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Inside baseball (continued)


Related links

Boston Red Sox

The official site of the Boston Red Sox, complete with schedule information, and background on Fenway Park and the team.

Boston Globe online

The Boston Globe–owned Red Sox page of Boston.com includes updated Sox news, Eric Wilbur’s Boston Sports Blog, archived columns by Globe sportswriters, mailbags by NESN personalities, and more.

Boston Herald online

The online sports section of the Boston Herald.

Bruce Allen

Bruce Allen’s invaluable roundup of daily sports coverage from New England newspapers.

Sons of Sam Horn

A members-only Red Sox discussion site (non-members can read much of the discussion).

Boston Dirt Dogs

A well-read and sometimes controversial site with links to a multitude of other locations of interest to Sox fans.

Soxaholix

Incisive blog that uses a cast of clip-art characters to comment on the Sox’ trials and tribulations.

Mike Miliard

Boston Phoenix writer Mike Miliard’s Red Sox blog.

Despite changes in the media landscape, the daily press still sets the table

In some ways, a lot has changed since the days when the sports section in the morning newspaper was the unrivaled king of Red Sox coverage.

The Internet and the 24-hour news cycle make it possible for baseball junkies to find a steady source of news. If they miss a game broadcast on NESN, fans can see Sox highlights three times by midnight on ESPN’s Baseball Today and SportsCenter. As a result, game stories become something of a writing exercise, and notebook columns are the place where sportswriters for the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and other dailies try to generate fresh news and scoop the competition.

Sports-talk station WEEI (850 AM) has proven a ratings success, mixing regular appearances by the likes of Peter Gammons, Curt Schilling, and Larry Lucchino with an in-your-face conservative viewpoint on the morning drive-time Dennis & Callahan, the more mellow Dale & Holley, and other programming. (In 2002, the Globe, citing offensive content, banned its sportswriters from appearing on D&C and Glenn Ordway’s The Big Show. The ban remains in effect.) The station scores periodic scoops; thanks to an interview with Terry Francona, it was first to report that Curt Schilling was bound for the ailing Sox bullpen. In the view of at least one sportswriter, WEEI has supplanted the Globe as a dominant source of water-cooler conversation for a certain demographic. "The chances are, if you’re 25 years old and you’re a sports fan, you’re going to listen to ’EEI at some point in the day," he says.

Meanwhile, and not surprisingly for a team with a passionate, far-flung following like the Sox, a multitude of blogs chronicle the team’s fortunes. The members-only discussion of www.sonsofsamhorn.net offers a high level of expertise, while the idiosyncratic www.survivinggrady.com is aptly blurbed by Stewart O’Nan, co-author of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, as "Red Sox Nation’s Mystery Science Theater 3000."

But despite all the changes in the environment, the sports sections of the Herald and Globe remain thick with baseball stories, including several sidebars for each Sox game — sending a clear message that mediocre coverage just wouldn’t cut it in this town.

The sparring between old and new media can be seen in the mostly one-sided pissing match between hip Sox blog www.soxaholix.com (which details the team’s fortunes through clip-art-style figures, New England accents, and a savvy understanding of media) and Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

Years ago, Shaughnessy responded to a critical e-mail from the site’s creator, Hart Brachen, by supposedly responding, "If you’re so smart, why don’t you get a job like mine and get your own column." On May 24 of this year, Brachen’s site was trumpeting the irrelevancy of print reporters. "Ah, the hubris of these guys," one Soxaholix character sighed. "You think the CHB [curly-haired boyfriend, as Shaughnessy is often referred to] still responds to writers that way considering that a whole bunch of smart fans did start their own columns by way of blogs?" But by the next day, Soxaholix had again linked to a Globe story, this one detailing an inter-league game between the Sox and the Braves.

Baseball historian Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), sums up the situation this way: "If the newspapers shut down tomorrow, the blogs and radio shows would have nothing to talk about it, because they don’t do the reporting."

_ID

CONFLICTING REPORTS

To some, the Globe’s inclination to shrug off concerns about these overlapping business interests is more than a little myopic. There would be a hue and cry, critics say, if Globe publisher Gilman served in an investor-management role with an entity such as Raytheon, but it’s deemed less serious because the holding is a sports team — no matter that baseball has long been a big business and that the Red Sox play a multifaceted role as a storied cultural institution with considerable civic influence.

"Almost without exception, they have operated on the up and up, and it’s not as if they’re afraid to criticize ownership," says a sportswriter at another paper. "What does bother me — there is this double standard, that if someone else was in the same predicament about even the appearance of a conflict, the Globe would be the first one to mention it, but because it’s their parent company, it’s like, ‘Oh, we know how to take care of it.’"

This source also cites a widespread suspicion among other sportswriters "that the Red Sox are taking care of their own" by feeding the Globe slips and leaks about the direction of the franchise and other news- and business-type stories. While some observers dismiss this view, attributing the broadsheet’s coups simply to good reporting, the Globe scored another big scoop during spring training, breaking the story of how the Sox ownership had committed to remaining at Fenway Park.

Charles Steinberg, the Sox’ genial executive vice-president for public affairs, rejects the notion that the Globe is gaining an edge in coverage because of the Times Company’s investment. "If the Red Sox were to give any preferential treatment to the Globe, what benefit has that?" he asks.

