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L.A. Kings Hire Their Own Reporter; Start of Trend?

September 23rd, 2009 · 17 Comments · Journalism, Newspapers, Sports Journalism

This is a milestone in sports journalism. And could be the start of a trend.

The Los Angeles Kings announced today that they have hired Rich Hammond of the Los Angeles Daily News … to cover their team.

Not to work as a publicist. Not to write press releases. To cover the team the way a newspaper reporter normally would cover a team. Thoroughly, daily, home or road, game day or off day … but with the edge and skepticism that a veteran newspaperman brings to any beat.

A team hiring its own beat writer? I’m fairly sure this has never happened before.

This is really interesting, on several levels.

The print implosion of 2008-09 (and massive layoffs and major cuts in travel budgets) has left dozens of “major league” sports franchises with very little day-to-day newspaper coverage.

A decade ago, even the least impressive of National Hockey League teams probably had at least two full-time “traveling beat writers.” From the major metro, and its primary competition.

Meanwhile, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball teams usually had even more reporters following them around. As we have noted on this blog, as recently as the early 1990s the Los Angeles Dodgers had as many as 10 reporters who traveled with the team full-time. Ten.

That number is now one. Unless you count the guy who works for mlb.com. And I don’t, because he works for Major League Baseball, not a newspaper.

Like many lesser pro beats around the country (and hockey never has been big in L.A., aside from about 15 minutes after the trade for Wayne Gretzky), the Kings have seen their print coverage shrivel into near-nothingness. Even in the Los Angeles Times, which last season gave up covering them on the road, just as the Daily News had done a few years before. Covering a hockey team is an expensive proposition, and shedding that expense was one of the first things many sports sections did when the bad times began.

L.A.-area newspapers picked up Kings’ road games from the Associated Press reporter on site, and that reporter routinely would write a story oriented toward the winning team — and that usually was not the Kings.

The Kings could (and did) go days, even weeks at a time (the NHL takes some long trips) without a single bylined story about them in their hometown newspapers and with very little of the typical off-day coverage — previews, notebooks, personality profiles.

Kings officials went on record as saying they missed the newspaper coverage, and they conceded what we always knew: That newspaper coverage always has been a critical source of exposure for professional sports teams.

Even if the coverage was negative (and for the struggling Kings, it generally has been), it kept the club in the news and provided basic grist for the blogosphere. (Bloggers don’t go to road games; few of them can get credentialed for home games.) Professional reporters were the guys who went inside the locker room to see what the players had to say, and when no reporters went with a team … information on that team just dried up.

The Kings  decided it was worth money to them to have a newspaper-style reporter cover their team.

So they went out and hired one. Rich Hammond.

I can see this happening with several other teams around the country. The Anaheim Ducks, for example, are down to one traveling reporter, and he works for the Orange County Register, which is reeling. My impression is that only one reporter covers, full-time, the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Astros, Arizona Diamondbacks.  And there probably are many others with just one traveling writer still on the beat. All those franchises are one layoff away from being in the same hurt locker the L.A. Kings found themselves in.

There already may be other NHL teams that don’t have a print reporter traveling with them. I suspect the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers may be among them.

In markets with little or no coverage of a franchise, we may now see veteran print reporters go to work directly for the team. As Hammond has, for the Kings.

Of course, this may not be entirely felicitous, which is another reason why this is an interesting development.

Hammond also announced his move, today, on the Kings blog he does for the Daily News. In his post, he addresses the issues that spring to the minds of journalists: Freedom and independence from team control.

Writes Hammond: “To put it as plainly and simply as possible, I will draw a salary from the Kings, but none of the stories and/or blogs I write will be reviewed for approval by any member of the Kings’ staff. Topics will not need approval and interviews will not have any additional supervision. I have been hired to blog, write stories — including coverage of home and road games — and produce other content for the website. This is not public relations. I have been told, pointedly, by the highest levels of Kings management, that I should continue to report and write as normal.

