Richard Sandomir on the disruption of newspapers, the rise of ESPN and 25 years covering sports media

Think about it.

When Richard Sandomir took over the sports media beat at The New York Times in 1991, newspapers were thriving as the prime source for sports news. Somebody even had the idea to launch The National, a daily sports newspaper. During the first half of 1991, it still was churning out great stories, if not great profits.

The Internet in 1991? Is that a new spy movie?

In 1991, there still was only a single network at ESPN, and Keith Olbermann was doing sports in Los Angeles. Bill Simmons, meanwhile, was a struggling young writer hoping to break through in Boston.

In 1991, Fox was a fledgling new network. The notion that it could land the crown jewel, the rights to the NFL, almost was as preposterous as Donald Trump ever being elected president.

And 140 characters was a sentence, not the basis of a platform that transformed communications.

Also, back then, virtually every major newspaper had a sports media columnist. In fact, Rudy Martzke, the long-time sports media heavyweight, was so popular at USA Today, people still listed him as the paper’s favorite columnist long after he retired.

For 25 years, Sandomir wrote about the epic shifts in the landscape that included most major newspapers, struggling to stay alive, eventually eliminating the sports media column. Now there will be one fewer, as Sandomir, a major voice on the beat, has decided to move on. He has joined the paper’s obits team, one of the great staples of The New York Times.

“Obits always have been one of the best read things in the paper,” Sandomir said. “Twenty-five years is a long time. I just thought it was time.”

It was quite a ride for Sandomir. To say that he covered a revolution in sports media would be an understatement. Back in 1991, nobody could have imagined how radically different the business would be in 2016.

“I was cleaning out some stuff the other day, and I came across some notes printed on old computer paper. Remember computer paper?” Sandomir said. “Back then, the only feedback you’d get from readers was in the form of a letter. You’d write your column, and a few days later, you would get a response. Now the comments are instantaneous. Some of that is very good; some of that not so good.”

Looking back, it all seems rather quaint. Sandomir didn’t even get ESPN when he took over the beat in 1991; his building had yet to be wired for cable. It wasn’t that big of a deal since the majority of major sports coverage still aired on CBS, NBC, and ABC.

“It was a very, very narrow world,” Sandomir said. “The network sports divisions were like boutique companies. Most of their sports programming was on the weekends. It was much easier to look at the landscape as compared to now. Now it’s hard to see the full field with everything out there. It keeps broadening.”

The pace also was vastly different. Sandomir recalled covering wrestler Rulon Gardner’s upset victory in a gold medal match during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Given the 16-hour time difference, Sandomir said after getting post-match quotes, he ate dinner before submitting his story.

“Then I went to sleep,” Sandomir said. “When I woke up, my editor was just getting to the story, and then it went out. You couldn’t do that anymore.”

Sandomir, like everyone else, had to adapt to a media world where the deadline is, “Post it now.” Writers also have to be adept at being active on social media. He marvels at Sports Illustrated sports media writer Richard Deitsch, a prolific tweeter with 183,000 followers.

“I don’t know he has time to do anything else,” Sandomir said.

Early on during his tenure on the beat, Sandomir decided he would cover sports media more from a business standpoint. He wrote about the emergence of regional sports networks (RSNs), as they produced game-changing revenues for leagues and teams.

Naturally, ESPN become Sandomir’s main focus. He said the network “is the Pentagon for sports TV.” In 2013, he teamed with James Andrew Miller (author of the bestselling ESPN book, “These Guys Have All The Fun”) and Steve Eder for a three-part series on ESPN.

“ESPN was big in the early ‘90s, but it became so much bigger,” Sandomir said.

From a journalistic standpoint, Sandomir wrote many stories about the conflicts ESPN has in trying to objectively cover sports leagues while being a business partner with multi-billion dollar rights deals. He says the network’s last-minute pullout of the PBS Frontline “League of Denial” documentary on concussions in the NFL “was not its finest moment.”

“With ESPN, you’re always looking at whether they were fair in covering sports (where they have a rights deal),” Sandomir said. “It’s a difficult position for them to be in. ESPN has more resources than anyone else. They can cover everything as well as they want, if they so choose.”

Going forward, however, Sandomir sees less of an emphasis on the journalism aspect, especially at the regional sports network level. Journalism is expensive, he says. The trend seems to be more on the debate format, with Fox Sports 1 jumping in head first with new shows featuring Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd.

“If you can get 200,000 eyeballs for those shows, they’re going to do more of it,” Sandomir said. “Fox Sports 1 is pledging its allegiance to debate.”

As for the future of sports media, that will be someone else’s responsibility to cover at The New York Times, assuming the paper replaces Sandomir. He says he can’t say for sure as newsrooms continue to shrink.

Sandomir, meanwhile, is looking forward to his new job. Under the heading of any publicity is good publicity, he says he already got an interesting call.

“A well-known sports executive asked me, ‘When are you going to come by to talk about my obit?’” Sandomir said.


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