Press-Boxed: WSJ Adds Sports Beats to Take on The Times

We can all list some of the well-documented ways that The Wall Street Journal has changed under Rupert Murdoch: More color on the front page! Snappier headlines! A women’s magazine! More politically conservative (maybe)!

But this is one we didn’t expect: The Journal is getting sportier!

The Journal’s New York sports section will assign beat reporters to the major local sports teams, including the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants and the Knicks, sources said. They’ll be credentialed for home games, and they’ll travel to road games.

In the old days, a young Journal reporter may have dreamed of a day when he landed a Citigroup executive as a source; now, for a portion of the staff, victory is breaking through with the third-base coach. The Journal has hired Jim Baumbach from Newsday as their lead Yankees reporter and Mike Sielski of the Calkins Media newspaper chain as their Mets reporter, said sources. The Big Lead sports blog reported that Aditi Kinkhabwala of the Record, Scott Cacciola of the Commercial Appeal and Sophia Hollander have all been hired as well.

There are no—how do you say—instantly familiar, boldface names in that group. No Jacob Gershmans for the sports set.
Sam Walker, currently The Journal’s sports editor, will oversee the section, a source said.

>MORE: It’s War! Kate Taylor Quits The Journal to Join The Times

The sports section that appears in the paper now has remained true to the Journal tradition: It prides itself on smart writing, interesting takes, writing around the edges of a sport or a game. There are no game reports. It’s proudly a companion read, just as The Journal’s editors positioned the newspaper itself for decades.

Under Mr. Murdoch, the sports coverage in the paper has ratcheted up. Just over two years ago, shortly after Mr. Murdoch bought the paper, he told the paper’s top reporters and editors that he wanted to add box scores and sports scores to the daily paper. He said the traveling businessman wanted to know scores. That idea developed into a weekly sports section, which later developed into a daily sports section.

Though the sports section in The Journal will be unaffected, there will be a different approach in the New York section: Reporters will now be going to the games.

Sources familiar with the plans said that The Journal will not be covering games in the way that, say, the tabloids do.

Instead of rehashing what happened the night before, the Journal sportswriters will be looking for news features and interesting stories from within the locker room.

That would, of course, fit it nicely in competition with—who else?—The Times.

Whereas the News and the Post continue to cover games as if it were 1998—and God bless them for it!—The Times has changed its focus over the past year. Tom Jolly, The Times’ sports editor, has put more of an emphasis on features and trend stories rather than demanding that beat reporters stay with a team every waking moment. In the past few months, it hasn’t been uncommon for reporters at The Times to blow off an occasional Mets game, a Knicks practice or sessions at the Jets training camp.

At the tabloids, that would be a fire-able offense. “Ten years ago, we had somewhere in the range of a dozen reporters specifically covering local teams,” Mr. Jolly said. “You covered a team and wrote about what happened on the field or in play. People picked up the paper to get information about what happened in the game.”

And now? “More often, our stories are an analysis of the team or the game. What we put in the paper gives a sense of the trends in the sports world and the issues in the sports world.”

For instance: “Tonight, we’re writing a feature on George Karl, the Nuggets coach, instead of a game story,” he continued. “Karl, who is struggling with cancer, is a more engaging story than the Knicks playing game No. 65 or whatever, of a season that is going nowhere until the free agent season starts.”

With The Times turning more of its writers into narrative feature writers, and even quasi-columnists, the paper has only two dedicated general sports columnists left. The reporters can leave some of the game coverage to the Web, to the announcers, to the cable channels. They’ll write the analysis.  
“That’s what I certainly expect to see The Journal do, too,” he said.

There will be added competition both for The Times and The Journal. Though just about everything in the world of newspapers is all about cutting—fewer beat writers, fewer people to travel for the road—it actually looks like we’re set for a little surge of coverage.

ESPN is starting its own New York vertical on the Web, and has hired a well-respected editor from the Daily News, Leon Carter. Earlier this week, Adam Rubin, a Mets beat writer for the News, said he’s going to ESPN, and Ian O’Connor, a columnist for the Bergen Record, will also be a writer.

All of a sudden, it’s getting more crowded in those press boxes.

But that competition aside, how does Mr. Jolly feel about The Journal’s new sports section, which is expected to launch in a month? “Personally I think The Journal is going to have a long stretch to catch up to us,” he said. Press-Boxed: WSJ Adds Sports Beats to Take on The Times