Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Everyone Complains About the Weather

Gawd, it's cold tonight. Jeez, it sure is hot today. Yikes, is it ever going to stop raining? We all complain about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it. So with that knowledge I decided to write a letter to the Anchorage Daily News Editor regarding the coverage we've all been bitching about. It isn't a letter to the editor per se ... (especially since it's WAY longer than what they'd publish). I was cruising around their redesigned website when I noticed that the Editor had a blog. I read this entry and subsequently watched Frontline (which I do every week anyway) and the show spurred me to write as he invites in his "About this blog ..." section.

Here's the letter:
It was nice to see you mention the PBS Frontline series about the state of journalism. As a long time viewer of that series I recognize the excellence they bring to each and every topic they cover. This most recent series lived up to their reputation and I'm writing tonight because some of the issues they covered have a certain synergy between a personal interest of mine and the ADN.

I write a blog that covers UAA Hockey at http://uaafan.blogspot.com/. I started the blog about 15 months ago because I was disappointed in the amount of coverage in your sports pages about my passion. While I'd say that your coverage of "newsworthy" events regarding the program is generally adequate, for several years there's been a steady decrease in the number of profile-style articles. I'm all good with that as it provides a niche for what I write and since I understand the newspaper business has a bottom line. But this season a disturbing turn of events has left me (and other local college hockey fans) scratching our heads.

Please pardon in advance any incorrect assumptions I make here but your co-marketing arrangement with the Alaska Aces and the subsequent assignment of Doyle Woody to that "beat" on a full-time basis seems to be a slap in the face to a program that essentially created the Aces. I don't question that arrangement since it seems to be good for the Aces and the ADN. Such agreements between two commercial entities are reasonable but in this case it seems that agreement has elevated their status while the non-profit state university program gets less coverage as a result. Since you were a sportswriter for the Times it would be a waste of my time to detail the history of Seawolf Hockey but the truth is this program is improved in almost everyway since it's early 90's glory days. The overall talent of the players is greatly improved. The commitment of the administration to the program is greater than it's ever been. Yet your local coverage (you did notice the predictions of "localization" in the Frontline story tonight?) has inexorably been declining year after year.

Unfortunately (for anyone I write to) it's not in my nature to be concise (the above preamble being a good example) but I'll do my best now to get to the main point. You guys don't send anyone on the road trips anymore. That's crap. You pay people to write about art, dogs and shopping (all in your blog menu) yet you can't send Andrew Hinkleman on the road with the team? As the local newspaper you have access that is unavailable to me yet even just a cursory glance at my blog coverage ought to show you how much more you could be doing. It's clear from the Frontline piece that there are many challenges facing your industry but I can't help thinking you're abrogating your responsibilities to the community with the editorial choice to basically ignore the program. You sent Doyle Woody on the road with the team for about 15 years and suddenly when co-marketing arrangements come into place with the Aces then UAA is shit? No wonder nobody involved with the UAA Hockey program goes an inch out of their way to engage your reporter. Send Hinkleman to Minnesota with the team when they travel for their playoff series next weekend. The players and the program deserve it.
I signed it "Sincerely" because I am. I added a postscript indicating that he should be aware that I may or may not post his response here. If and when he answers I'll edit this post to include and/or summarize his answer.

So ... cool. The editor (Pat) gave me both a timely and weighty answer (he surprised me by posting it all in his blog and usurping my territory ... lol). I'll take issue with a couple of minor points at the end.

Pat's Response:
I want to respond to several of your comments, but let’s go to your central point first.

We do have less money for travel. That, combined with the fact that the cost of travel keeps increasing, means that we face difficult choices. (I’ve discussed some of the economic challenges in the news business in earlier posts, so I won’t try to rehash that here.)

We didn’t go to the last winter Olympics, probably for the first time in 20 years. We aren't traveling with the UAA men's basketball team, despite a very respectable season. We also don’t travel with the UAA women's basketball team, the university's most successful program this year.

Nor did we travel to the Yukon Quest or the Kuskokwim 300, after the Iditarod the two biggest sled-dog races in Alaska. We have never had money to travel to events like the Nordic World Ski Championships in Japan, where three Anchorage skiers are competing with the best in the World.

