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.