What the New York Times learned from pulling its Knicks beat writer this season

When Scott Cacciola started the season as the Knicks beat writer for the New York Times, he didn’t anticipate that by January he would be writing about a girls fifth-grade basketball team in Springfield, Ill. instead of Carmelo Anthony. He thought a February road trip would be to Chicago for a game against the Bulls, not to New Zealand to report on a team in Australia’s National Basketball League.

Cacciola never envisioned going more than two months without seeing a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden. “I hope they still honor my credential,” he joked in anticipation of attending a game this week.

Cacciola’s odd season was the result of sports editor Jason Stallman’s decision to pull him off the Knicks beat in January. In a note to readers on Jan. 13, Stallman explained the Times chose to invoke “the mercy rule” on Cacciola. Basically, he wrote the Knicks were so horrendous they weren’t worthy of full-time coverage by the Times.

[caption id="attachment_327901" align="alignleft" width="300"]New York Times' Knicks beat writer didn't have  to write about this New York Knicks loss after sports editor Jason Stallman mercifully pulled the team beat writer from covering the horrendous season. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee), New York Times' Knicks beat writer didn't have to write about this New York Knicks loss after sports editor Jason Stallman mercifully pulled the team beat writer from covering the horrendous season. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee),[/caption]

“The Knicks gave up on the season for strategic reasons [The Knicks traded two of its star players],” Stallman said in an interview. “We thought, ‘What’s the point of having a designated person cover this non-team?’”

Stallman thought the Times’ readers would be better served by having Cacciola report on interesting basketball stories around the world. After basically writing the same story about one loss after another for the depleted Knicks, Cacciola felt like a freed man.

“Early this season it was obvious there wasn’t a lot going on,” Cacciola said. “It did get monotonous at times. Selfishly, this was a great opportunity. Your whole thing as a sportswriter is to try to do interesting stories. This was a breath of fresh air.”

The end result is a series of Cacciola stories that the Times appropriately named, “Not the Knicks.” The tone was set from the onset when Cacciola was assigned to write about a Central Illinois girls’ grade-school team that was excelling in a boys league. The story included this quote:

“We’d walk in, and all the boys would be like, ‘We’re playing girls?’ ” said Anne Rupnik, a point guard. “Then we’d beat them. Some of them cried.”

The genesis for the story came from another unconventional move by Stallman: He solicited suggestions from readers. Initially, he worried that he wouldn’t get much of a response or that the ideas would be “snarky.” Instead, he was overwhelmed by the quality and volume of the readers’ submissions.

“There were so many excellent story ideas that the New York Times would be proud to do,” Stallman said. “I’m now convinced that our readers are an excellent resource for ideas.  We definitely will have it at the front of our minds for other types of coverage.”

One of those ideas was about a team from New Zealand competing in an Australian league. Cacciola said he “half-jokingly” asked Stallman if he wanted him to go Down Under to report the story. Stallman, though, said yes and Cacciola was off on his longest road trip of the season.

“The Knicks are notorious for their lack of access,” Cacciola said. “So it was nice to do stories where I clearly would have greater access. It was fun to interview people to find out what goes into winning basketball at different levels.”

Meanwhile, the losing has continued for the Knicks. If there’s one thing Stallman could change, it would be to clarify the notion that the Times wasn’t going to cover the team. He has assigned other reporters to fill in for Cacciola at home games and to write about other Knicks news.

However, the Times isn’t staffing most road games and the volume of coverage is way down from what it normally would be. Cacciola said he received criticism from some Knicks fans.

“They said, ‘Just because the team is losing doesn’t make them less newsworthy,’” Cacciola said. “I can understand where they are coming from. But at the same time if you’re a newspaper trying to maximize resources, and if you have a team that isn’t interesting, shouldn’t you try to find stories to reach a broader audience?”

Stallman said there had been “a colorful debate” on the Times’ sports desk on when Cacciola would resume coverage of the Knicks. Stallman was reluctant to retreat on the “Not the Knicks” series because there still were more compelling stories to do. However, with the NBA playoffs looming and the Knicks likely having a busy off-season, Cacciola told readers Wednesday that he was back on the beat.

Looking back, Stallman thinks this exercise has been a rousing success. However, that begs the obvious question: Would he ever consider doing the same thing with his beat writers for the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, or Rangers? The Mets hardly have been gang-busters in recent years. Imagine the reaction if the Times pulled off an epic bad Yankees team?

“That’s a very interesting question,” Stallman said. “The circumstances with the Knicks and basketball were unique. It’s hard to say whether we would do it again. I do know that some of the other beat writers did raise their hands.”


An update: Last month, I wrote about Dave Kindred, one of the top sportswriters of this generation, covering the girls’ basketball team at Morton High School in Central Illinois. It’s been a labor of love for Kindred, whose fee is one box of Milk Duds per game.

It turns out Morton won the Illinois state title. The team insisted that Kindred receive a medal during the award presentation. Here’s the report from CINews.com.


Recommended reading on sports journalism:

Lesley Visser is the latest subject in the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series by the Povich Center at Maryland.

Bryan Curtis of Grantland wrote an excellent piece on Dave Goldberg, the long-time NFL writer for the Associated Press who died recently.

Art Thiel of SportspressNW.com celebrates the man who chased down the person who stole his laptop.

In case you were wondering, Jay Mariotti has landed a job at the San Francisco Examiner.

Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report


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