Demise of the scribe

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This story originally ran in the Jan. 24, 2009 issue of Golfweek, and won third place in the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual writing contest for non-daily news.

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The rapid deterioration of newspapers has led to the Death of the Golf Writer. The tombstone reads, “R.I.P., 2008.” In the past year, golf writers at about a dozen major metropolitan newspapers have taken buyouts or been dismissed. The vast majority of those remaining in the insecure business have had their coverage and travel slashed to bare bones.

In an odd juxtaposition, the dissolution of voices coincides with the Tiger Woods Era, record PGA Tour purses and arguably the height of golf popularity. Early this decade, Tour commissioner Tim Finchem set a 20-year goal for his sport to surpass the NFL in fan base. Yet the recent purge leaves only two U.S. daily news-papers, the national USA Today and The New York Times, that employ writers who cover golf exclusively.

“It’s a sorry (expletive) shame,” said Dan Jenkins, 79, the most famous and celebrated golf writer of modern times. “My emotions are sadness and anger. As we’ve been joking in the pressroom for two years, there’ll be one golf writer left someday soon – the AP (Associated Press).”

Myriad scalps fell during the 2008 economic crisis at some media giants. Longtime golf writers at the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit News, Hartford Courant and Palm Beach Post were bought out, following earlier such departures in Cleveland and New Orleans. Veteran golf scribes in Kansas City, Oakland (Calif.), Phoenix and London were let go, as were a few at national golf magazines.

For years it was common for the golf community to know the golf writer at those newspapers and metropolitan dailies in cities such as Houston, Baltimore, Minneapolis and St. Petersburg, Fla. Now aficionados aren’t sure who that person is or if those places even have a golf writer.

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O.B. Keller, who covered golf for years for the Atlanta Journal, was the first well-known golf writer.

Furman Bisher, 90, the Atlanta columnist who began writing golf in 1938 and has covered every Masters since 1950, figures O.B. Keeler is tumbling in his gravesite. The country’s first well-known golf writer, Keeler chronicled the exploits of Bobby Jones for the Atlanta paper in the early 20th century.

“The golf writer was one of the more prominent people in Atlanta,” Bisher said. “And now this paper doesn’t have a golf writer? Newspapers have learned how to self-destruct. I don’t blame anyone but bad management. Disgraceful management. The newspaper owned the town for years. In Atlanta, it was like owning a whorehouse in Fort Bragg (N.C.).”

Signs of the demise could be seen in dwindling representation of domestic and foreign writers at big tournaments. The media center at the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play was something of a ghost town, even though Woods was trying for his eighth consecutive Tour victory – and during February, the quietest month on the sports calendar. His Orlando, Fla., hometown paper was among the absent many.

Last year, only eight U.S. newspapers sent writers to the British Open, and two of those were contract stringers. That’s about a 30-year low, says longtime IMG publicist Bev Norwood, and far off the typical turnout of 25-plus that began at the 1984 Open at St. Andrews. Last September, The Dallas Morning News, long one of the U.S. leaders in golf coverage, did not attend the Ryder Cup in Louisville, even though the 12-man U.S. team included four residents of greater Dallas-Fort Worth.

The culprit? Budget cuts, a common trend that started hitting hard a couple of years ago, before the nation’s economic crisis. And more tightening is on the way. In a development once inconceivable, the competing Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced recently that, starting Feb. 1, they will share some sports content. The sharing, designed to reduce expenses, includes coverage of the local Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL and college teams and so-called minor sports such as golf.

Morning News golf writer Bill Nichols figures he’ll make three flight trips to tournaments this year as he did in 2008, down from the previous minimum of about a dozen. “Three years ago, the idea of not covering every major wouldn’t have even been thought of,” Nichols said. “Now it’s a fight to get things in the paper. You spend most of your time these days telling players and other golf people why you don’t cover certain events.”

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Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal Constitution has covered every Masters since 1950.

Jim McCabe left The Boston Globe for Golfweek after his boss guaranteed him only two trips, the Masters and U.S. Open, instead of the typical nine to 13. Leonard Shapiro’s contract at The Washington Post wasn’t renewed, meaning he’ll cover eight or nine tournaments on a freelance basis instead of 12-14.

At least they have work. Some pink slips haven’t been pretty.

The Oakland Tribune fired legendary Bay Area sports writer Art Spander, 70, who has covered more than 120 majors, by e-mail during last summer’s British Open. The subject line read, “Services.” The Daily Telegraph, a British leader in golf coverage, fired Lewine Mair after 20 years upon her return from the World Cup in China late last year. “Someone from human resources told me I was being made redundant in a tone that was completely cold and officious,” said Mair, president of Europe’s Association of Golf Writers. The losers are many because of decreased exposure and perspective – golf, journalists and their craft, fans, players, the Tour, sponsors, even the casual reader seeking in-depth storytelling.

