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Take me out to the… hockey game?

by Ogi Overman

I can’t begin to express my disappointment upon opening last Thursday’s edition of the Greensboro News & Record. The utter inconsistency of the local gazette was again brought into focus when I turned to the sports section and, below the banner headline and five-column photo trumpeting the Carolina Hurricanes’ game-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup finals, was a byline with a name I actually recognized.

Wait just a ding-dong moment, I pondered. This is not an AP story generated for hundreds of papers by whoever the guy is who succeeded Dave Droshak; this is a guy whom I actually know and respect, a living, breathing staff writer for the N&R, Jeff Carlton. Adding to the confusion, beside the game recap there appeared the smiling visage of my pal of almost 20 years, Ed Hardin, who’d weighed in with a column, God bless his malcontented soul. The muckitymucks behind the desk had actually sent two ‘— count ’em, two ‘— reporters to cover something they’d routinely ignored, well’… forever: something as trivial as a hockey match. Given that the daily’s track record of coverage of the team that actually played here for two years fluctuates between scant and nonexistent, I was naturally assuming that they would keep the streak alive by merely picking up the AP wire story, fluff it out with a huge photo and catchy headline, and let ‘er rip.

My bad.

Jeez, when you throw in gas costs and all, this sudden splurging must have cost Landmark Communications, the N&R’s parent company, close to a hundred bucks. I just don’t get it. Going back to the first three years after the move to Raleigh when I had the good fortune of covering the ‘Canes for ESP Magazine, there was always an empty seat along press row. My old radio partner, Brian Surrett, from the Winston-Salem Journal was there, Bob Sutton from the Burlington Daily Times News was there, Dennis Garcia from the Asheville Courier Tribune was there, but, alas, the third largest daily in the state had made a decision that hockey did not have the local numbers to justify the expense of staffing the matches.

And, as I mentioned at the top, they remained consistent in this philosophy. Even after the Canes started winning, advancing to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003, they were steadfast in ignoring them, finally capitulating to reality only after they’d beaten the Detroit Red Wings in game 1. Ditto in ’05-’06, as they broke from the gate fast, finished with the second best record in the NHL and swept through the first three rounds of the Cup chase. Nary a peep from a local reporter, save for three columns by Ed, who basically makes his own assignments, and one advance story by Jeff. By God, a policy is a policy, decreed the voices on high from Landmark, and unbridled hysteria from a market not our own, from a city a whopping 85 miles away, is a flimsy reason to send a man down there to investigate. Why, sending a reporter all that far to cover a sport that only nine fans in Greensboro give a hoot ‘n’ a holler about would be downright wasteful. And besides, it would cut into our bottom line and before you know it our profit margin might shrink below 20 percent.

Now, let’s get one thing straight here: The decisions on what gets covered and what gets picked up by the AP are not made by the reporters themselves, sometimes not even by the editors. If blame be placed then Landmark, a mid-sized conglomerate but a conglomerate nonetheless, is the culprit. It’s all about saving a buck, and what has happened is that the sports department for the N&R is severely understaffed as a result. The parent mandated that when someone moves on or retires, that position will go unfilled. Todd Graff left for greener pastures, Larry Keech and then Bill Hass retired, leaving three gaping holes that what’s left of the staff had to fill themselves. So, not surprisingly, hockey was the odd sport out.

All this, of course, is symptomatic of the sorry state of print journalism today. With shrinking ad revenue and readership, the industry’s response has been to simply cut overhead. Rather than beef up the news, features and sports departments to better compete with the internet, TV and the blogosphere, they have essentially gone into full retreat, thereby conceding the market to the electronic outlets.

It’s a bottom-line business and in the end it is the reader who suffers. It is the guy who still walks to the end of the driveway each morning, just as he has since childhood, picks up that neatly folded package, and lovingly pores over it with his coffee and cereal. Sometimes that guy wouldn’t mind seeing the name of a guy from the same town under a major sports story.

But he won’t see it around here.

Ogi may be reached at ogiman100@yahoo.com; heard each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. on ‘“The Dusty Dunn Show’” on WGOS 1070 AM; and seen each Friday at 6:30 a.m. on ABC45 and Sunday at 10 p.m. on UPN48 on ‘“Triad Today,’” hosted by Jim Longworth.

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