For a 24-year-old guy, Tyler Kepner had made serious career progress. Already a beat reporter covering a major league baseball team for a metro daily newspaper, Kepner couldn’t be much happier, writing about the sport he loved. Then his phone rang, and he became even happier. Leaving a December 1999 press conference at brand-new Safeco Field in which the Seattle Mariners introduced the free-agent signing of hometown hero John Olerud, the New York Times called Kepner, seeking to pry him away from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
It wasn’t hard. Kepner leaped at the chance and has been a national sports journalism star since. Last week, his phone rang again while he was at Safeco-Field-cum-T-Mobile Park. This call did not make him happy.
In the middle of major league baseball’s annual celebration, All-Star Week, a boss called to say the NYT was dissolving its 35-person sports staff. The suits and some news executives were turning over the operation’s much-decorated sports coverage to The Athletic, an independent digital newsroom begun in 2016 and purchased by NYT 18 months earlier for $500 million, despite never having earned a dime of profit.
He was told he would retain a job. Just not covering baseball for NYT.
“Baseball is all I’ve known,” Kepner, 48, said in the stadium press box before the All-Star Game. “The P-I, and the Times.“
In the time-honored dark humor that envelops the sports-scribe tribe, I said I could forward him the list of the five best restaurants in Kiev for his new assignment. He smiled. Barely.
The Times will re-assign Kepner to another desk, as we journos call areas of coverage. But as these things traditionally go, the new job will be sufficiently dismaying or clumsy enough to inspire Kepner, and/or some of his temporarily marooned colleagues, to quit. He could be hired by The Athletic, although it has been busy with getting rid of sportswriters too. It recently dumped two Seattle writers, Christian Caple (UW Huskies football) and Corey Brock (Mariners), leaving Michael-Shawn Dugar (Seahawks) to populate alone the fragile Northwest sports journalism frontier.
Maintaining the cynical tone, I could label Kepner something else: Newspaper killer. While it’s true the P-I did not survive and NYTimes remains, industry guilt resonates in the journo diaspora that is not allowed by custom to know how the business operates (the “firewall” between ad revenue gathering and news gathering). Somehow, we think, it must be our fault.
The decline of journalism, sports and otherwise, does not mostly rest with journalists. But lest I digress into a yelling-at-clouds, get-off-my-lawn rage at bosses and bankers devouring a bulwark of democracy, I’d like to suggest that there are forces at work here other than publishers-are-dopes tropes (I tried yelling when the P-I was murdered in 2009; didn’t help then, won’t help explain things now).
Often overlooked in the sports journalism hand-wringing (which was worsened on the same day of the NYT boat-rocker by the decision of the Los Angeles Times to abandon daily game coverage, box scores, etc. in favor of a magazine-style format) is the fact that the pro and college sports leagues shrewdly have taken over the business of daily news coverage of themselves. In creating mlb.com, nfl.com, nba.com, etc., the sites’ wall-to-wall coverage far outstrips anything a single metro newsroom, or even a chain of newsrooms, can provide. Plus the house media entities get for free all the video/audio rights to the enterprises’ games. (Years ago, I was approached by an independent producer to make a film from my 2002 book on the Mariners saga, “Out of Left Field.” The film required some game/interview video content. Cost quote from MLB: $25,000 a minute and use was subject to MLB review. Never mind).
Sports leagues recognized long before newspapers the disruption caused by conversion to digital. Years ago, websites began hiring away newspaper print writers and editors, installing them into technologically advanced newsrooms that are envied to this day by all the big news networks. Think about it: MLB Advanced Media has streamed and posted complete content — full-game and highlight video, still photos, stories, analysis and analytics, quotes, social media — of more than a dozen games a night, semi-simultaneously, for years. As a result, many sports consumers under 30 choose almost by default the sophisticated, glitzy league sites over the comparatively feeble, video-sparse newspaper versions.
In a long-ago conversation with entrepreneur Jonathan Sposato, whose Seattle site, Geekwire, has been a business success covering local, national and global technology stories, I asked him what would have happened to the Geekwire marketplace if Facebook, Google and Amazon had each included in their launches a 100-person newsroom to cover themselves.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. The sports leagues did.
The journalism shortcoming, of course, is that these sites are house organs. Their coverages of scandals, controversies and just plain stupid stuff that players and teams do is nervous-cough perfunctory. But the audience that used to care about such matters, especially when tax dollars were involved in stadiums/arenas, dwindles, while the audience groomed to appreciate the league sites’ gee-whizzery grows, oblivious to the distinction. I have maintained that the single greatest feat in the history of baseball was the invention of MLB Advanced Media, which, year by year, highlight show by highlight show, helps shrivel its audience’s capacity for critical thinking about the business of the game and its social impacts. And even though ESPN is owned (for now) by Disney, many of its decisions around controversial stories are colored by “sensitivity to concern of partners,” the leagues whose seemingly endless supply of fresh content keeps national dopamine levels high and the lights on in Bristol.
And to think, the brilliance of blending content supplier (team) with “news” purveyor (stream) all started in Seattle. In September 1995, local innovation shop RealNetworks successfully streamed the first baseball game, Yankees at Mariners. That was about four years before the call that helped make Tyler Kepner’s baseball writing career, and 24 years before the call that (temporarily, I hope) unmade it.
RealNetworks is still around, with offices in Home Plate Center, the building that houses KING5 TV opposite the main entrance to the ballpark where Kepner, about 300 feet away, took his fateful calls from New York a quarter century apart. Talk about circling the bases.
Yes, it’s awful what’s happening to the sports departments of the New York Times and the LA Times, as well as to smaller platforms. Then again, when the profound changes being delivered by AI via chatGPT are implemented wholesale by media companies in, say, about a week and a half, demolishing even more of the human newsrooms, the observations in this story will have a life span easily measured by baseball’s new pitch clock.