Newspapers increase drain-circling velocity

The latest newspaper figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations are just jaw-dropping. Editor & Publisher reports that daily circulation for the six months ending March 31 was off 7 percent at 395 dailies, compared to the same period the year before.

But at some of the country’s most prominent papers, it’s much worse than that. The New York Post lost 20 percent — one in five people who was reading the Post a year ago is no longer reading it. Same goes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Miami Herald, Newark Star-Ledger and San Francisco Chronicle lost about 16 percent, or about one in six readers. The Houston Chronicle and New York Daily News about 14 percent. And on and on. Sunday numbers are similar.

The only news event in my lifetime that I can compare this to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. I remember reading the stories coming out of Moscow in 1988 and ’89 as the USSR dismantled itself and thinking, “I’m watching the end of something I never dreamed would end in my lifetime — and I’m not that old!”

I’m saying that again, though the not-that-old part is quite a bit less true.

It’s not quite the same with newspapers. They’re not going to disappear completely. But right before our eyes, they’re collapsing as a central institution in our culture. It’s as if streetlights or shoes or sliced bread went away. You just never thought you’d see it, did you? Life would go on without those things, but it would be different. Something would replace them. Maybe better, maybe not.

Because I’m excited about the possibilities of what might replace newspaper’s role, I know it seems like I’m happy to see them go, that I’m dancing on their grave. I’m not. I’m sorry to see them fail like this. I’m sad and worried about the many people, some of whom I know, who have lost their jobs and the many more who have an ax over their heads.

And I’m sorry to see the decline. For all the brave new worldness of my first online job in 1996, I missed working at the newspaper. I missed being in a big-city newsroom with seasoned newspaper people, the most senior of whom had hired on after returning from World War II. I missed being a part of something with direct ties, a straight historical line, to the 19th century. I missed helping to produce a product that I could see people using as I rode the bus home from my shift.

Still do.

That said, the utter failure rampant in newspapers couldn’t have happened to a more deserving industry. It didn’t have to happen, and it isn’t just happening because the Internet came along and changed everything. More on that next time.

In or out? Come on, man

According to the baseball prospect site Scouting Book, the No. 104 and 105 prospects in baseball right now are, respectively, left-handed pitcher Josh Outman of the Oakland A’s and right-handed pitcher Will Inman of the San Diego Padres.

And yes, I am interested in who the 105th best prospect in baseball is, aren’t you?

Outman, 24, who has about the best name for a pitcher since Barney Strikeout back in the ’20s, came over from Philadelphia in the Joe Blanton trade. He’s not just a prospect, he’s a rookie. He had a cup of coffee last year and made the A’s rotation out of spring training. After two poor starts he’s in the bullpen.

So far in two starts and two relief outings he has an ERA of 5.23, with 11 strikeouts and six walks in 10 and a third innings. He has a mid-90s fastball and an arsenal of breaking balls, but control has been a problem.

Inman, 22, is a little guy — for a pitcher, that is; he’s 6-foot, 200 pounds — who has dominated in the minors, striking out well over a batter per inning with a better-than 3-1 strikeout to walk ratio. But his size and unorthodox pitching motion have led scouts to discount the results. Here’s ESPN’s Keith Law after watching Inman pitch in the Futures Game last year:

Will Inman’s delivery drew a lot of laughs in the scouts’ section — he looks like he’s “doing the pigeon,” for you old-school “Sesame Street” fans — and he throws severely across his body with a fringe-average fastball and a big, slow-roller curveball. He’d have a hard time being a fifth starter in most parks, although Petco Park might make him a No. 3.

Inman was pretty good at Double-A with San Antonio last year, posting a 3.52 ERA in 28 starts with 140 strikeouts in 135 and a third innings, but he also walked 71, which is too many. He’s back at San Antonio, and he’s off to a rough beginning. In three starts, he’s 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA. His walks are under control, with only two in 13 innings, but so are his strikeouts — only 10 so far.

