The Newspaper Battle for Gold
Posted: 2/3/2014  |  By: Elliott Almond
For much of February, the world will be captivated by athletes in skin-hugging Lycra swooping down snowy slopes and sliding across slick sheets of ice during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The quest for gold, however, won’t play out only in the rugged Caucasus Mountains or the refrigerated arenas along the Black Sea coast.            

The Olympics have escalated into a media battle ground over “eyeballs” and advertising dollars, underscored by rights holder NBCUniversal’s plans to offer more than 1,539 hours of coverage.            

“It’s a unique way to collect a diverse audience in one place for a limited time,” said Dave Morgan, USA Today Sports Media Group president.            

The 22nd edition of the Winter Games, Feb. 6-23, will be shown in real time, all the time, anywhere there is Internet access. Such an undertaking presents interesting challenges to news outlets in the Digital Age, where audiences demand instant updates in multiple platforms all the while embracing in-depth analysis and heartfelt features that have become synonymous to the Olympics.            

The biennial event—the Summer and Winter Games rotate so one or the other arrives on the scene every two years—has motivated some media organizations to create new ways to deliver content that appeals to readers.            

At a time financially stressed regional newspapers have drastically reduced Olympic staffing, papers such as the New York Times and USA Today plan major productions for the Sochi Games and beyond.            

“Our overarching approach is just to be as experimental as possible,” said Jason Stallman, sports editor of The New York Times. With an Olympics coming every two years there “is a lot of time for things to evolve with technology and storytelling devices,” Stallman added. “Even if we convince ourselves that we did a nice job last time around we still feel we’re starting from scratch every two years with how we want to attack it.”            

Stallman plans to have as many as 35 people in Sochi, including reporters, photographers, interactive graphic editors and computer programmers. The New York Times considers itself an international news organization that will focus on major stories inside the competition arenas and beyond them in Russia.            

Its effort in London produced 60 million online page views and 14 million visitors. Those viewers spent an average of six minutes per visit, according to Andy Wright, the paper’s senior vice president, advertising.            

“That’s lot of time to spend with a topic area,” he said.            

Those kinds of figures make a compelling case to potential advertisers and lead The New York Times’ executives to continue the paper’s big investment of serious Olympics coverage.  

Collaboration Helps Win the Day            
In 2012, The New York Times and Reuters collaborated to launch a dedicated Olympics site for online publishers. Using technology developed by The Times, the service provided images, text, video and data in what they call a flexible “plug-and-play” system allowing clients to tailor the pages to their regional needs.            

Michael Greenspon, general manager, New York Times News Services and International, said the company has similar revenue projections for Sochi as it did in London two years ago. With the Winter Games usually leaving a smaller footprint, “we see things going in the right direction,” Greenspon added.            

Another high-profile collaboration involves NBC Olympics and Yahoo, which offer content and promotion for the Sochi Games. The idea is to give Yahoo’s American audience access to NBC Olympics’ digital video highlights and live streamed events at NBCOlympics.com.            

The shift toward digital initiatives is reflected in the issuing of Sochi media credentials by the International Olympic Committee, the non-governmental group that operates the Games. Such digital giants as Yahoo, ESPN.com and FoxSports.com received 25 percent of the more than 400 credentials allocated to U.S. journalists, according to Sports Business Daily. USA Today, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated are sending the largest contingents in U.S. print media.            

Perhaps no outlet will try to do more than USA Today. While it is a national publication, the newspaper is linked to 103 communities through local papers and broadcast stations, said Morgan, the Sports Media Group president. That means the paper not only follows every major breaking news story but also covers any local athlete in its vast chain.            

“Local-national: that is the strength and identity of the media group,” Morgan said. In London, Morgan’s team produced an equivalent of six daily editions to satisfy all of its markets. USA Today plans another comprehensive effort in Sochi with almost 90 people in Russia. The content includes print, video, digital and broadcast.            

To a lesser scale, the Tribune Co. will ask its team of 14 to produce equally high-quality journalism in Sochi. The effort is headed by John Cherwa, the Tribune Sports Coordinator and deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times.            

Sochi will mark Cherwa’s eighth Olympics although he has helped coordinate coverage for about a half dozen others.            

The Tribune Co. sent 43 people to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. But readers won’t get less coverage with almost 30 fewer bodies on the ground, Cherwa said. Instead, the chain has eliminated duplication by avoiding having more than one Tribune Co. reporter at such marquee events as figure skating and alpine skiing. The bulk of the Sochi team is comprised of journalists from the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. But the Los Angeles Times isn’t sending any photographers to the Olympics for the first time since the Moscow Games in 1980.            

“We need to watch the budget, and we can get this other places,” Cherwa said.  “The winter isn’t as important to our market as summer.”            

Logistics was a factor as much as budget. Winter Games are so spread out it is difficult for photographers to shoot multiple events without working 20-hour days. At most Summer Olympics, photographers jet between two and three events daily.              

“In the Winter Games, if you’re traipsing up the mountain for skiing that’s it,” Cherwa said. “That’s your day.”            

Because of unpredictable weather the day could be wasted if events are postponed. Then there are obstacles of photographing competition involving sleds careening down icy shoots at breakneck speeds. The landscape leads to generic action photos or celebration shots instead of distinctive compelling images. Such circumstances have led to a select few joining the Associated Press in providing truly comprehensive coverage.            

