There is a long, long list of businesses that could be facing catastrophic financial futures in the wake of coronavirus-related shutdowns, from restaurants to bookstores to music festivals to you name it. Sports leagues should continue, since — with some exceptions — most leagues and teams have enough cash reserves to weather even a months- or year-long storm. But other parts of the sports ecosystem aren’t as deep-pocketed, and first among those is sports journalism, which as The Ringer reports, is already getting hammered by there being no sports to read about:
In March, FanGraphs’ traffic usually soars as readers put together their fantasy drafts. Without baseball games, Appelman said, traffic has fallen 60 to 70 percent from its usual levels. “Think weekends in the offseason,” he said, “or maybe even some time like Thanksgiving. But it’s every day.”…
The early signs are incredibly grim. The Athletic paused some freelance contracts. The soccer magazine First Touch, which is distributed in New York’s now-shuttered bars and restaurants, suspended print publication. Newspaper layoffs have claimed the jobs of everyone from the Penguins beat writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to the sports editor at the Imperial Valley Press in El Centro, California. Freelance writers have lost thousands of dollars they were counting on because games they were supposed to cover this month were canceled.
There were already plenty of forces bearing down on legacy media. The coronavirus and the recession that might follow have become their accelerants. “It’s already over,” a poster wrote on the site SportsJournalists.com this month. “We’re all done. All of us.”
And if sports-only publications are suddenly on the ropes, the local newspapers and news sites that also cover sports are being pushed over a long-looming precipice, as CJR notes:
For the local-media business, last week was the bleakest since this crisis began. Last Monday, the Advocate, a high-profile Louisiana title that acquired the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year, said it was “temporarily furloughing” about 40 of its staff and implementing four-day work weeks for everyone else. The same day, Seven Days, an alt-weekly in Vermont, cut seven staffers, also “temporarily”; Trib Total Media, a Pittsburgh-area publisher that already made layoffs linked to the coronavirus, rolled two print editions into one to cut costs; and San Diego Magazine announced that it’s folding completely. (It hopes to reopen once this mess is over.) Last Tuesday, another city magazine—D Magazine, in Dallas—laid off 15 people and cut the salaries of staffers who were retained. On Wednesday, the publisher of Rhode Island’s Warwick Beacon—a twice-weekly newspaper that, thanks to the current crisis, is now a weekly newspaper—cut eight staffers, including himself; C&G Newspapers, a family-owned business in Michigan, suspended publication of 19 print titles; and the Snowmass Sun, a small newspaper in Colorado, was incorporated as a section of a different paper, the Aspen Times. On Thursday, the publisher of the Aspen Daily News suspended one of its other titles, the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, to focus on its core product.
Locked-down people are actually reading more journalism during the pandemic, but readership is no longer how publications make money — they rely on ad sales, and nobody is buying ads anymore, notes CJR, “because many advertisers are hurting right now, and because some big companies who still have ad budgets don’t want their brands associated with wall-to-wall coronavirus content.”
And where restaurants should bounce back once we’re allowed to leave the house again — maybe not the same restaurants, but somebody is going to be willing to cook for all those people desperate to get out and eat something other than canned soup — news outlets may not be so lucky. Sports sites have been folding or contracting at a rapid pace in recent years, so even if sports readership bounces back, we could be looking at fewer sites that are more focused on just providing fantasy stats or being blog networks. And local newspapers are a vestige of an economy that no longer exists, where people pay to have stacks of paper delivered to their houses containing ads for local businesses, which seems as much like part of the distant historical past now as leaving the house does.
All of which could be devastating for coverage of the business and politics of sports, which is already pretty dismal, given that sportswriters don’t usually understand business and politics and news writers don’t understand sports, and neither has the time to learn when they have to file five stories a day. As much as I love to complain about terrible reporting on stadium and arena deals — and oh, do I love to complain — having even fewer local papers and sports sites willing to pay even wandering attention to stadium deals is going to be very bad for public oversight, and very good for those who want to get away with public-subsidy grifts; the New York Times may do okay in a post-coronavirus world, but the Times isn’t going to spend much time investigating public budgets in Columbus, Ohio.
Or maybe I’m wrong, and journalistic flowers will bloom in the burned-out media landscape, as readers clamor for good information, especially after seeing first-hand the costs of bad information. I don’t especially see how it’s going to happen, though, at least not without a massive bailout plan for journalism along the lines of what Congress has set aside for, say, airplane manufacturers. It would certainly be ironic if the only way to get good reporting on public subsidies would be to publicly subsidize reporters, but then, we live in ironic times.