Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Missing Media: Part Two

The only speed bump the Lansing State Journal and I ever encountered during my reporting on our "Spartan Experience" series in 2007 - our online coverage of everything involving MSU football that wasn't on the field - was when we asked for credentials. It was an unusual ask, to be sure: A twin pair of passes, one for the press box and another for everywhere in the stadium bar the field.

Oddly enough, the second bit was easy, but the first, I was told, would be tough. "There may not be enough room in the press box" was the message back from MSU athletics. After a bit of haggling we finally got it secured, but with a message back to me and my editors: We'll approve this one, but you all need to know that you're asking a lot.

It turned out that they could have given me a whole row to myself without displacing anyone. That's because we weren't in the dingy, cramped, old MSU football press box, we were in the new Spartan Stadium press box, a gorgeous two-sided cathedral of media heaven complete with cushy seats, outlets galore and uninhibited sightlines.

Only trouble is, it was built for a press corps that doesn't exist anymore.

There are three rows of seats in each of the Spartan Stadium press boxes. The north side, or "home" side, is, on average, packed. Or, at least compared to the south side.

On row one of the north side sits the print media, starting with a bank of seats for the most regular outlets, like the Lansing State Journal, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Associated Press and State News. The second row is for "others", various producers, TV folks who weren't involved in live coverage and the occasional guest of University Relations staff.

The third row seats, well, I have no idea. That's because almost no one ever sits there. And unless it's a big-time, out-of-state opponent like Ohio State, the visiting side is even more barren.

Football isn't the only sport to suffer an absence of coverage. Time was that three reporters would show for almost every Spartan volleyball home game. One from the Spartan Radio Network, another from the LSJ and a third from the State News. Now, the voice of the Spartans on radio sits alone.

Likewise women's basketball, which had begun to build a traveling press corps, has seen its numbers shrink. No one sent a reporter to Cancun for an early-season tournament during the 2007-08 campaign aside from Spartan Radio Network, which is paid to broadcast it. It's not because Cancun's not a nice place, it's simply a matter of dollars and sense.

However, that's not to say that coverage of all Spartan sports has declined. In fact, I'd argue that coverage of the big two - football and men's basketball - has actually improved.

Once upon a time, stories that were big enough went in print. Those that weren't died, unless someone wrote a years-back retrospective. Now, every minute detail about the two kingpin sports is chronicled in outlets like LSJ ace Spartan reporter Joe Rexrode's blog, SpartanTailgate.com, MLive's Gang Green blog, ESPN's Big Ten football blog and on this blog.

MSU had just one men's basketball game not televised this year. One. I got to see women's basketball and MSU hockey in Baltimore thanks to Big Ten Network. And I love listening to John Kreger's call of Spartan volleyball (most underrated broadcaster in the state of Michigan, in my book) from miles away thanks to my internet connection.

If anything, MSU sports actually gets more play now than it ever did before - just not through the traditional outlets.

Now, it's worth noting one point. MSU, like many universities, has a policy against credentialing online-only news sources. If you're a reporter for ESPN.com, your credential is issued because of your TV affiliation, regardless of the fact that your article will likely be one of the most read of any produced in the nation that day. I'm sure the policy has been overruled once or twice, though for the life of me, I don't recall it during the 2007 season.

Given the troubles print and local TV are having - and the success of online - that policy may need to be reviewed soon.

Coming Wednesday: It's undeniable that print coverage of MSU athletics has changed. But what, will this mean for the fans at home? Will you even be able to get a keepsake newspaper the next time MSU wins a Rose Bowl?

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