Why finding local sports reports is getting more difficult

For the quarter or two it costs to buy a daily newspaper, you'd think you'd be able to find more than just scores in the sports section.

Maybe a hard look from the hometown newspaper on a five-game suspension for a NHL player from your local professional hockey team -- instead of a lead brief on page 3.

Or maybe your local pro baseball team being followed around the country by a writer from the local paper who reports trade rumors as they happen, instead of getting dry wire copy on the game that is almost a day old by the time it arrives at your doorstep.

Even though cable TV giant ESPN seeks to cover hometown sports and push local coverage by TV stations and newspapers aside, most sports fans are unlikely to see that extended coverage or care.

Sports coverage may be growing at ESPN, but on the local level to fans who want to follow their local teams, there are fewer reporters covering the teams. There may be plenty of bloggers out there to give their opinion on your team's latest trade, but there are fewer reporters offering local coverage of those trades.

In an excellent story in SportsBusinessJournal, it was reported that in a survey of editors from 50 North American daily newspapers that regularly covered at least one team in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball both at home and on the road, the equivalent of 303 full-time jobs were cut in the 18 months ending in May.

The 20% staff reductions also hit the sports sections, which saw space drop by 20% from the start of last year, with sections cut by an average of six pages per week.

While none of this is a surprise if you've been reading newspapers for the past five years, you probably didn't expect local coverage to drop off a cliff. After all, that's what newspaper editors around the country preach -- local, local, local. If they can't at least offer comprehensive sports coverage to their customers, then they're losing a large audience.

The Los Angeles Times stopped traveling with the Los Angeles Kings three years ago. When defenseman Denis Gauthier was suspended for five games during a two-week road trip, the Times' hockey writer was in L.A. chasing the story by phone and ended up with a brief on page three.

To make up for such minimal coverage, the Kings has its own Web site and has hired freelance writers to cover it. When Gauthier was suspended, the Kings' Web site covered the announcement that day and followed up the next day when the team was in Ottawa.

The site has much more content than the Los Angeles newspapers, and team officials are considering hiring a newspaper professional to cover the team on the road and at home.

Instead of newspapers and TV coverage, that may be the sports reporting wave of the future. Teams hiring reporters to cover them so fans can remain interested and continue buying tickets.

The Chicago Bulls, for example, recently hired Sam Smith, who wrote "The Jordan Rules" and covered the NBA for the Chicago Tribune. Smith took a buyout from the Tribune and the team made its Web site the exclusive home of Smith's work. He would cover games, write a daily blog, host chat sessions and keep his popular weekly mailbag working.

Nothing against Smith or other writers for professional teams, but when a team pays your salary, does objectivity and the investigative ability to look into team problems then disappear?

That could be the true cost to sports fans.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net

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