McGuire on Media

Some predictions for sports editors and sports sections

Comments to Associated Press Sports Editors convention

Minneapolis, Mn. June 26, 2008. The comments were made as part of a panel discussion on “What sports sections will look like five years from now.”

Sometimes the plight of other industries help us better understand our own situation.

On Monday I gave a speech to the American Association of Independent News Dealers in Baltimore. One of the independent distributors complained about all the free newspapers springing up in New York and he asked plaintively: “How is somebody like me who SELLS newspapers supposed to make a living?”

His question hit me like a hammer and I said: What’s your verb? Is your verb selling? Is it distributing? Is it serving? I told him to decide what his verb is and then do that well and effectively.

So, when we think about newspaper sports sections five years from now I think it is crucial that you decide what your verb is.

Your sports section was originally conceived when you were THE source of sports news. You had to make some adjustments when TV came along. Now the web has forced you to consider even more radical changes. Sports readers can get what they want, when they want it, from countless sources of sports information. You are no longer the exclusive, exhaustive source of sports information.

I think that means you have to narrow your goals and find the verb that works for your reader audience.

Perhaps the verb is entertain, which would lead you to build a fun, interactive take on sports and especially local sports.

Perhaps your verb is stimulate. If so, you want to stimulate debate by framing the sports arguments, hosting them and helping to resolve them.

Perhaps inform is your verb and you want to attempt to be the comprehensive source of sports information.

Maybe your verb is “buzz,” and you want to be the source of all the insider information on sports.

You might want to make your verb advocate and be the quintessential cheerleader for local sports.

Deciding your verb is crucial, but I also think it is clear your sports section in five years needs to truly integrate online and print. They have to work together and push readers back and forth.

I think online should be the data source, and every possible number, analysis of numbers and statistic should be online.

Counter to the opinion of some people I think print will need to be more literary. I think well written game stories have a future. I think your print sections should feature great writing and great stories and leave the numbers for online.

My premise here is that print will be serving an older audience in five years and newspapers will stop chasing the younger readers. Your efforts to engage younger audiences should be concentrated online.

Another premise I have is that ego coverage of national events is going to have to end and you are going to have to look at partnerships with other newspapers  to provide unique, special coverage to your readers.

That raises an important question about who are your allies and who’s not your ally.

Let me be clear and tough. You are called the Associated Press Sports Editors. Is the AP your very best ally as you move forward or would your better ally be other sports editors and sports sections in this room? I would contend that’s an important question to consider for the future of this organization and for sports sections.

Newspapers are increasingly the “hunted,” and I am convinced newspapers around the country need to consolidate coverage and cooperate in unprecedented ways to compete better in both print and online.

In conclusion, it is clear that the “one size fits all” approach to newspapering is dying. I think the obvious implication of that is that the answer to serving the sports market in Phoenix may be very different than the answer in Minneapolis.

The good news in that is you’ve got a ton of freedom to experiment and play. The bad news is that you cannot stand still without getting run over.

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