A new way of thinking (online edition)

There’s been talk recently on some journalism web sites I frequent about how college athletic departments are hiring sports writers to write for their official sites. A new dearth of guys have been hired – DePaul taking in a former Chicago Trib staffer and the University of Virginia grabbing a guy from the Richmond Times-Dispatch are two recent examples – and at least one major conference has done the same (I’ve also written a few articles this summer for the Atlantic 10’s Web site).

I, of course, began writing part-time for the University of Cincinnati’s Web site in August 2008, Xavier gets some help from a local Cincinnati writer and Miami (Ohio) will join the parade this year as well.

It’s becoming … well … it’s becoming normal. And it seems like attitudes in the industry have changed.

Four years ago, when I worked at the Cincinnati Post, I never would have imagined myself working for UC*. Frankly, I thought, it wouldn’t have reflected well on me as an objective journalist.

*Although I don’t receive a paycheck from the school. My money comes from IMG,** a company which works with UC in house on marketing and other behind-the-scenes goals.

**To me, this is an important distinction, although whenever I mention it to anybody else, the response I typically receive in return is a rolling of the eyes and a “Yeah, whatever dude.”

Hell, I can remember talking to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports a few years ago inside the Reds clubhouse, saying, “Is it weird that you’re not working for a newspaper anymore and that you’re just online? Aren’t you worried about your job security?” He assured me that he wasn’t and that it was the best career move he made. Now, he’s one of the top baseball writers around. And my newspaper died.

Before, if you wrote for Rivals.com or Scout.com or the school’s Web site, you were a homer*** and deserving of scorn. Now, those jobs are gold.

***Look at definition No. 4

A good friend of mine, Larry Williams, who seemed to have a pretty good job covering Clemson athletics for the Charleston, S.C., paper left the print world and began working for Clemson’s Rivals.com site last year. He makes more money, and honestly, he has more job stability. He seems to be really happy these days.

Now, if you’re working for one of these sites, you’re not spit upon by print guys. Now, print guys are the ones who covet those opportunities.

Which leads me to this: how are these sites – any site for which a sports journalist writes – going to make money? Obviously, college administrators are trying to build their sites as legit news producers, because of the objective journalists who now work for them. That leads to more credibility for the site. That leads to more page hits from fans. That leads to more ad revenue. That leads us to the promised land.

So far, it’s unclear whether this is a winning combination.

I know. however, the Cincinnati Bengals have benefited from forward thinking like this. About a decade ago, they hired Geoff Hobson, formerly of the Cincinnati Enquirer, to produce news for their site. He does a wonderful job at Bengals.com, and he can be as objective as he needs to be. He’s legit, the site is legit, and now that the Dayton Daily News, Columbus Dispatch and Clear Channel Communications won’t be covering the team on a regular basis – leaving only the Enquirer and Hobson – Bengals.com will only grow in importance.

It’s not weird or homerific to work for an online only site, even if it is for Bengals.com or gobearcats.com. I get that now. These are the places to go. But is it the solution? Can these sites – or more importantly, can I – be making money in this racket 50 years from now in this system?

What about a newspaper’s Web site? Or anybody other than ESPN? Can sports journalism be produced for the WWW and make money? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps a new approach is needed. ESPN is trying it by localizing its web content in Chicago, LA, New York and Dallas. Some see this as the apocalypse, because it’s seen as bad news for newspapers. I don’t. I see it as growth in a business that many think are dying (I prefer the word ‘evolving’). If ESPNCincinnati.com came calling, I’d be picking up the phone before it finished its first ring. ESPN, for all its faults, is trying something new. The network deserves credit for that.

And so is CBSSports.com****

****Now, finally, we’ve come to the point of the post. Only 750 words into this monstrosity.

About a month ago, I was contacted by the managing editor of CBSSports.com to talk about this new idea. Basically, CBS was going to embed an NFL beat reporter in each NFL city (by the time the ME talked to me, he already had most of his writers in place). Really localize the product, the managing editor said, while coming up with an innovative way to cover the league

He wanted to know if I was interested in some work. I was.

It’s an interesting concept. Basically, the reporter is a cross between a blogger and a Tweeter, though the ME said the job is actually neither of those things. So, I’m at a practice, giving the masses what CBS is calling Rapid Reports. Basically, 25-30 times a day, I’m observing what’s happening on the field or whatever is around me that piques my interest, I’m typing into the Blackberry they’ve sent me, and I’m sending this Rapid Report into CBS, so CBS then can post my 50-word thoughts all over the web site. It goes onto the Bengals team page on CBS. It goes on to the individual player’s page. It goes to wherever fantasy football participants check.

I’m intrigued by the concept. Yeah, it’s not sports writing the way I’m used to it, but that’s OK (after all, one our most favorite gags after covering a game is to say, “Yeah, it’d be a helluva job if we didn’t have to write.”). But an opportunity is lurking about, and I thought, in my situation, I’d be foolish to turn it down. Although I’m a newspaper guy, I’ve given up hope for writing for another newspaper. The chance to write, though, for a legitimate national Web site might be the next best thing.

It’s not a full-time job, though it could eventually turn into one. But it’s a new idea. It’s something different. It’s exciting. It’s a little bit of good news in an industry that’s specialized recently in nothing but bad. It’s a start.

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One response to “A new way of thinking (online edition)

  1. Grace Dowtrup

    All well and good, but where are the Rapid Reports on the Bengals? It’s 3:45 p.m. on Thursday and nothing so far. What’s up?

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