Every sportswriter who works there has a welcome-to-New York moment, and here was mine: a late-May Friday night at Citi Field in 2010. I had been on the Mets beat for less than a month, and they were off to a surprisingly good start, 18-16 through their first 34 games ahead of a three-game set against the Yankees. It wasn't a great start, and it wouldn't last, because nothing surprisingly good about the Mets ever lasts, but it was enough to make a series against the defending World Series champions a bigger deal than it otherwise would have been. I had no idea until I walked into the press box that afternoon how big.
Between the city's two tabloids — the New York Daily News and the New York Post — 18 writers were there for the game, nine from each paper. Nine. For a regular-season baseball game in May. The number spoke to more than just the popularity of baseball in New York. It spoke to the papers' daily battle for sports-coverage supremacy, to each one's commitment to gaining even the slightest advantage by revealing a tidbit of news, covering a pertinent story angle, or delivering a strong opinion that its competitor did not. Did it matter if the Mets or Yankees won the game? It did not matter. There was another, more relevant contest that night at the ballpark: the News' nine against the Post's nine. May the best tab win.
That number speaks to something else now. It represents the number of staff members left in the Daily News' sports department after the newsroom-gutting layoffs that the paper's parent company, Tronc, announced Monday. There were 34. There are nine.
In one sense, it was a stunning development, because the Daily News had been so integral to the culture of New York for so long. In another, it was familiar, part of the same disintegration and realignment of media institutions that have been happening for years. We've gone through it here, at Philadelphia Media Network, and it resulted in the consolidation of the Inquirer's and Daily News' newsrooms and rounds of buyouts and layoffs and waves of anxiety.
To those of us in the business, these episodes are always disheartening. We see colleagues and friends put out of work, and we remember the way things used to be — when newspapers held a veritable monopoly on the delivery of news, and to be swept along by the vibrancy of daily journalism was to live, as Mencken wrote, the life of kings — and we lament the way things are today. Another round here, barkeep.
Such lamentations can be self-serving and myopic, of course, and it's worth noting that, for all the rhetorical and tangible damage that President Trump has done to the press, the industry's problems predate his political rise. From their lack of technological and financial foresight to the errors they commit out of haste or laziness or bias or some mixture of all those factors, newspapers and other media have been contributing to the erosion of their trust and influence among the public for decades. We're still confronting and reckoning with the consequences of that steady decline, and one of those consequences — maybe not the most important one, but an important one nonetheless — is captured in what happened to the New York Daily News on Monday: the difficulty in providing comprehensive, independent sports coverage.
In an age in which a media outlet's viability depends on digital subscriptions and page views and engagement time, there's an inherent conundrum at the core of that mission. The people most likely to invest their time and money are also most likely a particular team's or sport's most passionate followers. They open their wallets after they open their hearts. But covering a sport journalistically often requires a measure of perspective and detachment that cuts against that fervor and loyalty. (It also requires money and manpower, because reporting can be expensive.) A fan blog or rights-holder webpage that links to an Eagles hype video is less likely to detail how Jim Schwartz's ambition and ego once threatened the team's cohesion. An in-house website isn't going to provide much information about an embarrassing scandal within the organization's own front office.
It's easy to succumb to the thinking that the on-field fortunes of the city's sports franchises are everyone's primary concern, that there's an unspoken understanding that deep down everyone is on the same page and just wants our teams to succeed. But a news organization that prizes its credibility and integrity has to be ready at all times to stand alone, even with respect to the games that boys and girls can play. At the risk of falling into one of those self-serving laments I referenced earlier, I appreciate working at a place where journalism and independence are still valued, and I hold out hope that the words still matter, that there are people out there who appreciate good writing, good storytelling, and in-depth reporting.