Covering 5-Ring Circus

By: Sam Chamberlain

Despite global protests and calls for a boycott of this summer’s Olympics in Beijing, newspaper editors are moving ahead with their coverage plans and treating the Games much like any other major sporting event. But the coverage itself will look slightly different from that in years past, with newsroom cutbacks affecting the number of staffers being sent to cover the competitions.

“Everybody is extremely excited about going,” says Randy Harvey, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. “The only complaints I’ve had have been from people who weren’t selected to go.” Harvey’s sentiments have been echoed by sports editors across the country who say that preparations and paperwork have been, in a word, “smooth,” or in two words, “fairly smooth.”

The closest thing to an international incident occurred when several credential photographs taken of reporters at newspapers, including those from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post, were returned and ordered retaken ?because the background color didn’t match the standards required by the Beijing Organizing Committee.

Also at press time, several editors were still waiting for word on whether they would have to obtain visas from the Chinese Consulate in addition to their credentials, which in the past have served as a de facto visa. “I expect everything to be fine,” says Roxanna Scott, USA Today’s Olympics editor.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with politics,” Harvey agrees. “What we’re finding out about the Chinese is that they’re very strident about guidelines.” One person who does find the changes bothersome is Tracee Hamilton, deputy sports editor of the Washington Post, who commented: “It’s all the same old crap.”

Nor are many concerned with how the fallout from the recent protests in Tibet would affect their own safety, even though some journalists have reportedly received death threats. “I actually think the safety of the participants, spectators, and reporters is going to be of the highest priority,” says Ken Goe, a track and field reporter for The Oregonian who will cover his first Olympics this August.

When asked if he was concerned about problems with the technology needed to cover the Games, Goe responded, “I’m not concerned about being hacked or spied on.” Harvey agrees. “I think there was more concern about the terrorist threat in Athens,” he says. “I think a large part of it is the pre-Olympic hysteria you always have … things might change, but so far, we haven’t been told of any major alerts.”

However smooth the preparations, however pervasive the worries, there’s no denying that recent cutbacks in the newspaper industry will change coverage significantly even compared to the Athens Olympics in 2004. For one thing, almost every newspaper editor interviewed admitted that their paper would send fewer reporters to Beijing than have gone to previous Olympics. Boston Globe Sports Editor Joe Sullivan revealed that the paper would not assign any photographers to the Olympics and would only send seven staffers altogether. Harvey’s L.A. Times is only sending 12 staffers. (In the past, the paper has sent as many as 20.)

Another Tribune paper, The Sun of Baltimore ? hometown paper of elite swimmer Michael Phelps and basketball star Carmelo Anthony ? is only sending two reporters, down from the three who went to Athens. “It’s for budget reasons,” says Tim Wheatley, the Sun’s assistant managing editor/sports. USA Today will send 19 reporters ? slightly less than in previous years, says editor Scott.

Three of the media organizations who are sending more staff than in the past are The Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The AP is sending 319 people to Beijing this summer, according to Lou Ferrara, AP’s managing editor for sports, entertainment and multimedia. “This is more than past games, to provide more coverage of global sports and the story of China across formats,” he notes. “Over the past year, we have expanded our China operations and have been providing robust coverage of non-Olympic stories and will continue to do so, well past the Olympics.”

New York Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly is taking a similar approach. “This is a franchise event [for us], and we think it will be of enormous importance culturally [and] politically. We want to show how the Olympics are playing out throughout China.”

Other papers are pursuing this aspect as well. The Boston Globe is sending metropolitan and social services reporter Patricia Wen to China to help reporters adjust to the country. “She still has relatives in Beijing,” says Sullivan. “She’s going to help with the language and cultural stuff.” USA Today will be sending two reporters from its news bureau and one writer from its Life section.

For the larger news services, like Gannett and the Tribune Co., coverage of the Games will truly be a team effort. “We will be undertaking a cooperative effort with the Tribune Company,” says Harvey at the L.A. Times. “We will be coordinating with the Chicago Tribune’s sports section, and we’re going to have to try to spread out our coverage teams. We really don’t want to have more than one Tribune [Company] reporter at the same event. We have to be more judicious with our use of people … a lot of it is economic, with the Tribune Company.”

For newspapers who are unable and/ or unwilling to staff every event, the Associated Press will step into the breach. In August 2007, the AP and NBC struck a deal that allowed NBC to exclusively provide select NBC-produced text content and video links related to the 2008 Olympic Games to the AP. The news cooperative could then turn around and, for a premium, provide newspaper readers with that content. The following month, AP reached an agreement with STATS LLC to provide statistical data in addition to the exclusive NBC stories and video. All this has been packaged by the AP into the exclusive service, titled Summer Games Plus.

One of the earliest subscribers to the service was the New York Times, which signed up last December. That decision was made, says sports editor Jolly, “because we wanted the ability to fully cover things like lead-up events, lesser events we might not staff, and mostly agate events.”

The AP intends Summer Games Plus to be the focus of newspaper coverage that will be even more Web-oriented than the last Summer Games in Athens. With a 12-hour time difference, results will be broken online well ahead of prime-time TV coverage in the U.S.

While some newspapers like the Washington Post will stick to now-standard features of blogging, reporter chats, and audio reports, other papers will approach their online coverage differently. The Boston Globe, for example, will be sending Scott LaPierre ? whom Sullivan describes as “a full-time multimedia person for Boston.com, and he’ll be in charge solely of producing products for the Web.” In addition, the Globe will be handling its coverage of some events differently than in years past due to the time difference between Boston and Beijing: This year, he says, the paper will carry “more event coverage on the Web, while spinning forward in the print edition to the next big event.”

In a year full of big sporting events, the Olympics might be the biggest of them all ? one that might have farther-reaching implications than the U.S. elections. At stake is more than gold and silver medals, but rather the direction of the world’s most populous nation ? whether it will take tentative steps forward into the light, or shuffle back into the darkness and remain there for years. “It’s a landmark event in terms of how the world is changing,” says Sullivan. “It’s just different.”

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