Baseball Beat Writers: Relevant, Or Just Fossils?

So it’s August, the Dodgers are embroiled in a hot division race, and rumors are floating that the team is about to sign a couple of players for the stretch run. Mark Gonzales of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE is among those who break the news that Jim Thome and Jon Garland are headed to LA.

So how did Dodgers players hear about their new teammates? Moments after the deal was struck, the young sons of CNN broadcaster Larry King shouted the news into their dugout during their game with the Diamondbacks. “We got Thome and Garland!” shouted one youngster to an incredulous Matt Kemp. “We just read it on Twitter!” And so it goes in the new information age: The Dodgers had no hope of controlling this message. It was out there in the ether, seconds after it happened.

Ten-year-olds new that Garland was a Dodger before even Garland did. By the time the story on the LOS ANGELES TIMES web site went up, and certainly by the time newspapers were delivered the next morning, it was already old news.

We’re in an era when game action and statistics are available in real time on MLB.COM. Blogs and other independent sites have game news and analysis up instantly, sometimes before the game is even over. So where does this leave the newspaper beat reporter, who may get a preliminary story up on the newspaper’s site as soon as the game ends, but then has to schlelp to the locker room for interviews afterward, and might not get an in-depth story up until two hours later?

The answer: As newspapers feel the vice of economic reality, most are cutting back on beat reporters, defaulting to wire services and even MLB.COM itself to fill in the blanks. From THE LOS ANGELES TIMES:

The emergence of MLB.COM coincided with the fall of the newspaper empire. In 1990, eight newspapers assigned reporters to cover the Dodgers, every day, home and away. Today, THE TIMES is the only one.

“You hope story lines aren’t missed,” said Tim Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications. “That’s my concern.”

The latest news on lineup changes and injury updates can be yours — via Twitter, blog or website — as soon as Joe Torre or Mike Scioscia conclude their pregame media briefing. When the Dodgers and Angels start the playoffs this week, you can watch the postgame news conferences, live.

So the beat reporter is an endangered species, but will likely not go extinct anytime soon. Beat reporters are still the only ones who are going to get the good inside information, which usually comes only when a player or coach develops a relationship with a full-time reporter.

Still, the beat reporter has to jump on the little things quickly as well.

“We’re in the zenith of an information society, so it’s up to us to provide as much information as possible and as soon as we obtain it,” said Gonzales, who covers the White Sox for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. “What’s hot news at noon may turn into a feature later, with another late-breaking story┬áthat evening.”

But this transformation began long before the rise of the Internet. In his final book, 2003’s “The Rise and Fall of the Press Box,” former NEW YORK TIMES baseball writer Leonard Koppett wrote about how television first began eroding the influence of great 20th Century baseball storytellers such as Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice and Red Smith.

“These people were recognizable by the style of their writing, not the style of their hair,” wrote Koppett, who passed away in 2003. “The transformation began with the arrival of television. In short order, broadcasters were stars, athletes were millionaires, and fans became publicity mongers, arriving at games with their faces painted more brightly than their signs.”

And now the Internet is removing even more sportswriters from the press box. Sites like MLB.COM have done a good job hiring former baseball beat writers. As layoffs and company buyouts spread through print journalism, the victims are flocking to the Internet. That leaves traditional newspapers short handed and scrambling.

But instead of the Internet changing the way traditional newspapers approach game coverage, some veteran reporters say that it may be the other way around.

“Newspapers are cutting back on spending, because their short-sighted reaction to an economic downturn is to make the product worse,” said Ed Price, who once covered the Yankees for the NEWARK STAR-LEDGER, but now writes for AOL FANHOUSE. “That creates an opening for Internet sites — such as FanHouse — to go after seasoned, professional journalists and help fill the void.

“Newspapers are trying to keep up with web sites, of course. And fans deserve more open coverage than they will get from league-sponsored sites.”

I’m actually old enough to remember when you couldn’t get the majority of baseball scores until you watched the evening news. I think I also rode the trolley to work. Newspapers may be slow to adapt, but they’ll catch up to the learning curve eventually. They have no choice.