Miscellany

MNF's Woes, the Future of Newspapers, and Challenging ESPN: An Interview with Richard Sandomir of the New York Times

Meet Richard Sandomir. He�s on the highly-coveted sports media beat at the New York Times, a job that undoubtedly requires spending many hours languishing in front the television, taking copious notes and likely, eating. Some life. On the flip side, he probably spends far too much time being forced to listen to Mike & the Mad Dog. We thought Sandomir would make a fun, insightful interview. And that’s what we got.

Q: The biggest target of late among bloggers and sports media members appears to be ESPN. Take Monday Night Football. The ratings have been outstanding, but it’s hard to find anybody saying anything positive about the production (complete with blatant cross-promotion, and the cumbersome trio in the booth). Is this the media/blogging contingent overreating to their dislike for ESPN, or is it something else? Can the product be that bad if the ratings are that good?

The ratings are excellent for the cable world, but ESPN is producing some of the least-viewed “Monday Nights” ever. That was bound to happen, given the difference between broadcast and cable viewerships. As a columnist, though, I have to save my viewpoints for a future column. But clearly, the response to MNF on our 5th Down Blog at the Times has been vociferously negative. I think to an extent it’s an overreaction; maybe more was expected of Tony Kornheiser, I don’t know. There is cross-promotion, but I sense that people are fixated mainly on the Emmitt Smith incident in which he was asked about “Dancing with the Stars,” while the game was going on. It isn’t the MNF of Michaels and Madden, that’s for sure, but I’ll reserve further comment.

Q: What do you make of the slugfest between Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, AOL Sports, and CBS Sportsline? Each site has been quietly beefing up its staff by poaching top newspaper talent. Can these sites have an impact on the sporting world? One day, can you see, say, Yahoo, having a beat writer for every team in every sport?

I don’t know that much about the Web smackdown, but wherever serious and entertaining journalism is practiced, it creates new challenges. The Web has an immediacy that newspapers don’t, but the best newspaper web sites have that immediacy, too. I assume it will be a while before a critical mass of fans shift their reading habits to get their news first from those Web sites, but clearly, they’re growing and gaining more readers. I know that people who want their baseball news look to Buster Olney, our former Yankee beat writer, at ESPN.com. The more Busters there are, the better it is for all of these sites. It would take a lot of money for any web site to have beat writers with every team…and I’m not even sure that’s necessary. Strong voices are prized on the web, as they are on sports radio.

Q: A friend proposed this to us – You know how CNN dominated cable news maybe 15 years ago? Well now it has fallen behind Fox News and MSNBC is in the mix, too. Could the same fate befall strike ESPN? Is this a pipe dream, or could Murdoch or some other media baron challenge ESPN down the road? What would it take?

Murdoch and Comcast have threatened to challenge ESPN, but they haven’t. Fox Sports Net fell on its face in the 1990′s when it tried to out-SportsCenter ESPN. It’s all about the business sport of extreme branding, which ESPN is the best at. It’s not just whether a challenger can snare some significant sports rights; ESPN has lost some and gotten them back (like Nascar) and said goodbye to others that were of little use to them, like the NHL. Any competitor has to deal with a 27-year habit. That’s not easy given how ESPN has expanded into so many areas, and is so dominant. It takes a huge amount of money to do it, and when you’re charging cable operators $2.60 and up per month, you’ve got money, and lots of it, especially to vastly overpay for “Monday Night Football,” or risk reducing your subscriber fee. And I don’t think you can simply start a single network and expect to seriously challenge ESPN.

Q: Did you jump into journalism to specifically cover the media, or did it just happen? We’d love to hear your story of ascending to the top paper in the country (college, small papers, magazines, whatever). Feel free to include a tipping point.

No, media was sort of an accident.
While I was editor of Newsbeat, one of the Queens College newspapers, I became a campus (and then a borough-wide) stringer for the Queens section of Newsday. A lot of it was baby-sitting community meetings of various sorts, but I ended up writing hundreds of stories, which led me to a temporary, full-time job covering news for Newsday (happily filling in for a reporter with a terrible case of hepatitis) when I graduated in 1979.
From there, I realized that I needed a specialty, and chose business, so I joined the now-dead Financial World for a year, then spent a year covering general business for the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut.
I then returned to Newsday from 1982 to 1987, where I covered general business news, then media business. But Newsday being Newsday, we weren’t on the axis of journalistic power, and even on big stories, I rarely spoke to the major players. I got frustrated after five years, and made a huge mistake that turned into a blessing: doing publicity or Bantam Books. I hated working there, but I learned how to publicize my own books, and spent enough time in this purgatory to be in at the right time to join Sports Inc., which was the 1980′s version of the Sports Business Journal; Sports inc. was owned by Times Mirror, as Newsday was.
We went belly up in 18 months because no one on the business side knew what they were doing.
But that got me noticed by the Times, and after freelancing for several places after Sports
Inc.’s demise, I joined the Times in 1991.
The real tipping point for me, in terms of my column, which I feel is the foundation of what I do, is when the sports editor at the time, Neil Amdur, pushed me to give my opinions. I was being a bit bland at the start, trying to be Timesian, but he encouraged me to be opinionated and Timesian at the same time.

Q: Recently, a colleague of yours at the NYT, David Carr, said this is a great time to be covering the media. Do you feel this translates into the sports media realm? Why or why not?

It’s always a good time to cover sports media. Many of the same trends that affect the overall media are in play in sports, but even the basics remain interesting. NBC returns to football; the NFL Network plunges in, and causes consternation in the cable business. The Golf Channel takes over all early-round PGA Tour coverage…that kind of stuff keeps bubbling up and keeps me from getting bored.

Q: It’s not the best time to be in newspapers – staffs are getting slashed from coast to coast. How long before we see newspapers make the move to web only? If you don’t think it’ll happen, why not? If you were teaching an entry-level journalism course at a University, in what direction would you steer potential journalists?

I can’t accurately predict when or if newspaper will go to all-Web publication. Eventually, I guess they will, but I’m not enough of a prognosticator to say when. I hope it’s never, but I can’t be blind to the world.
If and when it happens, we can’t be called newspapers can we? We’ll save a lot of trees, I’m sure, but I think it might require the Baby Boom generation to die off before people get accustomed to not holding a paper in their hands. The future Web-papers will certainly be vastly different than what newspapers are now, and I fear that readers will not want to see the breadth of coverage that a New York Times or Washington Post produce in a daily newspaper, which would reduce our employment. But I’m not a futurist. As George Bodenheimer and David Stern keep telling me in my adherence to Nielsen ratings, I’m old fashioned.

Q: Which TV journalists do you respect the most? Why?

If by TV journalists, you mean anchor folk and field reporters, I’d say off the top of my head, Costas, Bob Ley, Jeremy Schaap, Armen Keteyian (when he was still doing sports), Mary Carillo. That’s for starters.

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