Inman vs. Outman. In vs. Out. Which is better? It’s almost like a parallel to the debate about whether bloggers (OUTsiders) or reporters (INsiders) are more effective at covering a subject, isn’t it?

No. No, it isn’t. Not even a little. That’s just stupid. But I’m going to follow Inman vs. Outman anyway.

Pulitzers prove papers’ viability

The New York Times winning five Pulitzer Prizes is proof that newspapers are still relevant despite the industry’s losses and the growing influence of the Web, the paper’s executive editor says.

“It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes, it is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t,” Editor and Publisher quoted Bill Keller saying after the prizes were announced this week. “I am a fan of citizen journalism,” he continued, “but there is some stuff that only an experienced professional news staff can do.”

In related news, the chief executive officer of the National Buggy Whip Company said his firm’s strong showing in the 2009 Buggy Whip Awards proves the continued viability and relevance of buggy whips.

“I don’t think they’d be handing out awards like that if our product wasn’t still extremely important,” said Chester Heidecker of NBWC, whose Giddyap 5000 won Buggy Whip of the Year. The company also took home the prize for best innovation (NFL logos on the handle) and Most Ergonomic Whip.

“I’m a fan of cars and airplanes and helicopters and motorcycles and hovercraft,” Heidecker said, “but there is some stuff that only a horse can do. Like pull a wagon. If you only have a wagon that can’t ge hooked up to a car.”

Reporting is not a paper product

A poster on the Baseball Primer Newsblog wondered if I’d dissed newspaper writers in my post “Newspaper crisis means MLB plays in secret.” I’d spoofed the idea that the shrinking of the ranks of beat writers due to newsroom layoffs and cutbacks was damaging coverage of major league baseball.

“There is value to the day in-day out reporting those beat writers perform, though,” wrote “Holliday in Alameda (jonathan).” He went on, “I mean I get his overall point, but I hope he’s not also trying to belittle what the newspapermen have been doing. Without those guys, we get no trade rumors, no injury details, etc. etc.”

I was not belittling what newspaper beat writers have done and continue to do. It’s honest work, done brilliantly by some, well by others and so on down the spectrum to hacktastically by a few.

But there’s a lot of redundancy. I’ve been in that pack, knowing I was writing essentially the same story a bunch of other writers were writing. It’s good to have myriad voices covering all sorts of things. The straight reporting — the gamer, in newspaper parlance — of the outcome of a baseball game is probably not one of them. The idea that the loss of some newspaper beat writers is having any real affect on overall baseball coverage this year, as the piece I took off from posited, is silly.

But beyond that, the commenter is raising a point that I hear a lot in the various conversations about the future of journalism that have become a constant in my life lately: Without newspapers, reporting dies. The Internet is fine for commentary and analysis and snark and flame wars, but to get the raw material, there must be newspapers.

It’s not true. By a lot.

This point of view, reporting needs newspapers, presumes that newspapers have invested in long-term reporting, beats and investigations, out of charity, out of the goodness of their hearts, or at least out of altruism.

Newspapers aren’t altruistic. Newspaper people are, overwhelmingly so. But as an institution, a newspaper isn’t altruistic. It’s a business. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why newspapers are chopping expensive reporters and beats and keeping the crossword puzzle. Shouldn’t they keep the important stuff to the bitter end?

What newspapers are doing when they’re pursuing those expensive Big Important Stories is polishing the brand. The Big Important Story might play an important part in the civil discourse, but it also brings prestige and power to the paper. Have you ever seen a newspaper fail to market its journalism awards or any effect it’s had on the world?

People mostly buy the paper for the ball scores and the crossword and the TV listings — or they did, anyway, when they bought papers. The prestigious stories don’t sell a lot of copies directly. The local team winning the Super Bowl does that. But there are secondary effects. The better the journalism, for example, the easier it is to attract and retain the best talent — who can help you sell more papers.

