Sporting Snooze

A leaner, splashier Sporting News struggles to find its editorial compass

Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

As a boy in Niagara Falls, Greg Mitchell loved the baseball Giants, but they didn't love him back. Long before he needed to borrow his dad's razor for the first time, the Giants took flight, moving from New York City to San Francisco. Mitchell had trouble keeping up with his beloved team.

"I was particularly affected by not getting box scores," recalls Mitchell, now 54, of the daunting challenge East Coast papers face when it comes to printing night prior box scores from three time zones away. "I'd know who won but had no idea about the details."

And, of course, in a day and age where televised sports was still on training wheels and cross-country radio broadcasts were uncommon, the details were what young Mitchell relied on to get him close to his heroes.

Then Mitchell discovered The Sporting News. Game on.

"I'm sure it was the first magazine I ever personally subscribed to," says Mitchell, who is now editor of the prestigious newspaper industry publication Editor & Publisher. "I'd get The Sporting News and it'd say Juan Marichal won the game and Willie McCovey had two home runs. There was no other way to get that detail and gossip -- how someone was doing in Triple-A or if Orlando Cepeda had a bum ankle. The Sporting News was the bible for that stuff. It was overwhelmingly baseball -- they'd have all the minor leagues, each team had its own page."

WGNU sports director Skip Erwin, the irreverently gregarious, yarn-spinning dean of the St. Louis press box set, is similarly gushy in his recollection of the glory days of The Sporting News. "They had writers from all over the country -- the best in the business from daily newspapers," Erwin says. "It was a marvelous paper."

But times have changed at the 117-year-old, St. Louis-based institution, which, over the past dozen years, has deliberately and incrementally cannibalized its statistics-drenched newsprint format that earned the publication iconic status in the world of sports journalism.

Founded in 1886 by Alfred Spink, The Sporting News was a family-owned downtown business for most of its existence. C.C. Johnson Spink, grandson of Alfred's brother, moved the company to Creve Coeur in 1969 and sold it in 1977. The buyer, media giant Times Mirror Company, kept the company here but began tweaking the formula that made The Sporting News a national institution.

Although subtle content alterations are par for the course for all media, the first signal that serious change was afoot came when the publication stopped printing box scores in 1991. Five years later, after extensive consumer polling, Times Mirror decided to abandon the tabloid format and baseball focus in favor of a glossier magazine format that gave equal coverage to professional football.

"Even then, before the growth of the Internet, they [box scores] were so widely available that they weren't unique content anymore," says John Rawlings, editorial director of The Sporting News. "It's just a constant assessment of what we can do that's unique and readers can't get anywhere else," says Rawlings, who has been with the publication since 1990.

Since Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen acquired the publication in 2000, The Sporting News has aggressively sought to partner with and acquire multi-media companies to bolster its online and broadcast presence while eliminating statistics from its skinny print product. And last month, the publication shed its veteran statistics editor Craig Carter, as well as seven other full-time editorial employees and its entire fleet of nationwide baseball correspondents.

While Rawlings and some industry analysts say editorial facelifts have been a natural response to the proliferation of sports data on the Internet and expanded competition -- namely from ESPN The Magazine --others, like Dr. Samir Husni, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, argue that The Sporting Newshas become a muddled mess that, despite steady -- if not spectacular -- circulation and ad revenue figures, might doom it to irrelevance.

"They've changed so much and way too often that any sense of continuity -- which is essential in the magazine industry -- has been lost. It's a hodgepodge," says Husni, one of the nation's foremost experts in the consumer magazine field. "We've seen the demise of The Sporting News as you and I know it. They had a unique feature, which was being the baseball bible, and when they started adding, changing and diluting, they lost their uniqueness.

"You can't revolutionize yourself like that and expect to survive," he continues. "It's fluctuated through so many facelifts and revolutions, as opposed to evolution, that you don't know what to expect every week anymore. We have zillions of historical lessons where you don't abandon established readers. You don't go chasing the unicorn when you have the horse in your backyard."

Balderdash, says Rawlings, pointing to his magazine's unfailing coverage of the "Big Six" -- major league baseball, pro football, college football, pro basketball, college basketball and pro hockey -- since the switch to magazine format in '97. The only change to that core format, he says, was when the magazine added extensive NASCAR coverage in 2001 to form a new, improved "Big Seven."

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