew heavy criticism from fans because of the channel's limited distribution.

"“It's not so far to think about a time when the NFL is controlling all of its broadcasts and showing all of its games on their channel,"” Shields said. “"The bottom line is that leagues and teams are beginning to industrialize their own media practices so that they can create a one-to-one relationship to the fan; the fan is being directly communicated with.”"

As an employee of the Timberwolves, Trudell enjoys more freedom than traditional beat writers and is constantly seeking to differentiate his content from that of other media producers. In his short tenure with the team, Trudell has debuted concepts like live in-game blogs, video interviews with players and coaches and co-written columns with visiting beat writers.

“"The challenge for teams and the challenge for the Timberwolves is this –- why do you want to come to our site? What we want to do here is provide fans with things they can't get anywhere else,”" Trudell said.

Ben Goessling, a sportswriter for the Star Tribune's South section, echoed Trudell's sentiments from the perspective of the newspaper industry.

“"Media needs to adapt and grow, and I think newspapers have been a little slow to embrace that,"” Goessling said. “"You've got to provide something different than what all the other guys are doing. You have to find your niche.”"

Do Fans Win or Lose in Today's Coverage of the Game?

There is no doubt that fans have more choices in today's media landscape, but is this necessarily a good thing? Trudell believes there are positive and negative aspects to be found.

“"There are definitely more options for fans -– more teams, more writers, more TV, more radio and more Internet -– but does that make it better? Not necessarily,"” Trudell said. "“You have to be able to weed your way through what's good and what's not. The times are changing, but are reporters today better than reporters 30 years ago? No.”"

Overall, Shields says, fans come out ahead with the additional sports coverage provided by new age media.

“"Fans can interact on a more intimate basis with their favorite team or star or league, in ways that were previously impossible,”" Shields said. “"That fans can access the website and read the blog of their favorite player, or listen to a podcast with the manager from their favorite team, is creating a new level of involvement and it's making the experience for the fan much more rich.”"

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