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The Washington Times’ Second Mistake

The beginning of 2010 brought sad news for the sportswriting world: As part of its latest round of layoffs, the Washington Times had decided to eliminate its sports section – 25 staffers.

Even after 18 months of grim newspaper tidings, such news first struck me as too bad to be true. But it was. After a flurry of farewell columns and blog posts, the Times’ sports section went silent.

This drastic move was painful to witness on many levels. A newspaper is supposed to be a crucial part of a place’s social fabric, the information source that connects disparate strands of people, of interests and, of course, of news – news good and bad, big and small, stunning and routine. Sports offer not only a reassuringly steady flow of such news, but also ways to connect people who might not otherwise be connected. Sports can bridge divides of race and religion, age and class. Sports are key to any town’s identity, and the sports section is a key part of any newspaper. Even in these times, to see a paper jettison that was disturbing.

And the Washington Times had done some very good things in D.C., despite competing with the Post’s deep bench of terrific writers and the City Paper’s sublime Dave McKenna. It had won plaudits for its critical coverage of the increasingly bizarre Redskins. It had veteran columnists with deep roots in Dan Daly and Thom Loverro. Tim Lemke had carved out a great niche covering the business of sports. Now, all of that was gone.

I’m a news guy who knows firsthand what it’s like to be downsized, and so, of course, I mourn seeing other journalists go through the same thing. But I’m also a Web guy, and I bristle when my peers treat papers that have shuttered their print operations but continue online like they’re extinct. Too many heartfelt farewells to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Ann Arbor News ignored the fact that both papers are carrying on as Web sites, or gave that fact insultingly short shrift. I wondered if the same thing was happening here. Surely the Times’ sports section would still exist online, right?

Right.

Unfortunately.

At first glance, the Times’ sports page looks the way it did a couple of weeks ago: There’s a carousel of top stories with photos, stats for the local teams and links to news from the various leagues and colleges. But aside from some farewells still hanging around (Lemke’s includes a blank list of upcoming Washington Times stories), everything is wire copy. Instead of lively blogs and columns, the page soon decays into columns of RSS feeds. It’s someone’s maintenance task, a robot section.

That’s compounding an error. With a relatively small effort, the Times could have continued to serve its readers and acknowledged the importance of sports to its mission. The Times should have assigned someone to provide a link-heavy overview of D.C. sports once or twice a day. That person could have leveraged the work of papers and blogs world-wide, giving Times readers links to the best sports material while keeping a distinctive voice, local flavor and point of view.

In the lingo of Web journalism this is called curation — an awful term, I’ll grant you, but a useful one. If you really can’t stand it, think of it this way: It’s about creating gateways.

Let me be very clear about something: Even done well, curation would be no substitute for the talent and experience and passion of the people the Times let go. But it would be a lot better – and better received – than the thin gruel the Times now offers. (A call to the Times asking about their future plans for the section wasn’t returned. If anybody there wants to discuss those plans, I’m all ears. jason.fry@gmail.com)

Whether we like it or not, more news organizations are going to decide to “do what they do best and link to the rest,” to quote media guru Jeff Jarvis. But to make that strategy work, “link to the rest” can’t be dropped or pursued as an afterthought. It may become the work of a person or two instead of an entire staff, and it may not even take up one person’s entire day, but it still demands care, passion and writing chops.

Nearly a decade ago, I learned to be a curator without realizing that was what I was doing. In the summer of 2001, The Wall Street Journal Online launched the Daily Fix, its daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. I started as its editor, then took over co-writing duties the next year.

The Fix was intended as a showcase for great sportswriting – the idea was to quote enough of a column to whet readers’ appetite for the whole thing. But readers pushed the column to evolve into something different – something that proved pretty interesting. Readers took us to task if we didn’t offer columns about the previous night’s biggest sports stories, whether or not the sportswriting was the best available. When we led with links to great columns about tangential things, they took us to task. After a while we realized that what they wanted from the Fix wasn’t what we’d set out to give them. They wanted a quick, mid-morning take on the sports world – a primer for the water cooler, if you will.

What we wound up giving them was a form of curation — an overview of the day in sports that rewarded following links, but could also stand alone. By doing that, we took care of our audience: At the time the Online Journal had just a bare-bones sports section, but the Fix let us make use of anybody’s good sports reporting and writing. That’s the promise of curation, when it’s done right: We may not be a destination for this subject, but we are a gateway. Either way, you can trust us to get you where you need to go.

The Times’s cutbacks ensure its days as a sports destination are over, but it could still become a gateway. To achieve that, though, the paper needs to find someone on staff who can spend the morning assembling a quick, snappy and entertaining tour – with lots of links – of the sports world. That wouldn’t bring back what’s been lost, but it would still be a wise investment – and a cost-effective one.

What the Times has now is just a waste — a commodity page of the sort readers could find anywhere. That’s not a gateway, but its opposite: a box canyon. Good gateways teach readers to trust you, but box canyons teach them the opposite. And readers learn quickly.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.


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