April 17, 2018

Sports reporter lament

It was bitter-sweet to receive the 2017 Heart of a Trojan award at the West Ferris Secondary athletic banquet, an honour given to me for covering the Green and White as a sports reporter these past five years or so.

NOTE: This column was original published on my Facebook timeline June 2017.

Please don’t tell the Bears, Barons, Raiders, Wildcats, Phenix, Voyageurs, Patriotes, etc., they might think it proves I have a bias benefiting the Trojans. Truth be told, West Ferris deserved more coverage than I gave them due to my effort to spread the ink around.

The sweetest part was being among the people my son Dylan Dale has known as coaches, teachers and teammates one last time before he moves on to post-secondary pursuits. I’m very proud of his personal growth and success as a student athlete, and while 99% is due to his own focus, hard work and determination, I also credit those who gave of themselves to help him on the journey.

It was also especially sweet to see two of his friends/teammates receive well-earned honours. Jackson Brear, a multi-sport MVP and male athlete of the year, and Cameron Walters, also a multi-sport MVP and recipient of the Kurtis Schoen memorial award for his positive vibes, are great sports role models. I have watched them compete and mature, over the years, and share their parents’ pride in them.

It was said at the outset of the banquet that student athletes, more often than not, go on to great success in whatever they do in life. And I am a believer in the power of sport to alter lives in good ways, especially when administrators, coaches and volunteers combine to ensure the best possible guidance both on the field/ice/court and off.

During my time as a news and sports reporter, I’ve witnessed many young people benefit from the trials and tribulations high school athletics provided them. It’s the same for any extra curricular club or academic endeavour (be it chess, math or robotics, etc.), organized competition challenges a person to find a way to get better. And that ability, that work ethic, carries over to every area of life.

Which brings me to the bitter part of the evening, with my emotional and blubbery attempt at a thank you speech barely scratching the surface of how I feel this week.

This is the first generation of high school athletes to witness severely diminished sports coverage by local media. Some, not knowing how it was in North Bay prior to the pervasive use of the Internet and social media, may not have noticed the change. Their parents likely do and I know for certainty their grandparents do.

I won’t bore you with the details about how the change altered the way businesses advertise and the how my industry responded, leading to fewer resources being available to all media outlets. The Nugget, as just one example, had 20 people in the newsroom when I started there 17 years ago. We are now down to five. Prior to that, when it came to sports, the Nugget led the charge in both breadth and expertise. There was, on any given day, at least three veteran sports reporters dedicated to the department, plus columnists and the support of a photography department.

Those were the days.

The new reality, however, seems very clear that local sports coverage is difficult to justify based on the online traffic it delivers to any media outlet. Our paid subscribers for the printed product say they want it, but those numbers are dwindling as our core demographic of readers declines and online choices multiply. Basically, newspapers and websites offering community news need a competitive number of “eyeballs” delivered to advertisers. And with limited resources, the industry is chasing the best bang for the time reporters spend creating stories and photos.

Part of our challenge is keeping up and understanding the ever-changing habits of the online readership. What we know about sports consumers, specifically local readers, doesn’t make it easier.

1) Players, parents and coaches don’t share our work when they lose, which reduces the “clicks” that advertisers require.

2) Even when one club team wins a championship, their cross-town rivals don’t share the stories of their success. That goes for soccer, football, volleyball and hockey, and it’s similar for high schools. A Trojans championship will only get Trojan support, and sometimes, depending on whether we get it online first and do a good job promoting it, that’s not guaranteed either.

3) We’re also competing with the evolution of sports teams and leagues, as far as their improved use of team websites for standings and results. Between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and their own websites, people who do follow sports know the score from miles away before we can possibly relay it in a digestible way. I can spend hours on a compelling game story with artwork and might only get a Facebook “like” without the person actually following the link to our website.

Local sports coverage struggles, outside of feature stories, to attract 1,000 readers while every cop brief, heart-warming dog story or oddity about someone growing a third nose gets three times the traction. Sports is consistently at the bottom end of the analytics spectrum.

I don’t blame readers for the situation we face in the news industry. This is just how it is. It’s our challenge to face, and, admittedly, we have failed to figure it out in time.

It won’t be long before local sports coverage, for all those reasons and many I haven’t touched upon, will become an even lesser priority as media outlets struggle to compete for online readership and advertising support.

And that breaks my heart because I know it delivers long-term good to both the individuals involved, the community and, I’d argue, each and every news outlet as well.

But much like the value of having multiple high schools in a community, the online news scoreboard doesn’t count the intrinsic good or intangible benefits of, it boils down to dollars, numbers and sometimes hard to understand sense.

So, as I tried to articulate and failed miserably at the podium tonight, it’s going to be up to the athletes and all those who value the sharing of their athletic experience, to document their seasons, their challenges and their successes.

Maybe, someday, we will figure out how investment in local sports coverage (beyond the cut and paste of submitted stories and photos) can be rationalized as far as business is concerned.

I hope this better explains why I was emotional tonight.

Best of luck to all the Trojans awards recipients, as well as all the athletes at all the high schools in North Bay.

I know you will succeed in life because I’ve seen first hand how you handle yourself when the odds are stacked against you and there’s little time left on the clock.

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