“The romance is gone,” IMG’s Norwood said. “Everybody is diminished. The relationship between the players and public is dehumanized. The player, though he may not know it, is a big loser because he loses touch with the people who pay his salary.”

Jenkins concurs – in his own way.

“Players should really be upset because they don’t have anyone to be pissed off at any more,” said the Golf Digest columnist and author of numerous golf books. “Losing all these golf writers, we’ll be left with nothing to read but instruction. And who the hell wants to read that?”

Less on-site coverage equates to fewer informed takes and a greater disconnect between the players and the public. “Before, we had a panorama of viewpoints on the game,” said Larry Dorman, in his second stint as New York Times golf correspondent. “We’re poorer for not having that. The diminishment isn’t good for any aspect of the game.”

The media transformation is not lost on Finchem. He’s just not sure of the long-term impact.

“To be able to live in a (big city) and see a familiar name dedicated to your newspaper writing about (golf) is a good thing for our sport,” Finchem said. “Losing that is a bad thing for our sport. But I can’t quantify it in terms of what it really means to the fan base.”

Big tournaments that are covered figure to be done so more often with columnists and general-assignment reporters who don’t have relationships with players. Davis Love III, a 20-time winner and a Tour Policy Board member a few years, said he’s concerned about the loss of such personal relationships. He anticipates making more telephone calls to newspapers in Georgia and North Carolina that claim him as a local.

“In this economy, we’re going to have to change,” Love said of players. “Rather than wait for (reporters) to show up, you’re going to have to help them out if you want to get coverage for you and the Tour. Everybody is going to have to accept things like a little bit less coverage, maybe fewer fans.”

Golf long has been considered among the top sports for literature, along with baseball, football and horse racing. George Plimpton once said the smaller the ball used in a sport, the better the writing. Jenkins figures his literary pal was talking about baseball and added, “I would rather read the worst golf story than the best baseball story.”

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Sam Snead answers media questions at the 1949 Masters.

The winners in the current mess are few, if any – plugged-in AP writer Doug Ferguson’s value and perhaps television, Web sites and blogs. Golf news magazines, in theory, would stand to benefit in readership because of the newspaper void, but they also face advertising vulnerability in a down economy.

How did this all happen? The falling dominos in this perfect storm are many. Newspapers lost classified advertising to the Internet and retail-advertising revenue because businesses consolidated or closed. Newsprint costs increased and circulation and newshole decreased. Fewer companies advertise in a sour economy, and fewer young people subscribe. Budget cuts and reduced staffing follow, with golf writers and others who cover non-team sports high on the cut list.

Two of the most highly regarded sports editors of the past three decades – Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times (1981-06) and Dave Smith of the Dallas Morning News (’81-04) – cite mismanagement and greed of newspapers looking to making huge, progressive profits for stockholders.

“The loss of readership started when (newspaper management) decided newspapers were nothing but a cash cow . . . getting 30-percent profit margins and being a profit center,” said Dwyre, now a Times columnist. “The easiest thing to do is cut the guts out of the operation, because that takes a coward’s mentality.”

“The stock market killed newspapers,” said the retired Smith, who demanded strong golf coverage at the News because it offered the “best stories” and reached a “critical audience” of advertisers and high-income readers. “When a newspaper goes public, the profit doesn’t matter; it’s if the stockholder was making more. When the margins got to 10-11 percent, there was a huge panic. If the electric company made profit like that, it would be crucified in newspapers.”

Dwyre, honored as the nation’s top newspaper editor for his overseeing of 1984 Olympic coverage, points out that when the Times’ parent, Tribune Co., filed for Chapter 11 reorganization recently because of the new owner’s short-term debt problems, all 60 or so Tribune business units (newspapers, broadcast stations, etc.) were profitable.

“We’ve got to get rid of robot accountants and get back to being journalists,” Dwyre said. “This democracy needs to benefit from good journalism.”

The Constitution had that in mind as well. Amendment I says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of press. Thomas Jefferson went further, saying, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Count Smith among those who would prefer the resurrection of newspapering in general and golf writing in particular. But he’s not counting on the latter.

“I think the golf writer as a specialist is history,” he said. “Even if newspapers rebound, the last person who is going to surface is the golf writer. I don’t think sports editors in general understand the value.”

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