- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

The Sporting News, America’s first pre-eminent form of national sports media, has spent much of its 117-year history beating the odds as well as its competition.

First came radio. Then TV — followed by Sport magazine, Sports Illustrated, cable TV, ESPN, USA Today, Baseball Weekly and the Internet. And through it all, the Sporting News retained its reputation as the “Bible of Baseball” and a rock-solid status as a prime source for national sports news and insider information.

The Sporting News name has been held in such reverence that among its devoted fans, the Bible is instead known as “The Sporting News of religion.”

The St. Louis-based publication’s fight these days, however, has become harder than ever and is being waged with fast-decreasing resources, leading some to question its future direction. The average weekly circulation of about 700,000 easily trails market leader Sports Illustrated, tracking at about 3.2 million copies a week, and ESPN the Magazine, which in just five years has moved into the No.2 market share position with a paid circulation of more than 1.5million.

Under a firm directive to cut costs from its owner, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures, the Sporting News recently dismissed all its freelance baseball correspondents and slashed the pay of its football correspondents in half. The team-by-team reports those correspondents filed, an original hallmark of the magazine, are now being written in-house. Nearly a dozen full-time staffers have left by either layoffs or personal choice and will not be replaced, leaving the same workload to an editorial staff nearly one-fifth smaller.

“This is a bump in a series of bumps,” said Dave Kindred, the Sporting News’ esteemed columnist. “[Editor] John Rawlings has been asked to do wonders with mirrors and has absolutely done it. Now [that] there’s no huge investment being made in editorial, he’s being asked to do it with a [single] mirror. It’s depressing and disappointing.”

Said Steve Klein, journalism professor at George Mason University and a former editor at USA Today and the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “If anybody could make it work, it’s John. So if it’s not working, I would worry about [the publications] future.”

The cutbacks also extend a 12-year stretch of significant change for the Sporting News. After first dispensing with baseball box scores in 1991, the publication in 1996 abandoned its long tradition of printing on tabloid-size newsprint and went to a smaller page size and glossy pages. Coverage of other major sports besides baseball was heightened. Rawlings added NASCAR coverage two years ago.

Allen’s purchase of the Sporting News in 2000 brought sizable hopes for the future, given his success as co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers — one of the NBA’s most stable franchises despite repeated off-court behavior problems from its players. Allen linked the magazine with a massive revamping of its Internet site and the former One on One sports radio network. Neither move has brought appreciable profits or additional brand affinity at the expense of ESPN or Sports Illustrated.

Some of the changes, particularly the NASCAR coverage, have been well received, fueling a boost in circulation and ad revenues by healthy double-digit percentages since 2001. But those gains were not enough to avoid the staff cutbacks.

“This is still a very clever publication. A lot of thinking is going on there,” Klein said. “This situation is not about the people there. It’s about throwing money in some bad directions and really about the business of baseball, the stagnating attendance, TV ratings and so forth. Baseball is no longer being able to support all its publications. Look at the Sporting News. Look at Baseball Weekly [now USA Today Sports Weekly]. It had to add in football, too.”

Kindred and others believe the “Bible of Baseball” nickname has become a bit too cumbersome and misleading for its own good. Even back in the 1890s, the Sporting News also covered numerous boxing, bicycling, hunting and fishing and horse racing.

But the Sporting News did hit the brakes on baseball just when the sport’s information explosion — highlighted by sabermetrics, the work of Bill James and the heavy statistics crunching of general managers like Oakland’s Billy Beane — happened, helping to erode its stature.

“There was a moment there when that baseball information confluence was really happening that it could have been [an editorial] direction,” Kindred said. Industry rumors now point to a potential sale of the magazine, which could help explain the extensive efforts to shore up the bottom line. Most expect the Sporting News to survive, regardless of who is paying the bills. The question is what form it will take.

“Whoever owns this, there should definitely be more than two national [magazine] titles, especially in sports,” said Lisa Granatstein, a senior editor at Mediaweek, which tracks the magazine trade. “Having said that, the market for magazine advertising is still very tricky, and a lot of buyers are just cutting back and going to the number one titles in each category. It will be interesting to see what happens.”

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