But forget all that. Let’s either assume the last four paragraphs are completely wrong or just imagine that newspapers do what they do out of pure, uncomplicated altruism. The local blat puts a reporter in the courthouse because, goshdarnit, it’s the right damn thing to do.

Why is it the right thing to do? Because our society has a need for watchdogs on its institutions, a need for information about itself. Newspapers didn’t create that need. They were invented to fill it. Circumstances have changed so that newspapers are no longer an effective way to fill that need. That hasn’t made the need go away.

So why wouldn’t somebody or something step in to fill it?

Imagine yourself walking around 200 years ago, when newspapers as we recognize them today were just coming into being. You’d probably notice the smell first. You’d be walking around in what by our standards would be a brutish, unsanitary, segregated, uneducated, technologically backward place.

Those people figured out how to get the news to each other! And we, with all our education, worldliness, technology and education, with the lessons of the last 200 years, with the ideas of both men and women, of people of every color and religion from all over the world, not just white men from Europe and the United States — we can’t figure out the same thing?

Newspapers have been struggling for the blink of an eye — a few years, not even a decade. And because nobody has figured out in that millisecond how to make money online from reporting, that’s it? Democracy is doomed? Reporting is dead?

It’s patently absurd. There are better arguments for the earth being flat.

The House That Oops Built

I love, love, love this story from positing that the crazy number of home runs that have been hit in the first few games at Yankee Stadium are a result of the stadium’s less-steep grandstands acting as a wind tunnel that pushes balls out to right field if the wind is blowing out of the west.

I don’t care if it’s true. I love it.

“Although the field dimensions of the new stadium are exactly that of the old stadium,” Gina Cherundolo writes, “the shell of the new stadium is shaped differently. meteorologists also estimate that the angle of the seating in the new stadium could have an effect on wind speed across the field.”

Cherundolo goes on to note that the old ballpark had more stacked tiers and a big upper deck, which acted like a big wind baffle. The wind came over the top and dropped into the bowl, where it swirled.

But: “The new Yankee Stadium’s tiers are less stacked, making a less sharp slope from the top of the stadium to the field.” This, she writes, might allow the wind to come over the top of the grandstand and follow the gentle downslope of the seating. Then, depending on the direction of the wind, it would rise back up as it approaches the outfield seats.

And why, class, does the new Yankee Stadium’s grandstand slope at a gentler angle — that is, make the upper deck farther away from the field — than in the old Yankee Stadium?

Without having looked at the plans for the new park in a while, I can answer and so can you. It’s the same answer for every new stadium. The grandstand is shaped that way to make room for luxury boxes.

Take that, free-spending Yankees! I don’t mean on the billion-dollar stadium. The taxpayers mostly paid for that. I mean all that pitching you spent about a quarter of a billion on this offseason. You went and built Coors Field circa 1995 for them!

It only works when the wind’s blowing a certain way, at a certain strength, which it is now, and which says will happen again in the fall, when the Yankees are watching the World Series. That is, if the meteorologists’ speculation is correct.

But we Yankee haters will take it. It’s the House That Oops Built.

It’s only Patriots Day

and David Ortiz already has his annual triple.

Rob and I came dangerously close to drafting Radhames Liz in BPKings Scoresheet league. After giving up six runs in a third of an inning today, Liz is now rocking a 67.50 ERA. The most amazing thing about that stat is that we didn’t draft him.

Cycles within cycles within cycles

The second week of the baseball season was a cycle fest. On Monday Orlando Hudson of the Los Angeles Dodgers had a single, double, triple and home run in the same game. Then Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers pulled off the rare feat on Wednesday and Jason Kubel of the Minnesota Twins did it Friday.

Three players hitting for the cycle in five days. I couldn’t remember such a thing happening before. Hitting for the cycle isn’t vanishingly rare, like throwing a perfect game, but it’s an unusual event. It only happens a few times a year in the big leagues.

