On Wednesday, The700Level.com published the news that the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer plan to combine their sports departments. From a journalistic standpoint, that’s like telling the Hatfields and the McCoys to starting sharing groceries and ammo. It’s not a sexy story—most folks probably skimmed past it on the way to find a quote from Doug Collins or an update on Danny Briere’s concussion (or more likely, to drool over a Sixers dance team photo gallery). But if you’re a fan of local sports—and of newspapers—this could be the first step toward a very bleak future.
In the short term, the Philadelphia Media Network management said that it wasn’t planning on cutting jobs as a result of this “One Newsroom” concept it’s about to experiment with. That reminded me of a grimly comic scene in the British version of The Office, when the boss, David Brent, desperate to please and maintain his popularity, promises his staff their jobs are safe. Of course, they’re not. The higher-ups at 400 North Broad don’t share Brent’s motivations, but there’s a sense the outcome will be the same in real life as on TV. One source at the papers tells me that the move is mostly a cost-saving effort to eliminate needless overlap. Why should each paper send a reporter on the road to cover a relatively inconsequential St. Joe’s basketball game in Rhode Island?
Fair enough. But if cost cutting is the goal, where does it stop? It’s naïve to think that jobs won’t be eliminated at some point. For those of us on the outside, the changes will be almost imperceptible, at least for now. I’m told that there’s no chance of any marquee bylines appearing in strange places—Paul Domowitch won’t turn up in the Inquirer, and the DN won’t borrow Bob Ford. Yet the newspaper union’s statement to its members says that management “argued that our journalists should no longer be focused on competing internally but with all other companies.” That implies a more radical makeover than simply sharing an occasional college hoops recap.
You might say that these sports departments could use a new model—after all, the biggest sports stories at either paper last year were the Penn State scandal and Bill Conlin’s sexual abuse allegations, and they didn’t break either one (Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim unearthed the Jerry Sandusky revelations, and Deadspin.com revealed the charges against Conlin before either paper did). These days, sports news is everywhere—on ESPN crawls, on smart phone apps, and on the Internet. It’s ironic that a local sports website reported this story about the struggling papers attempting to compete with other media.
But don’t be fooled. As entertaining as that blog and others like the newly beefed-up CrossingBroad.com may be, there’s still a level of journalistic rigor that most haven’t met yet. Case in point—the same day The 700 Level sourced its DN/Inky sports merger as newsroom chit-chat, the newspaper guild posted details of the plan on its website for all to see. PSU’s student-run Onward State blog sparked a media frenzy by prematurely announcing Joe Paterno had died. Laura Goldman didn’t make any friends with the Phillies when she blogged about pitcher Ryan Madson’s wife bad-mouthing the fans (the team said her comments were mischaracterized). Newspapers are fallible, too, but they’re still covering local teams with a depth, context, credibility and accuracy that’s hard to match.
The bigger issue here is that this odd newsroom partnership could be the first real death knell for the Daily News itself. One source at the papers tells me such talk is wildly premature, but another agrees that this newsroom experiment might be the test case for a complete merger someday soon. For now, if you’re not a rabid byline watcher, it seems unlikely you’ll notice anything different in your daily sports sections. What’s disturbing is that the problems facing both publications seem to reach far beyond any one department. Regarding the decision makers at the top, my concerned source offers this blunt assessment: “The owners don’t give two shits about journalism. Nobody talks about the quality of the product. Ever.” That’s something sports fans and all of us should worry about.