Sports Media Exchange Offers News Orgs a Federation of Freelancers

The most important line in Clay Shirky’s oft-quoted essay about the revolution in news is this: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” As Shirky puts it, “That’s what revolutions are like.”

Most of us are a lot better at spotting what’s broken than we are at building something to fill the gap. Entrepreneurs who are working that gap, though, are doing some of the most interesting work in journalism these days.

Journalists are launching new ventures in such areas as investigative reporting, health care and courts.

And sports.

What’s breaking: The Sports Business Journal reported last month that 50 North American daily newspapers had cut the equivalent of 303 full-time jobs between late 2007 and mid-2009. The Journal also reported that the papers had cut space devoted to sports by 20 percent and that all but two of the papers had trimmed what they spend on travel to out-of-town games.

What’s emerging: The Sports Media Exchange, a matchmaking service designed to link experienced sportswriters with news organizations looking for less expensive, localized, customized content.

The entrepreneurs behind the exchange are Andy Kent, a former NFL beat writer for the Naples Daily News who now writes for miamidolphins.com, and Samuel Chi and Jill R. Dorson, former California sportswriters (Santa Rosa Democrat, San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times, among others). Chi and Dorson are married and have owned a bed and breakfast on Amelia Island, Fla., since 2003.

More than 500 people have filled out the registration form at their site, according to the organizers, 112 of whom have documented sufficient sportswriting experience to make it into the service’s writers database. More than 70 are in a bloggers group.

Sam Chi said there’s some overlap between the two groups, with most of the writers “veterans with 10 or more years of experience.” He said the bloggers “may be a little less experienced as journalists but have more blogging experience, or are interested in starting their own blogs but lack technical experience.”

The Exchange hopes to win the business of news organizations and other outlets that are cutting coverage from previous years, when they may have sent two or more staffers on the road with the local professional or college team.

The Exchange has not signed any deals yet, but Dorson said: “We are still working with news organizations, media outlets and sports leagues and believe that we are very close.”

In the meantime, papers are setting up their own federation, with 49 papers joining a content-sharing alliance.

Kent and his partners argue that, rather than settling for reduced coverage or generic sidebars from a wire service, their clients can get reasonably priced coverage from an experienced freelancer, located and vetted by the Exchange.

“Papers may be sending only one person to a game, but they still want to be able to get something from the [other] locker room or get a story with a specific local angle,” Kent said in a telephone interview.

He said the Exchange is pitching news organizations on various packages up to and including all eight away games for NFL teams, as well as select college games. Newspapers and other outlets — including the Web sites of the teams themselves, for example — also could arrange for coverage of a single event.

“The papers will pay one flat rate,” Kent said, “and we pay the writer.” Sports Media Exchange would make money on the difference between what the papers pay and the freelancers get, and it would handle the freelancers’ invoices and tax forms.

In a follow up e-mail, Kent said the organizers saw “an opening” to serve both the needs of publications and freelancers, many of whom have laid off from sportswriting beats. The goal, he said, is “finding work for the freelancers and helping the papers and other outlets get their unique stories written from the road at a time when budgets and staffs are being slashed.”

The idea began as a job board, he said, but morphed into an exchange database after conversations with sports editors at some large metro papers.

In an e-mail exchange Monday, Dorson noted the difference between entrepreneurial ideas and successful ventures. “I’ve talked with many out-of-work journalists who have great ideas and/or are already writing great things for their own Web sites or blogs,” she said, “but they don’t know how to market or get their names out there.”

She added, “More and more people are losing jobs, but the best and most creative of those people will help to generate the jobs of the future because they will develop ideas and, ultimately, businesses that fill needs that are no longer being met. … The model for newspapers is changing and we want to be on the cutting edge of that change.”

Chi, who runs his own blog about college football and works as an editor at RealClearPolitics.com, traced his ideas for the Exchange to the six months he spent writing RealClearPolitics’ Media Watch blog — as well as his road trips as a sportswriter.

“As a former sports reporter who did lots of traveling on beats, I know how much (and sometimes how wasteful) it is to send writers on the road,” he told me by e-mail. “With a bad economy and tight budgets, it seems natural to provide a service where newspapers can continue to provide good and exclusive content without completely reverting to using wire services.”

Chi noted that he has seen a lot of despair among journalists now. “Many of them are paralyzed because they feel they’re at a dead end. My advice would be, go out there and learn as much as you can. … Don’t be afraid of the brave new world. The beauty of the Internet is that you can learn so much from just sitting in front of your computer. Search. Learn. Experiment.”

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