“As many have cut back on coverage of international events, there is a greater need for the content we can offer,” The New York Times' Greenspon said.  

Challenges in Coverage            
Olympic coverage follows the trajectory of a changing industry. Two decades ago, almost every major American paper had a full-time Olympic reporter. It was the result of an eight-year span, from 1980 to 1988, when Lake Placid, N.Y., Los Angeles and Calgary, Canada, played host to the Olympics. The North American Games fueled great interest in the event. Now the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh is the “closest thing to a full-time Olympic writer and I am the only one,” he said.            

While national media outlets have increased their Olympic presence some strong regional newspapers such as the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle, The Kansas City Star, San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Times are not sending anyone to Sochi.   
        
It’s particularly disappointing in Houston and Seattle where those newspapers boast reporters and editors with a wealth of Olympic expertise.            

Four years ago, The Seattle Times sent 15 reporters and photographers to the Vancouver Games because of its close proximity to British Columbia. The paper broke even for what was then one of the biggest events the Times had ever covered.            

But the newspaper passed on the London Games in 2012—the first time it wasn’t on the ground since the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Sports editor Don Shelton said management decided to send a reporter to Japan for a week to follow the Seattle Mariners’ season-opening baseball series instead of going to London. In retrospect, Shelton says the paper made the right decision with its baseball reporter producing some enterprise stories from Asia.            

The Olympics represent a microcosm of what decisions sports editors face every day. It was easy to convince themselves that the Winter Games aren’t a big deal in July during budget planning. But once the Sochi Games open, Shelton expected to feel pangs of regret for not being there.            

Shelton, however, hopes to send at least one reporter to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.            

Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd appreciates the budget constraints his editors face but suggests the paper has missed an opportunity. Judd spent 12 years covering the Olympics while gaining a national reputation for his astute and often comedic writing. He also is author of the book “The Winter Olympics: An Insider’s Guide to the Legends, Lore and Events of the Games.”            
But since Vancouver he has had no involvement in helping the paper cover the Olympics in a region that features alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, short track speed skating and other winter sports.            

“We were able to turn the beat into something much more than just traditional Olympics coverage,” Judd said. “I offer our investigation [seattletimes.com/html/olympicticketing] of Olympic ticketing as an example. Nobody in the country was doing reporting about the Olympics at that level of commitment leading up to Vancouver. I thought that was the sort of niche newspapers were looking for—doing something well that no one else can really do—to ensure their survival.”            

The San Jose Mercury News, which is part of the Bay Area News Group, sent three journalists to Sochi—the same three it dispatched to the Vancouver Games in 2010. The region’s diverse cultural and geographic landscape makes it important to follow the Games, according to deputy sports editor Mark Conley, whose duties include organizing the Bay Area News Group’s Olympic coverage.            

“It encompasses so many great Olympic stories, past, present and future,” he said. “We’re lucky upper management seem to recognize that and appreciate it and put their money where their mouth is.”            

Conley said papers should not underestimate the value of having their columnists writing about big-ticket events such as the Winter Games. The Mercury News again will call upon Mark Purdy to provide perspective with a distinct Bay Area filter. Purdy has covered Olympics since 1980.            

“Hearing Mark on the spot giving his view has a much more impactful feel to it than any number of voices from The New York Times or The Boston Globe,” Conley added. “That would hold true for any paper that values its key local voices.”  

The Cost vs. Return Games            
As someone who has managed budgets for more than three decades, the Los Angeles Times’ Cherwa understands why some editors balked at sending reporters to southern Russia this month. He estimates it costs $10,000 to send one journalist to the Olympics, a figure that surprisingly has not changed in 15 years.            

Technology has helped keep expenses to a minimum. Internet phoning, known as VoIP, has been one of the biggest savings although most reporters still need cheap mobile phones in foreign countries.            

Another cost-saving measure came when the International Olympic Committee two years ago introduced a web-based system to access its media information. Previously, Olympic officials charged media outlets thousands of dollars to use such necessary information.            

While technology has helped with the logistics of transmitting content and communicating with home offices, it also has eroded reportage, the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh said. A veteran of 16 Olympics, Hersh has brought unique perspectives to his readers in the column Globetrotting [chicagotribune.com/sports/globetrotting]. But he said it has become difficult to do the same kind of thoughtful writing at the Games.            

“We are expected to spend so much time with minute by minute” details “it’s hard for us to give readers the different perspective, the better observation,” he said. “Even if you look down to type 140 characters on Twitter you are going to miss something. Most of us are not able to observe as finely as we used to and that has changed newspaper coverage period, but certainly changed Olympic coverage dramatically.”            

While it remains a big investment, covering the Olympics represents a chance to attract and keep new audiences because of the country’s fixation for moving sporting stories that unfold over three weeks.            

“It gets to the greatness and wonderfulness about sports,” Cherwa said. “For those three weeks we are united as a country. We put on our jingoist hats and root for things we have no business rooting for.”            

Cherwa recalled the emotional response, in 2010, when New Yorker Billy Demong became the first American to win a gold medal in a Nordic event.            

“Where in our lifetime would we care about Nordic combined, yet we’re watching it,” he said.            

And American reporters are covering it in one fashion or another to satisfy readers’ appetites.  

—Elliott Almond is a reporter for the Bay Area News Group in San Jose, Calif., covering Olympics, soccer and college sports. The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 6-23, will be the 11th Olympic Games he has covered.