We are in the process of spending something over $15,000 to cover the Iditarod, and that represents a scaling back of what we have done in the past. (Rising costs have been a big factor here.)

With respect to hockey specifically, here’s an accounting from Doyle:

“Andrew made just one UAA trip this regular season and I've made just one Aces trip . . . By comparison, Matt Nevala (who covered the Aces) and I made a combined seven regular-season trips Outside in the 2005-06 season, and this season the ADN will make a combined two trips. To be fair, Nevala last season traveled Outside four times in the Aces' run to the Kelly Cup, and I went to the first round of the WCHA playoffs, so the total number of hockey trips Outside for the 2005-06 season was 12. By comparison, the most trips we will possibly make Outside this season -- and that's provided the Aces win the Cup again and we travel with them -- is six.”

And so far we are just talking about sports travel. There are many other, competing demands for money to travel around the state, for features, news, business, all of which have less than they have had in the past. The one exception to these constraints is that we will always travel for big breaking news, regardless of the cost.

When you think about this, I would ask you to keep two things in mind: even though we are the biggest paper in Alaska, we are a relatively small paper, and almost all of our travel involves air travel. Even at its current level, we may have the largest news travel budget of any newspaper our size in the country. But it doesn't go as far as we'd like because we also have unsually high travel costs. What’s the nearest school in the WCHA? Colorado College? Alaska to Colorado is not exactly Minnesota to Wisconsin.

Now, what about Doyle and the Aces?

We lost Matt Nevala, our Aces beat reporter. The Aces were the hottest team in town, and the reigning national champions. Doyle is the best hockey writer in Alaska and probably beyond, and he had covered UAA for 21 years. We asked him to cover the Aces. He said yes. We hired a talented reporter with hockey experience, Andrew Hinkelman, and assigned him to cover UAA.

None of this had anything to do with the advertising and promotional relationship between the Daily News and the Aces. If you want to go to www.goseawolves.com, you’ll see that the Daily News is also a Diamond-level sponsor ($15,000+, the highest level) of UAA athletics.

I don’t believe that Andrew is going about his coverage of UAA in any way different than Doyle would have. There would not have been more space, more time or more travel money for UAA hockey coverage, regardless of the reporter assigned to cover the team.

What could change those elements would be the actual newsworthiness of the story. If UAA were on the brink of winning the WCHA title, and generating lots of interest in the community, we would shift travel money from somewhere else to UAA, because that would be a bigger story.

Instead, as Doyle points out, “The Seawolves finished last in the WCHA this season and attendance over the last five years or so has been tepid at best -- it went up about 300 per game this season (to about 3,900) after falling about 300 per game last season, and that number is tickets distributed. The number of no-shows at UAA games is staggering, which I believe reflects lack of fan interest. (Dunlop) may love Seawolves hockey -- and good for him, seriously -- but area fans apparently love the Aces significantly more.”

It is not my intention to speak ill of the Seawolf hockey program. I was a multiple-season-ticket holder from the first game they played in Sullivan Arena until long after the "glory days.' Nothing in sports would make me happier than seeing UAA win a WCHA title.

But as a famous editor once said, the job of an editor is to make choices, and that’s I do. In the case of this discussion, I wish we had the staff and the money to do it all. But until that day comes, we’ll just keep doing everything we can the best way we can.
I guess I want to take exception to one point primarily. The attendance. The Sullivan arena uses barcode readers on every ticket that passes through the door. When a boxscore says that 4132 people were in the arena that's how many people walked through the door with a ticket. Otherwise, I'd just add: I tried to do something about the weather. I stopped bitching about the freezing temps and tried to do something about it; but the long cold winter of ADN's UAA coverage just wouldn't abide.

Winning really does solve everything.

2 comments:

jjack said...

Regarding attendance and fan interest...I think this is all a self-fulfilling prophecy. The paper won't write about them because no one is getting fired up to go to games? That may be the case, but ADN isn't exactly going out of their way to get people stoked.

Anyway, I guess that's not their job, which is why I'm glad your blog is around.

Donald said...

jjack:
Thanks.

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