Sunday, April 10, 2011

Content is King

I still read several newspapers every day. I watch the morning news before I go to work, and I try to catch a few highlights at night. I listen to the top headlines on the radio, and I traverse the Internet searching for more. I’m always connected to the world on my iPhone, which gives me access to as much information as I can find.

I don’t know if we’re spoiled in today’s information age, but if we want to know something right now, we can. Think about where we’ve come in our lifetimes. If you wanted to find out about something that happened in the past, you could only hope that information was included in your family’s encyclopedia collection. Otherwise, it was off to the library to look it up in books or on microfiche.  News that happened today wouldn’t be known to the world until tomorrow morning, unless it was big enough for the television news. In the pre-ESPN days, we’d wait until 11:25 p.m. to get a few baseball scores. Jim Hill’s “Sunday Sports Final,” gave us a full 15 minutes of sports highlights once a week on Sunday nights after the regular late news. When I was young, I used to race my dad to get the morning newspaper so I could read the sports section first.

Still today, one of my favorite things is to read the local high school football coverage in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on fall Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, because newspapers have merged or folded, local papers like the Daily Bulletin are more regional. So those local football stories include games 30 or 40 miles away. The local paper isn’t as local anymore. And because the coverage area is much bigger and there has been a dramatic increase in the number of schools, most of the games only get a paragraph or two. Sometimes, the scores don’t even get in.

When I was still in college, I covered local high school and college sports for the Pomona Progress Bulletin, which later merged with the Ontario Daily Report to become the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. The newspaper’s circulation area went about as far east as Cucamonga and west to San Dimas, but coverage expanded beyond those areas to include every school in the leagues that were located in the Pomona Valley. Even with a full-time sports staff of four or five guys, they covered almost every local high school game. That’s because there were plenty of “stringers” like me, working for $15 a game. We all did it for experience, because our journalism teachers told us we should. I ended up covering high school football and basketball for about four years. It certainly wasn’t for the money. I loved it, because I’ve always loved sports, no matter what the level of competition. In fact, I still go to high school sporting events regularly from September through May, and I rarely miss a Friday night of football.

We didn’t have laptop computers when I strung for the Progress Bulletin, so we had to write the story back at the newsroom. When I first started, the newsroom didn’t even have computers. We keyed the stories on Selectric typewriters, with special codes that were picked up by the machines that would covert the text for the typesetters.

By the time an evening football or basketball game ended, the building was locked up for the night. I’d have to ring a doorbell and hope somebody would hurry down while I waited on the corner of Third and Thomas streets in downtown Pomona. It wasn’t the best neighborhood, although I think it was pretty lively in its heyday. I always remembered when I was much younger going to the movies at the Fox Theater a block away on Garey Avenue. It was a great place then, but by the time I was in college, the area had changed dramatically. I never had problems as I waited to get into the building, but there were plenty of times I held my breath as I stood on the empty, dark streets and a car would slowly cruise by. Once inside the massive front door, the long, majestic old staircase on the right led to the newsroom upstairs. The vast open room filled with desks was mostly empty at that hour, except for the sports staff and stringers, along with a reporter or two covering the police beats.   

That night’s game pairings were all written on a whiteboard, and each reporter filled in the score from his game as he came in. If it was an important game late in the season, the sound of the typewriters fell silent as all eyes watched with curiosity as the reporter posted the numbers. Assistant sports editor Don Bradley would inevitably get mad at somebody, and he’d end up yelling at a coach calling in to find out scores of other games. Then it was back to business, because the deadline was near. I usually had less than an hour to compile the game stats, format a box score and then write my story. Adrenaline took over and we all got it done. I think the “rush” that came from writing on deadline was what kept me going back year after year. Seeing my by-line only a few hours later on the front page of the sports section (and sometimes the front page of the entire newspaper) certainly added to the personal satisfaction as well.

The beauty of local sports coverage was that it used to be truly confined to the surrounding communities. The local newspaper would pick up the Associated Press coverage of the professional and major college teams, but they’d also send their own reporters to cover those games on occasion, too. Don Bradley often went out to the big games, but usually only to watch the game and eat the free press box food before returning to print the AP story of the game he just attended. But for the most part, the readers in the Pomona Valley got the perspective from the reporters who lived in their community or the one next door. You felt like you knew the local kid who made it big.

Mark McGwire was one of those guys. I covered some of his basketball and baseball games when he was at Damien High, and then later when he played on the Claremont American Legion team that played for the state championship. Although his acclaim to that point had come as a pitcher, he started hitting home runs at a frantic pace that summer for the American Legion team. He hit a ball out of the Claremont McKenna College field that went over the tall juniper trees that lined the outfield fence. He later went to play at USC, where our paths would occasionally cross while I was there as a graduate student. I’d also go watch games at Dedeaux Field on campus, where another Claremonter, Randy Robertson was also on the team, as was a tall, raw left-hander named Randy Johnson. Since I continued to contribute to the Prog, sports editor Bill Langley asked me to write a feature story on McGwire. I was living in L.A. at the time, but I came home to file the story on a day when Langley was off and Bradley was in charge. My story ran longer than Bradley wanted, and he barked at me that McGwire would never be big enough to deserve that much attention.  

I wish we still had the local sports coverage, but the newspapers are struggling to survive, and their financial and personnel resources are limited. Still, you’d think that since the greatest appeal of a local newspaper is its local news coverage, there would be a higher priority on “backyard” stories and less on the wire-generated stories that anybody can find almost anywhere online. The local stories are what make the local media unique. Aside from local game coverage, the best thing in the current Daily Bulletin sports section is Louie Brewster’s weekly column.

Today’s newspapers are fighting a losing battle. I love them, but unless you grew up reading them, there is no logic in starting now. Unlike free online content, newspapers cost money only carry yesterday’s news.

Instead of sending out reporters to cover all of the local games, sports editors today rely on coaches to call in their scores and game highlights. If a coach doesn’t call, then the game didn’t happen.  Like it or not, coaches now have the responsibility of being a reporter, too – or at least assigning it to someone else. The good thing is that today there are other alternatives to the daily newspapers, including a host of online sites. Most colleges and high schools have their own athletics websites, with separate sites for every sport. And MaxPreps is a great one-stop site that has information from every high school in the nation. It not only includes scores, but also box scores from every game and complete statistics, as well as league leaders and standings. MaxPreps has become the best option for fans wanting quick information. In most cases, it’s the only alternative. But if the content on MaxPreps isn’t kept current, or if individual team websites aren’t providing up-to-date information, then the technology is useless. It’s like not updating your blog in a timely manner.

No matter how technology changes the world, the medium that best delivers the information will be the most relevant, because it is the content that matters, not the method of delivery. It’s true: content is king.