Why Jordan Spieth’s success presents a dilemma to Dallas Morning News

June 18, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
Bubba Watson helps Jordan Spieth put on his green jacket after winning the Masters golf tournament in April. Dallas Morning News reporters weren't there to witness it. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Bubba Watson helps Jordan Spieth put on his green jacket after winning the Masters golf tournament in April. Dallas Morning News reporters weren’t there to witness it. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Dallas Morning News initially hadn’t planned to staff this week’s U.S. Open in Seattle. However, its golf writer Bill Nichols is on hand because of one reason: Jordan Spieth.

Spieth, the newly-minted Masters champion, presents the Morning News with quite a dilemma. Despite limited resources, the paper is trying to figure out how to cover a local product who is the hottest young star in golf.

“Jordan has been an interesting test case in the new world for us,” said sports editor Garry Leavell.

Leavell says his travel budget is roughly a third of what it was 5 or 6 years ago. As a result, the Morning News stopped covering golf’s majors after the Masters in 2011.

“It’s all about economics,” Leavell said.

The Morning News hardly is alone, as other newspapers have cut back on staffing majors. However, this is a huge departure for a golf-obsessed sports section that once had national golf writers staffing 15-20 tournaments per year. I can recall the Morning News had three seats in the Augusta National press room during my days covering golf for the Chicago Tribune. I was told the Morning News was “grandfathered in” when the club denied our request for a third seat for the Tribune.

The Morning News, though, wasn’t at the Masters in April when the 21-year-old Spieth donned the green jacket with a stunning performance. Leavell says he considered sending a reporter to Augusta during the weekend after Spieth jumped out to an early lead. However, the cost was prohibitive for a full-priced airfare.

Leavell went with Plan B to chronicle Spieth’s historic victory. Nichols wrote a 1-A story based on watching the tournament on TV with members at Spieth’s Dallas club. Kevin Sherrington and Barry Horn contributed columns. Leavell also hired former Washington Post golf writer, Len Shapiro, to file a story from Augusta. Add a picture page, and the Morning News had 17 columns dedicated to Spieth.

Leavell said it was an impressive package, but he knew something was missing.

“For those of us who have been around here a long time, it was painful [for a Morning News reporter or columnist] not to be there,” Leavell said. “It goes against your instincts. The writers were asking questions about it. It’s a very difficult call.”

After Spieth’s victory, Leavell and his staff addressed whether it could afford to send Nichols out to Seattle for a week to cover the U.S. Open. He ultimately said yes, but there will be a cost.

“It will affect our travel budget with the football season coming up,” Leavell said.

On the one hand, how could the Morning News not be there if Spieth won a second straight major? However, there also is some risk. What if Spieth doesn’t contend, or even worse, doesn’t make the cut? Golf isn’t basketball, where LeBron James, win or lose, will be a story until the end of the game.

“We’re really hoping Jordan plays well this week,” Leavell said.

The larger issue is whether a newspaper needs to staff a tournament or game in the new media environment. Interview transcripts are available immediately and there is ample opportunity to mine information elsewhere to write a comprehensive story.

The difference, Leavell said, is the access that comes from being on site that enables reporters to do deeper and more compelling stories.

“We have a good relationship with Jordan and his family,” Leavell said. “Jordan called [Nichols] from New York [during a post-Masters media blitz]. OK, but if you’re not at these events from now on, do you lose that connection, those relationships?

“Jordan and his family have such great stories. You can tell them if you’re there. There still are good stories if you’re not there, but there are fewer of them. And you certainly can’t do them as quickly and efficiently.”

The Morning News will have Spieth covered this week at the U.S. Open. Nichols wrote a story  Wednesday on why the young golfer believes he can win the Grand Slam in 2015.

That prospect sets up another dilemma for Leavell. Will the Morning News staff the British Open at St. Andrews if Spieth wins the U.S. Open? The answer should be yes given the hype for him going into that tournament. However, the expense of sending a reporter for a week in Scotland could make the U.S. Open trip seem like small change.

Leavell said he is weighing his options, not to mention his travel budget. Then he apologized for falling back on the oldest cliché in sports. “I hate to say it, but we’re taking it one game at a time,” he said.

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Recommended reading on sports journalism:

Anna Clark in CJR cites the lack of coverage for women’s sports even during the Women’s World Cup.

APSE does a Q/A with reporters who chronicled American Pharoah’s Triple Crown.

Jeff Pearlman has a Q/A with long-time ESPN anchor Linda Cohn.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an opening for a Green Bay Packers beat reporter.

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