I decided to try to find out if three in five days had ever happened before. It didn’t take long for me to find Retrosheet’s List of cycles and I opened it, prepared to squint happily at it for hours trying to find another crazy five-day period in which three players had collected each of baseball’s four hits in one game.

How far back would I have to go? What names would I be able to pull out of the colorful past if such a thing had ever happened? I started at the bottom of the chronological list, began scanning up and —

It happened at the end of last year. In baseball terms, it happened last month. Cristian Guzman of the Washington Nationals hit for the cycle on Aug. 28, followed by Stephen Drew of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Adrian Beltre of the Seattle Mariners both doing it four days later, on Sept. 1. This set of circumstances was so monumentally fascinating that I’d completely forgotten it. I’m not even sure I’d been aware of it at the time.

Mark Kotsay of the Atlanta Braves had hit for the cycle two weeks before Guzman. So that was four in 19 days, something for this year’s big leaguers to shoot for.

That was kind of an anticlimax.

But I’d come this far, loaded the Web page and everything, so I decided to look for the last time three cycles had been hit in five days before last year. Because I figured that would be just as exciting as the Guzman-Drew-Beltre trifecta that had so thrilled me back in ’08, or would have if I’d noticed it.

It almost happened in July 1970. Tony Horton of the Baltimore Orioles hit for the cycle on July 2, then Tommie Agee of the New York Mets did it on July 6 and Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants on July 8. A seven-day stretch.

In August 1933 four players did it in 16 days, and the first three of them were Philadelphia A’s. Mickey Cochrane did it on the second, Pinky Higgins on the sixth and Jimmie Foxx on the 14th. Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians added a cycle on the 17th. Big month for the cycle, but no three of them were within five days of each other.

There were three cycles in an eight-day period in 1887, the first and third by the same guy, Tip O’Neill of the American Association St. Louis Browns, who are now the National League St. Louis Cardinals. He did it on April 30 and May 7. In between, Fred Carroll of the N.L. Pittsburgh Alleghenys — soon to be renamed the Pirates — cycled on May 2.

The only other three cycles in five days episode I found happened in June 1885. Dave Orr of the American Association New York Metropolitans did it on the 12th, followed by George Wood of the N.L. Detroit Wolverines the next day and Henry Larkin of the A.A. Philadelphia Athletics on the 16th.

Boy! That must have been exciting. I wonder if people back then had the same reaction to that thrilling sequence of events as I had to the Guzman-Drew-Beltre sequence last year. Fat lot of good that cyclefest did in June 1885. Within a half-dozen years, the Metropolitans, Wolverines and Athletics were all extinct.

Here’s something with a little more historical resonance than last year. The last time three big-league players hit for the cycle in the same calendar month was in June 1950, when George Kell of the Detroit Tigers did it on the second, Ralph Kiner of the Pirates on the 25th and Roy Smalley of the Chicago Cubs on the 28th.

Roy Smalley was the father of Roy Smalley — dad was Jr. and son was Roy III — who was a shortstop in the ’70s and ’80s, mostly for the Twins. It’s funny that the son, who was a pretty good hitter for a shortstop, never hit for the cycle but the father, a banjo hitter who never managed an OPS-plus above 85, did.

That’s how the cycle goes. It’s a random collection of events, a false “accomplishment,” important only because someone along the line thought it was kind of cool when it happened. There is no list of games in which players have hit two doubles and two home runs, a demonstrably better performance than a single, double, triple and home run.

But the thing is: That guy was right. The cycle is cool.

Newspaper crisis means MLB plays in secret

Terrible news on the death of newspapers front. A USA Today report the other day told the story in its headline. Shrinking newsrooms put squeeze on MLB coverage.

Reporter Mel Antonen notes that membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America is off by 65 writers this year, reflective of newsroom layoffs and newspapers ceasing or sharing beat coverage. The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, share beat writers covering the Texas Rangers.

Those papers have always been competitors, but now they’ve united against a common enemy: their obsolescence.

