White Sox hit hardest in media-coverage cuts

By on March 28, 2018

Where is Bill Veeck when you need him to complain about media-coverage cuts?

If the longtime Baseball Barnum was alive and still ran the White Sox, he’d be pounding his peg leg on his desk, dialing up Chicago Tribune editors with his cigarette dangling from his mouth and would rant and rave—sans any cuss words– far unlike his more genteel Hinsdale upbringing.

Bill Veeck was the type who’d be screaming bloody murder if the largest newspaper in town did not cover the Sox.

Although Veeck grew up in the Cubs organization, for which his father William, Sr. served as all-powerful President, he created a lot of noise in his two tours heading up the Sox ownership group. One loud tactic was measuring newspaper column inches of Cubs and Sox coverage to show the former team had a huge advantage.

What would Veeck think now that the Chicago Tribune, overstaffed back in his time, laid off Chris Kuc, its Sox beat writer, leaving the team temporarily uncovered near the end of spring training?

Veeck successor Jerry Reinsdorf, a very avid reader and media critic, should be as upset as Veeck would have been. Tribune top brass mandated yet another across-the-board layoff almost nine years into an overall economic recovery. But middle management running the sports department likely targeted the Sox and Blackhawks as the pro beats generating the least amount of total readership and fewest web hits — a factor that caused ESPN Chicago to bail on both teams a few years back.

And the Sox have been deemed second-class citizens in major media-outlet coverage as if their 2005 World Series title, first in the city since 1917, never took place.

Reinsdorf and his own middle managers in charge of the Sox’ image and media access clearly have their work cut out for them in adequately publicizing a franchise amid strong headwinds. They cannot keep pursuing the same policies of serving legacy media at the top of a caste system, at the exclusion of others, as these elitist outlets are imploding on themselves.

The trend is clear. In an era when Millennials don’t care about the source and quality of sports coverage popping up on their phones, the need to cut staffing and, in turn, coverage unfortunately in Chicago pro sports starts with the Sox.

Reinsdorf and Co. are fresh from a frantic effort to find a new radio home for the team after bankrupt Cumulus Media opted to get out of its Sox and Bulls rights-deals on WLS-AM. The erstwhile Top 40 giant-turned-Rush Limbaugh Chicago outlet was a bad fit for the Sox in the first place. The station did not have complementary programming to integrate with sports franchises. The Sox did a great job persuading WGN-AM, without baseball since it dropped the then-money-losing Cubs rights after 56 years in 2014, to take on the full season schedule on short notice.

But the Sox have been bleeding coverage for a decade. Paranoid Sox fans will scream, “I told you so!”  Others, like old friend Rich Lindberg, the team’s unofficial historian, are just resigned to getting the short end of the stick. But take emotion out of the equation to look at cold facts. The South Siders’ fan base pales in comparison to the hyper-popular Cubs, making their favorites an easy target for erasure of original coverage.

All the slashing, in Chicago and every other pro sports market, has gone much further than I ever could have projected when I researched my book, “Baseball and the Media,” in 2004-05, and released late in 2006. Then, smart-phones were still being tested while web sites were largely a supplement to traditional means of sports coverage in print, over the air and on cable TV.

A combination of the initial sales blitzes of Steve Jobs’ all-everything phones, and the onset and after-effects of the Great Recession provided a perfect storm for cuts to original coverage of baseball and other sports.

First outlets to bail were the suburban daily newspapers. The Daily Southtown, based in the Sox’s back yard, began covering the Sox on the road  with Phil Arvia in 1993, a commitment way above its then-circulation level. Southtown did not begin traveling with the Cubs until Sammy Sosa’s spree in 1998. But after the 2007 season, the paper laid off almost all its pro beat writers and began picking up the coverage from the co-owned Chicago Sun-Times.

The Crystal Lake-based Northwest Herald and the self-explanatory Times of Northwest Indiana covered Sox home games and went on the road for the postseason back in 2005. But as the the 2010s progressed, their original coverage of Chicago baseball was slashed. Meanwhile, the Great Recession prompted the northwest suburban Daily Herald ended Sox road coverage with longtime beat man Scot Gregor, with the exception of a week at the start of spring training. Gregor still covers home games.

ESPN Chicago and Comcast SportsNet Chicago (now NBC Sports Chicago) seemed to replace the lost suburban coverage with full-time, traveling beat writers in Doug Padilla and Dan Hayes, respectively. ESPN’s Sox and Hawks regular-season road coverage, though, did not last long. Traveling was cut due to a calculation of web hits, which trailed the Bears, Cubs and Bulls even while the Hawks won their 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup.

Dan Hayes’ multi-media coverage of the Sox was deemed too expensive for NBC Sports Chicago.

Padilla was shifted to his native Los Angeles — and later was laid off — while no Sox replacement was named. ESPN’s city web sites dropped coverage as the cost-cutting World Wide Leader compressed its web site stories to the 100 most popular teams in the country. The Bears, Cubs and Bulls qualified, while the Sox and Hawks did not make the cut. ESPN bailed on hockey partly because it did not have any piece of the NHL’s TV contract.

