Thursday, July 24, 2008

Revising a bible

For decades and decades, the Sporting News was the biggest name in sports publications in this country. It became the definitive source for news about baseball. Indeed, it became known as "the baseball bible."

The formula was simple -- get baseball writers to send a story about their chosen team to a central office for weekly publication. It would be like subscribing to the various sports sections across the country and reading them all at once, in 1920. Or, it would be like reading them all on line once a week. It worked for years and years.

In the 1960's, the Sporting News slowly branched away from baseball. (For an idea as to what it used to be like, see a current copy of Baseball America.) It decided to move into other sports, perhaps as baseball became less popular and sales dipped once the World Series ended. I can still remember my first copy as a subscriber in November of 1965 -- Green Bay Packer lineman Henry Jordan was on the cover. I was 10. A newspaper, filled with all sports? Life didn't get much better for a 10-year-old sports fan.

The Sporting News even had top columnists. I learned about football from Larry Felser, basketball from Bob Ryan, journalism from Joe Falls (no one wrote about liking his job more), and analysis from one of my heroes, Leonard Koppett, who wasn't allowed to write about topical issues by the New York Times but instead took on several fascinating issues in unique ways.

The Sporting News plowed through the 1970's and into the 1980's, but it seemed less relevant as it went along. ESPN changed the landscape, as we could see the highlights of the night immediately rather than waiting for a description of events a week later. You could just see the publication start to wander in the wilderness. It spent a ton of money on a shift to on-line reporting late in the 1990's -- heck, I cashed some of the checks -- but it didn't help. As you can guess, a parade of owners followed.

Now, I wonder if the Sporting News is taking one last shot at glory. It has introduced an all-digital, daily edition. It mails the link to "subscribers" each morning. Supposedly it is at least 24 pages per day, and it's free. Take a look at it by clicking here. The idea is to be a national morning publication, like "The National" of the early 1990's which died in part because of high distribution and publication costs. Well, that's not an issue here.

It's a good-looking publication, with some valuable information. There's a little too much football of all types in it, especially in the front, but that's just me. I wish it would be easier to print, and you really need a good-sized screen to read it without blowing up the type, but overall it's a pretty good start.

In the meantime, issue one on Wednesday announced that the weekly publication will be come a bi-weekly publication in the future. And that makes me seriously wonder if it's the last step toward extinction for a print product. How can it compete with the gorillas in the room, the weekly Sports Illustrated and the bi-weekly ESPN the Magazine? Sport magazine had that problem and died a while back.

Has the Sporting News jumped from dinosaur to trend-setter, or is this just another step in the decline and fall of a once-great product? This is where the wise commentator says, "Only time will tell." But it's easy to root for a publication with roots back to the 19th century. How many are left?

Or have you not seen the Saturday Evening Post in your mailbox lately?

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