Monday came the news that the New York Times will disband its 35-person sports department. Over the weekend we learned the Los Angeles Times sports section will no longer contain what traditionally have been sports page essentials: box scores, standings and traditional game stories.
Both newspapers, two of the nation’s top five in circulation, will continue to cover sports, just not in the traditional newspaper format. The New York Times will integrate sports coverage from The Athletic website into the daily newspaper. The Times last year bought theathletic.com website, which employs many of the nation’s most reputable sports writers, at a price tag of $550 million. The LA Times says it will still cover sports with a more magazine-like approach. It just won’t include what were once considered the nuts and bolts of a daily sports section (i.e. box scores, standings, etc.) Let’s face it, what good are box scores if you have a 3 p.m. copy deadline?
I can’t say either piece of news comes as a shock. Newspapers have been moving in this direction for decades, lately at increasing speed. I will say the erosion of the traditional newspaper sports page is something I could have done without.
As a child in Hattiesburg, I grew up in a family that at times subscribed to six newspapers, all delivered to our doorstep daily: the Hattiesburg American, two Jackson newspapers, two New Orleans newspapers and the Daily Herald on the Gulf Coast. My sweet mama often complained of drowning in newsprint. I learned to read by reading the sports pages. I learned to do arithmetic using the baseball box scores to compute batting averages and earned run averages. And yet that wasn’t enough sports coverage for me. As a kid, I would ride my bike to the public library to read the nation’s best sports columnists, Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times and Red Smith in New York newspapers, including the Times.
My father was the sports editor of the Hattiesburg American when I was born. I later held the same position. Dad later worked at the Jackson Daily News, where I was later the sports editor as well. My brother worked for the Hattiesburg American and the Clarion Ledger. So has my son.
It is from a press box seat, 50-yard-line, I have watched the erosion of the sports pages until there is almost nothing left.
When I left the Hattiesburg American in 1978, we had a staff of five full-time sports writers and several correspondents. When I became sports editor over the Jackson morning and afternoon newspapers in 1987, we had a combined sports staff of 27 sports writers, and our sections and writers were often cited among the best in the country.
Compare then to now: The Hattiesburg American, operating in a college town and in a hotbed of high school sports, has no sports staff. Zero. None. Nada. The Clarion Ledger lists four sports writers and an intern in its directory. And they are trying to cover an entire state.
In the late 1990s, after the Jackson Daily News ceased to exist and corporate bean counters shrunk our Clarion Ledger staff down to 16, I asked to be relieved of my sports editor duties to concentrate on writing. Why? As I told my boss, I could move into my newspaper office and work 23 hours a day and not be able to produce with a staff of 16 anywhere near what we had with a staff of 27.
I cannot even begin to imagine how you would try to do it with four. You cannot.
Now then, all the news is not that awful. I can go to various websites on the Internet, often for free, and read every box score, published almost instantly after the final out (and during the games as well). The batting averages and earned run averages — not to mention OBP and WHIP are computed for me. There is still terrific beat writing available for professional sports teams and most major college teams on The Athletic website. I am a subscriber at a nominal fee. It is well worth the price. ESPN.com provides nuts and bolts sports coverage as well.
No, it is not the same, and I miss the feel of newsprint in my hands with my morning coffee. But the sports news is still available and I can read it on my cellphone.
Best news of all for this dinosaur, I still type — and some of you still read — my missives on this vital Mississippi website. For that, I am most grateful.