They came for the classifieds... and then the sports...

by Conor Friedersdorf

Even for a news junkie like me, the most enjoyable part of the newspaper growing up was the sports section. The Los Angeles Times fluctuated wildly in quality over the years, but it always covered the Los Angeles Lakers well. It's no wonder. That team is the closest thing Metro LA has to a unifying presence. Doesn't matter if you're black, white, or Latino, rich or poor, a San Fernando Valley porn producer or an Orange County Young Republican. The Lakers are your team. A newspaper in that town would be foolish not to cover them well, along with the Dodgers, UCLA, USC and the soccer squads. Thus I got to read the estimable Mark Heisler, who covers the NBA generally, Tim Brown, a former Lakers beat writer who did a great job, TJ Simmers, an acerbic misanthrope who did good reporting and analysis, the awful, saccharine columnist Bill Plaschke -- imagine Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd combining as a sportswriter -- and JA Adande, who recently left the LA Times for

This latest championship run, the ninth in my lifetime (not including sundry other trips to The Finals), the LA Times Lakers coverage was weaker than I've ever seen it. Often as not, I just went to, where Mr. Adande and Marc Stein, among others, wrote often on my favorite team -- and it looks as though that's what lots of Southern Californians will be doing exclusively in the future:

ESPN has long dominated the coverage of national athletics, pumping out news and commentary on every major sport (and some not-so-major ones) via an expanding network of cable channels, Web sites and mobile services.
Now, after a promising test run in Chicago, ESPN is adding local offshoots to three more cities. On Monday, ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, plans to announce local Web sites in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas in what executives say is only the “first inning” of their effort to provide hyperlocal sports coverage in cities across the country.

Obviously this is more bad news for newspapers that are already struggling financially -- and insofar as they're going to lose subscribers and thus resources, it's bad news for anyone who cares about the more meaty kinds of reporting done by those newspapers. And it's good news for sports fans. I suppose a lot of folks who care about Los Angeles journalism, as I most certainly do, are going to lament this move by ESPN, but I won't be among them.

The disaggregation of newspaper content is an inevitability. Was there civic utility in the fact that a guy going for the sports page happened to see what his local mayor was up to by virtue of flipping through the sections? Sure, but that is a rather small matter. As I see it, "important" news is going to have to stand on its own going forward, and the challenge for those who care about journalism is to nudge the culture toward valuing it properly once the "subsidies" -- the advertising and the sports section and style coverage and all the rest -- aren't available anymore. Will citizens appropriately value journalism that adds civic utility? I'm a pessimist, but one who thinks that time is best spent making the case that undervalued journalism is important, rather than trying to preserve a bundle that isn't going to last much longer.