Hayes, who moved to Chicago from the now-defunct North County Times in suburban San Diego, was laid off along with Cubs beat man Pat Mooney after the 2017 season. When a Cubs writer is cashiered a year after the World Series triumph, things are serious. NBC Sports’ sister Boston sister operation laid off Red Sox beat writer Sean McAdam, one of the best in that market, after 2016. NBC Sports Chicago followed Fox Sports’ lead in cutting its regional web site writing staffs in favor of videos, podcasts and talkfests, shedding heat but not a lot of light. Hayes sadly remarked how the regional sports networks’ short era of covering teams as beats was coming to an end.

The Tribune’s parting with Kuc, son of former longtime radio mic jockey Jerry Kuc, really cuts into bone. The concept of Chicago’s oldest newspaper, founded in 1847, severely cutting into baseball coverage was unthinkable. I’ve felt the day might come by the early 2020s that a downtown paper would provide such a shock, given the industry trends. But my forecast had the hanging-on Sun-Times long preceding the Tribune with its terrible swift sword.

The Tribune’s problem is gross over-coverage of the Bears, an across-the-board practice in Chicago media, particularly on sports-talk radio. The paper cut into its thinning bench by shifting Colleen Kane off the Sox to the fourth Bears writer in mid-season 2017. Taking Kane’s place on the South Side was Kuc, a former Hawks beat guy who then served as an all-around backup scribe. The Sox’s second-class status at Tribune Tower was shown when Kane had been promoted from a utility role to Sox beat writer in 2014. The far more experienced Mark Gonzales, who had covered the Sox for a decade, was shifted to the perceived more important Cubs beat.

Obviously embarrassed by its well-publicized hole on the Sox, the Tribune quickly sent Bears writer Dan Wiederer, during a quiet part of the NFL off-season, to Glendale to pen a Yoan Moncada feature published March 27. Joe Knowles, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports, obviously got e-mailed complaints from Sox fans and had to scramble. The question was, why did Knowles and associates target the Sox guy knowing that would bring complaints? Do they need a quartet of Bears writers when the team has long been an NFL bottom feeder, even with the arrival of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky? Can lead Bears columnist Brad Biggs be made to do a little of what unions used to call a “speed-up” with an extra story here or there?

Trib Sports is now so short-staffed after also laying off Hawks beat writer Paul Skrbina that Knowles himself covered the team’s March 26 home game as the first Chicago hockey season without postseason play since 2008 wraps up.  With the stringer budget apparently eviscerated, Knowles could not go to an outsider as he could with, say, a Jack McCarthy five years ago. The Tribune also has cut out prep coverage, which employed free lancers, from the print edition.

Knowles now is under further strain by the necessity of covering Loyola in the Final Four and beyond. Chicago-area college basketball coverage has been severely reduced in recent years. Loyola had not been staffed by downtown outlets. Ramblers coach Porter Moser said only the Phoenix, the school paper, attended his post-game press conferences earlier in the season. Does the Tribune cut out the typical 270-mile round trips for writer Shannon Ryan to cover University of Illinois basketball at Champaign in favor of the 10-mile trip to Rogers Park for chronicling the Ramblers next season?

Meanwhile, The Athletic sports subscription web site is ramping up rapidly in most big-league markets, snapping up writers like Hayes and Mooney. The hiring of established baseball beat writers is smart. Not only do the scribes already have the necessary contacts within their teams, but they also possess Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) cards to assure ballpark access. Some rules-worshipping team gatekeepers have looked askance at admitting startup websites not affiliated with established media outlets. A BBWAA card overrides any such red light.

The trick is whether enough fans will pay for the subscription site. For now, The Athletic is awash in funds due to $20 million in venture capital raised. So many big-time sports sites run by large companies have begun, yet to either fold  outright or cut back severely in the last decade. Thus doubts still abound about The Athletic’s long-term viability. A sports web site with a large payroll has not yet made a go of it unless you consider pre-cutbacks ESPN.com or Yahoo! successes.

Several bottom lines are at work. If fans care about hearing the truth and reading some enterprising coverage, they will not welcome  fewer reporters covering a team. Less does not mean more, for sure, in conveying accurate and insightful information. The teams’ company messages, carefully crafted and choreographed in the 2010s by MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), will have more of a chance of being the day’s storyline without some independent reporting and analysis.

And from the teams’ viewpoint, isn’t as much coverage as possible to promote their products a part of Public Relations 101? Apparently not. I asked then-Hawks media relations chief Brandon Faber five years ago why I could not write about the team for a startup sports web site when I already was in the house, credentialed for a newspaper. Faber’s answer: We don’t want more people being admitted and getting in the way of our beat writers.  Hmmm — I was not planning to clone myself, take up more locker-room/pressbox space and generate more verbiage. Whom does writing for another outlet on one credential hurt?

Well, the core to whom Faber referred is being shrunk, rapidly. Social media posts and video won’t pick up the slack. Smaller on-line outlets exist who are ready, willing and able to pick up some of the vacated coverage. Not all of them are written by fanboys who’d ask stupid or disrespectful questions of the players the teams guard so closely. The trade-off is any newcomers won’t simply pass along the company line while asking the manager questions about game strategy post-game.

The media is changing, for the worse. The sports it covers have to change, correspondingly, because things definitely are not the way they always have been in their daily conduits to the fans.

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