A Globe staffer offers a similar view. The Times’ 17 percent ownership stake in the franchise "hasn’t been an issue in the newsroom," this insider says. "It’s an uncomfortable conflict in the abstract, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s made no difference at all." Still, the source admits, "There are plenty of people inside the newsroom who are uncomfortable with the investment, but nobody asks us about it."

Shaughnessy says the paper’s link with the Sox through the Times Company "puts everyone in somewhat of an awkward position. All we can do is write what we believe, and think and trust that the readers will see that we’re independent of any financial conflicts or overlaps." Shaughnessy doesn’t perceive any benefit for the Globe from the connections, "but I understand that it does raise eyebrows. It would make me wonder if I was at the other paper."

PLAYING DEFENSE

Globe editor Marty Baron says suggestions that a "cartel" links together the Times Company, the Globe, and the Red Sox are plainly mistaken. "I’m not aware of a single instance where our coverage has been influenced by the corporate connection, and we’ve maintained our journalistic independence completely," Baron says. When it comes to the perception of possible conflicts, "All I can do is address the issue of reality."

Indeed, although some observers, including Steinberg, credit the Herald with offering more aggressive business coverage of the team, the Globe has picked up the pace, recently assigning Sasha Talcott to a part-time sports-business beat. The Globe has done its share of tough stories, including a Sunday front-pager in April by Andrea Estes that described how the new ownership has significantly expanded alcohol sales at Fenway, adding at least 16 new beer stands. Subsequent stories detailed management vows of a crackdown on drunken behavior, and how a Boston police officer in the three-member squad that monitors Fenway and other alcohol-serving establishments was also on the payroll of Major League Baseball, as a security agent for the Red Sox.

Baron acknowledges his paper’s less-than-perfect record in disclosing the Globe-Sox relationship in every story or editorial with a corporate connection, "but we try to be diligent about it. I suspect that there are very few readers at this point that don’t know that the New York Times Company, which owns the Globe, has a stake in the Red Sox."

As Gilman explains it, the Times Company has two seats on the partners’ committee of New England Sports Ventures, the holding company for the Red Sox and NESN. "It’s not a board or a board of directors per se," he says, "but a group consisting of those who have a financial stake in the Red Sox.... The managing partners control the business on a day-to-day basis. We’re not involved in that in any way. The limited partners are called upon to monitor their investment, and periodically called upon to approve major decisions that the club wants to make."

Asked whether his role with the Red Sox — a leading cultural and news-making institution — represents a conflict, Gilman says, "Our editors and our journalists, their task is a difficult one, but it’s a direct one. It’s to cover the news without fear or favor, as they say. My job is somewhat more complex than that. I both run and represent the Globe in public and the [Times Company subsidiary] New England Media Group, which means that I’m involved in all of our media properties and a variety of community activities. That means balancing the needs and desires of many different interests, and keeping those interests entirely separate whenever it’s necessary to do so." Ultimately, he says, the success of those efforts is "quite clear from the independence of journalism ... I think the proof is in the product."

COMPETITIVE BALANCE

If the Globe has had a difficult time replacing heavyweights like Peter Gammons and Will McDonough, the paper’s sports section continues to devote copious coverage to the Red Sox and other sporting news. Yet despite the dominance of the Globe, which creams the Herald with a bigger and more advertiser-friendly suburban demographic, sports is one area where the two dailies continue to compete on a basically equal footing.

In fact, the ability of the scrappy Herald to score scoops — such as Tony Massarotti’s revelation that Trot Nixon will require post-season leg surgery, or Massarotti and Michael Silverman’s report that Keith Foulke was getting reviewed early in the season at a sports-medicine clinic in Alabama — illustrates how both sports sections are a must-read for the far-flung legion of Sox obsessives.

Boston’s sportswriters have displayed little reluctance to criticize the Red Sox, especially when things aren’t going well. When he came on the job in 2001, Baron could more easily bat away questions about the Times Company’s involvement, since metro columnist Brian McGrory and business columnist Steve Bailey — like the local press in general — favored suitors other than the eventual buyers of the team. At the same time, the symbiotic relationship between the Sox and the dailies, which reached a crescendo last fall, is certainly good for selling newspapers. There’s also a widely held view that the press has been too accepting of management pronouncements about Fenway — be it the previous ownership’s insistence that the ballpark couldn’t be saved or the current regime’s reversal of course.

The ability to offer critical coverage notwithstanding, the big broadsheet has traditionally been subtly supportive of the team, while the Herald has delighted in tweaking the Globe. With the linkage of the Globe and the Sox, this dynamic has grown sharper, as the Herald has assumed the role of the loyal opposition. A case in point is how the tabloid devoted prominent attention to the latest hike in Sox ticket prices, the most costly in baseball.

Going forward, Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan faces the task of maintaining the broadsheet’s reputation for having one of the best sports sections in the country — and perhaps adding a little zip to it.

As is stands, New England’s baseball enthusiasts arguably have the best of both worlds — not just the improbable world champions, but also two dailies, as well as a host of other papers and Web sites in Red Sox Nation that aggressively compete and assiduously cover the Red Sox. But for those willing to look beyond the diamond, the story of what happens when Boston baseball collides with media consolidation will remain a similarly dramatic game whose last inning is far from over.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com

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Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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