“Be certain of two things: I will not ‘go easy’ on the Kings out of any fear of retribution, just as I will not take gratuitous shots at the team and the organization simply because I have retained the right to be critical. Things will continue on course. Praise and criticism, to the extent I feel either is warranted, will continue to be distributed fairly.”

I’m sure Rich means what he wrote. I’ve known him for a decade, and he’s a real journalist who has covered all sorts of sports and even spent some time in management.

What will be really interesting is how easy it will be for Rich and the Kings to deliver what they promise. With the best of intentions, I’m sure.

If/when the club starts stinking it up, will the coaches and front office live up to this hands-off agreement when Hammond files critical stories on them? Will he never hear a peep when he speculates — on the club’s own Web site — that a coach is about to be fired or a player about to be traded. Or suggests the GM neeeds to go?

That is going to be very, very hard for a pro club to do, especially when they keep coming back to this: “That guy works for us.”

Also, Hammond may soon find himself becoming such a key part of the organization — and so fond of continued employment — that he begins to slide into treating his sources as co-workers. Will he find himself practicing self-censorship? Will he even realize it when he does?

I will be very interested to see how this part of it works out. Can a team really hire a reporter and let him have complete freedom? Can a reporter really be critical of his employer?

I have sent Rich Hammond a note of congratulations. This is good for him. I know he is very fond of hockey. I know that his Kings blog is one of the leading outlets for electronic conversations among frustrated Kings fans. I imagine it will be fun (at least for a while) for him to travel to the NHL’s various outposts, from Vancouver to Miami, from Anaheim to Montreal.

What will also interest me is whether this triggers some sort of hiring binge by big-league pro teams keen to gain some old-style newspaper coverage. To resume it — or even to augment it, for franchises down to one newspaper reporter.

(This brings to mind a recent observation made by a high official of a local pro sports team, who looked around a near-empty press box and remarked, “This has got to change. I don’t know how, but this doesn’t work.”)

I think pro teams hiring their own reporters could take off in the next year or so.  And that would mean more jobs. And adding jobs — at the high, “traveling beat writer” end of things, too — is never a bad thing for a struggling industry.

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17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill N. // Sep 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    The one issue that this doesn’t address is getting the extra publicity the team craves. Rich will be writing for LAKings.com (or some such named site) that fans already go to. It won’t get more non-fans the information about the team that these teams want.

  • 2 Bill N. // Sep 23, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Remember, this was something that Mark Cuban broached late last year…

    And Sports Business Journal did this story about it (featuring the Kings) this summer:

    http://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/article/63034

  • 3 Ryan // Sep 23, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Vic Ketchman was a print journalist in Pittsburgh covering the Steelers, but when the Jaguars were founded, was hired by the team to do a Jaguars newsletter/newspaper. When that folded and the internet became a place for news, he moved to Jaguars.com and has worked somewhat as a beat writer for them, writing game recaps, editorials and a daily column in which he answers questions emailed to him. I’m not sure if that qualifies, but it’s at least similar.

  • 4 David Lassen // Sep 23, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Actually, the Ducks had already done this, to a degree, hiring Dan Wood, the beat writer from the Register, to be their new radio commentator and to write for their website. Not quite the same deal, but I think it sort of paved the way for what the Kings are doing.

  • 5 Ian // Sep 24, 2009 at 6:12 am

    This is part of a trend in other areas, as well. In my job as a media guy for a university department, we do full reporting and presentation for our Web site, facebook, youtube, etc. because there isn’t anyone to cover us.

    Think about it: The KC Star has ONE reporter on the college news beat. She covers, KU, Mizzou, UMKC, Baker and SMSU. One reporter to cover schools that have more than 100,000 students and span more than 200 miles.

    I don’t think of newspapers as my primary outlet anymore. I put the information directly into the hands of the people who want it. And to Bill N.’s point about not getting non-fans, you would be surprised how much PR-driven news ends up on blogs/news sites, then rolls up to Google News or Yahoo.

