Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Tree Falling In The Forest

"Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to Bus Ham..."

As the printed newspaper marches towards its expected oblivion, a subtle but demonstrable change has preceded it: a staff reporter's regular coverage of events, the "beat", as they used to call it, has gone the way of the Smith-Corona typewriter. Two recent stories affecting Georgetown Football are evidence of this, and a cautionary tale about how sport and its program need to keep watch on the changing skies of information and while the trees that built the print revolution could be staying up a while longer.

Before I get into that, however, some explanation on the first sentence is in order.

It wasn't that long ago when the chief source of information on teams was the daily newspaper, where the beat writers were a window into the world of sports and the stars of tomorrow. Even as they graduated into columnists, one always got the feeling they had an inside look at the games, or as one newsroom wag once dubbed it, "the world of the perspiring arts."

Here in Dallas, columnists began and ended with Blackie Sherrod, the former Ft. Worth Press editor who ran with a crop of Texas sportswriters that are long remembered today--Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, Andy Anderson, Mickey Herskowitz, and Dan Cook. Sherrod's weekly column, which began with the "scattershooting" entre, proceeded to weave so many stories into the article that by the time it was all over, you were convinced he forgot more about sports than you'd know, but you enjoyed it all the same.

Every town had their run of great sportswriters. At the Washington Post, it was Shirley Povich and Bob Addie, Mark Asher and Bill Gildea, Dave Kindred and Ken Denlinger, Michael Wilbon and Thomas Boswell. And those that weren't at that level still wrote, a lot.

"These were my childhood heroes," wrote a recent blogger. "These were wordsmiths who made you want to head down to the newsstand on Sunday and buy every out-of-town paper they had — even if your team lost, because you knew they would tell you everything about the game you wanted to know, and would do so in a way that made the words jump off the pages."

But those days are gone. In 1964 , Post staff writer Bus Ham was at the tail end of a 18 year tenure as a sports editor of the paper. He took it upon himself to cover an unusual beat--the revival of Georgetown football in the fall of 1964. Seven stories by Ham covered the run-up to the game, with four stories on page 1 of the Post's sports page in the final ten days.

"Georgetown's student athletes and the game of football scored a smashing triumph yesterday in an exciting revival of the sport on the Hilltop," Ham wrote in an 800 word recap of Georgetown's 28-6 win over NYU.

What would a story like that garner in today's Post? 80 words? Eight?

Today's sports section content is all about subscriptions, little more. At the Post, Montgomery County high school football will get more space in the paper than Georgetown or Howard football, each of which went an entire season without any regular coverage outside its own game. A Virginia Tech game will get more coverage because someone figured out that Hokie alumni buy papers when Tech wins, but Hoya alumni... well, they'll subscribe anyway, so what's the point. And if it weren't for Barker Davis, the Washington Times sports page might ignore Georgetown altogether.

So when Bernard Muir announced his resignation on May 12, where did you hear about it? The Times? The Post? In fact, both were left to run a blurb in the "sports briefs" column when Muir's quiet negotiations were picked up by a Delaware blog. It got big news in the Wilmington News-Journal, but a passing glance in the local papers. They got beat on the story but what's worse, they didn't care.

And outside of the smaller towns, that seems to be the trend in the coverage of college athletics. Keith Groller does a fine job covering Lehigh sports at the Allentown Morning Call, but one gets the feeling that the PL football media pool could all fit into a Toyota Celica and have seats left over. When Fordham announced it was adding scholarships in 2010, it got an Associated Press story and an note in Dick Weiss' basketball blog, little more.

Fordham's move has potentially huge implications for PL football in general and Georgetown in particular. If a reporter had botehrerd to make a few calls, they would have found that Lehigh athletic officials made public statements to the efffect that they'd support a move too, and where Lehigh goes, Lafayette follows. Count Colgate in as well. All of a sudden, you've got a majority of PL schools looking to play at a 60 scholarship level. What does that mean to Georgetown, which has lost 27 of its last 32 as an unremarkable non-scholarship program? What does that mean to a new athletic director coming in the door?

For a hundred years or more, schools have relied on the print media to get the word out about teams, about big games, about its coaches. After all, it was Notre Dame sports information assistant George Strickler that got Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden into uniforms and on horseback, immortalizing Grantland Rice's account of the Four Horsemen. Print media drove college sports into its golden age, but what will drive it going forward?

Sure, it you're one of about 20 schools, there's ESPN. For everyone else, they've got to think ahead.

I was at a Georgetown conference last winter where Geof Rochester (B'81), an executive with World Wrestling Entertainment, summed it up. The three words Georgetown needs to be focusing on when it comes to communications is, "mobile, mobile, mobile". As smartphones continue their assault in market share (with as many as one third of all phones within five years featuring direct data transfer), the flow of information that is being sent by e-mail will make that medium about as useful as putting a stamp on an envelope. Ask anyone under 25 if they'd rather have an e-mail or a text message and see what they say.

Now, a bit of disclosure. I don't own a smartphone (I don't like Apple products and the cost of a data plan for a BlackBerry is still too high for me), but if I had one, would there not be value in getting scores and game highlights sent to me on a real time basis? What about post-game stories? What about coaches comments and video recaps? If I'm in Baton Rouge sitting at the LSU-Louisiana Tech game, why couldn't Georgetown send me the recap from the GU-Richmond game and tag it with a offer to give to the Gridiron Club via an easy link? Talk about connecting with your audience!

It's all part of a comprehensive communications strategy which the post-Muir era of Georgetown athletics must embrace. Georgetown was actually one of the first schools to utilize the web back in 1996, this is another opportunity. Georgetown football can't wait around for the Washington Post to discover I-AA football. By then it will be too late.

Author Stuart Brandwrote that: "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road."