Antonen paraphrases Los Angeles Dodgers exec Josh Rawitch noting the drop in newspaper reporters covering teams. A dozen or so traveled with the Dodgers in the early ’90s, compared to just two this season, plus the beat writer.

I wonder how long MLB and most of its teams will keep using the “press box space” excuse when denying credentials to online writers.

Rawitch also points out that the loss of newspaper writers affects radio and TV stations that, in Antonen’s words, “need fodder from newspaper accounts of the games and notes.”

This of course is a microcosm of the larger crisis in journalism. Without newspapers, there simply isn’t enough raw information. I mean, I’m really having trouble following this baseball season so far, aren’t you? There just isn’t enough information out there. Never mind radio and TV stations. Won’t somebody please think of the bloggers?

My first thought when I saw Rawitch’s I.D. as a Dodgers exec was “I was just wondering whether they were still in the league.” With so many newspaper reporters dropping off the beat, it’s like baseball’s being played in secret.

What are we all going to do with only three beat reporters writing that Shlabotnik scored from second on Casey’s single, instead of 12? How can we really understand the game, I mean really get to the bottom of it, if Shlabotnik’s postgame quote — “I saw Casey hit it and I just ran” — is only scribbled in three notebooks, not a dozen?

The BBWAA lost a net 65 writers this year, Antonen reports, even after its forward-thinking decision to allow 22 Interthingy typists in. You can see for yourself how the BBWAA has its finger on the pulse of the modern world by Googling it.

Search baseball writers association of america and the organization’s home page does not appear in the first 100 results. Most people use Google’s default configuration of 10 results per page, and it’s common knowledge in the SEO world — you can Google that, BBWAA people — that hardly anybody looks beyond Page 1 of their results. The BBWAA home page would be absent from the first 10 pages.

There are three matches for pages on the BBWAA site among the first 100, including the second and third result, a press release about the 2009 Hall of Fame vote and the organization’s awards page.

It’s pretty much the same story if you search for BBWAA.

I’m sparing you the links to those pages because they include the eye-assaulting bright green background that until recently all BBWAA pages sported. Note to BBWAA: Maybe you’re losing members because you’ve blinded the ones who’ve checked your site?

The home page has recently been redesigned with a vision-preserving white background, so it’s safe to say: Here it is.

Now: Weren’t the Yankees and Mets supposed to open new stadiums this year? Has anybody heard anything? These really are dark times.

So I quit the column

And in a little over a week Nick Adenhart, Mark Fidrych and Harry Kalas die and John Madden retires. I think he just wanted to steal my thunder, by the way. A bunch of other interesting things happened too, I think.

I knew it would go like that. Whenever I finally decided to stop writing King Kaufman’s Sports Daily, marked down for quick sale lately to King Kaufman’s Sports, I knew there would be a rash of days when I wouldn’t have had to worry, were I still writing, about coming up with a subject for that day. Those were always the best days, when I didn’t have to agonize over what to write about.

Well here’s what I have to say about John Madden:

Never mind. Doesn’t matter. I’m letting the column run out of my head right now, just watching it flow down the sidewalk.

There’s still a small part of my brain somewhere that’s writing the column all the time, noticing things, considering phrases, forming opinions. I’ll be watching basketball or reading sports news online and I’ll get the familiar trigger feeling — column idea! Here’s what I’m going to say about that. And then I’ll catch myself. Relax. You’re not writing a column anymore. No deadline. Just watch the stupid game. Miss a quarter. Live a little. Don’t even record it.

The reason I only think other interesting things have happened is that I haven’t really been paying attention, which has been nice. Actually, not paying attention isn’t quite right. Not keeping track is more like it. Not saving to disc, in a phrase I coined for myself 20 years ago, meaning I’m seeing it, I’m just not making any effort to remember it. And unlike 20 years ago, if I’m going to remember it, it’s going to take effort.

Wait. Remember what?