    I’m not saying this is good or bad. It’s just the way the model has changed.

  • 6 Chuck Hickey // Sep 24, 2009 at 6:19 am

    The University of Virginia did this earlier this year. So did the University of Colorado (hired the longtime CU beat reporter from the Rocky Mountain News). And I found out last week a former Rocky reporter was hired to do the same thing for the Nuggets. So, yeah, this trend is picking up.

  • 7 chris // Sep 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

    “A team hiring its own beat writer? I’m fairly sure this has never happened before.”

    I’m fairly sure it’s happened many, many, many times before. The Bengals did it in the late 1990s and lots of teams and leagues have followed. It’s a fascinating trend but the Kings aren’t breaking any new ground here.

  • 8 C. Trent Rosecrans // Sep 24, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Geoff Hobson was hired from the Cincinnati Enquirer by the Bengals to write for Bengals.com several years ago. Same kind of thing.

  • 9 Michael Silence // Sep 24, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Indeed, hardly novel:

    http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2009/aug/23/sec-edging-out-independent-media/

    Someone needs to get out of LA more often.

  • 10 travis // Sep 24, 2009 at 9:29 am

    I think this is already commonplace in most major pro sports markets in the country, and becoming increasingly common in major college sports markets.

  • 11 Dan McGraw // Sep 24, 2009 at 9:38 am

    This is not new at all. Here in the Dallas area, this has been around for years. Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram baseball beat writer T.R. Sullivan now covers the Texas Rangers for their website. Mickey Spagnola, who covered the Dallas Cowboys for various print/radio/TV venues in the past, has been covering the team at dallascowboys.com for many years. There coverage is not much different than the beat writer at the papers. Having done some sports coverage in my past, I always noticed how the full-time sports media have always had a cushy relationship with their teams, as they know being overly critical will hurt their access. That’s why a player who was a true asswipe will only be identified as the “cancer in the locker room” after they get traded to another team. So once again, this is not anything new. Owners and GMs are rarely held accountable for anything (by the newpaper beat writers, not columnists). And if you look at the content these former beat writers now produce by being paid by the team, you see little difference from what they did when they were paid by an independent news orgainization. Sure the teams might have a little more control over the content, but the fact remains that they always have had a lot of control. The difference is minimal.

  • 12 Gideon // Sep 24, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Paying for objective coverage and giving the writer complete editorial independence isn’t the same thing as the flack-driven hires several posters are citing here, and is unprecedented at least in its intent. Whether this starts a trend is questionable though. Everyone wants the publicity, and will pay for it if that’s what it takes. That’s the easy part. But I doubt there many teams are really willing to pay for their own watchdog.

  • 13 zambonirodeo // Sep 24, 2009 at 11:10 am

    And Todd Zolecki left the Philadelphia Inquirer for Phillies/MLB.com before this season.

  • 14 Scribe // Sep 24, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Chris Haft covered the San Francisco Giants for the San Jose Mercury News immediately prior to covering them for MLB.com.

  • 15 Not the first // Sep 26, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    In addition to Geoff Hobson (Cincinnati Enquirer to Bengals.com) and the aforementioned T.R. Sullivan, within the last year or so, the highly respected Darren Urban of the East Valley Tribune left the Arizona Cardinals beat to write for azcardinals.com. Not sure he has complete autonomy to go after the team per se, but in general he covers them like anyone else.

  • 16 Kings Tickets // Dec 16, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Maybe they hired the veteran writer, only in order to write a good things about the team. The writer will write favored for the kings.

  • 17 Where to live and work when starting out in journalism | CJ222 News Reporting & Writing // Oct 13, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    [...] career choice gained popularity in the Los Angeles area. Reporter Paul Oberjuerge noted in his article that one traveling writer is typically assigned to many sports teams. “All those franchises are [...]

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