Vanishing news, falling circulation: can sports save newspapers?

Earlier this week, a report issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed U.S. newspaper circulation had hit its lowest levels since 1945. After months of announcements from papers saying they were planning to drastically downsize, the report provides even more concrete evidence that the industry is in dire straights. Many papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle no longer have their own investigative units and some papers like Westchester, N.Y.’s Journal News, which cut 25 percent of their news and advertising employees in August, are reducing their entire newsroom staff. But could it really be these brutal, across-the-board slashings that are contributing to the declining circulation? Maybe people are turning away from print because they can’t find their news. Especially sports news.

As sports conglomerates like ESPN and Comcast continue to expand into local markets, sports journalists are taking a hard hit. On Oct. 13, longtime sports editor Arthur Martone announced he was leaving the Providence Journal for Comcast New England (incidentally, the Journal’s weekday circulation decreased by 18.8 percent in the six-month period ending Sept. 30 compared to the same period last year, according to the recently released Audit report). And the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University just announced a project called Stats Monkey, a robot-esque system that can automatically generate sports stories from online box scores and play-by-plays.

But last month, Phil Meyer, former editor and publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, suggested one way to save newspapers is actually by bringing back sports reporting. “Sports has been an under appreciated asset of newspapers for a long time. Too many editors looked on sports as a necessary evil. My roots are in sports, but all I needed was two World Series titles in Minneapolis to show me the power of sports to sell newspapers and draw online viewers,” he said. “Sports should be the centerpiece of newspaper efforts to rejuvenate themselves.”

With the first game of the World Series set to begin at 7:57 pm Eastern Standard time tonight, maybe those struggling Philadelphia papers can draw on some sports coverage for a temporary revival. If they still have sports reporters. And if the robots don’t beat them to the stories.

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