Olympics Travel a Hurdle for Local News Media
The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, are producing huge headlines three months before the opening ceremonies, slated for August 8, and the extravaganza will undoubtedly stir tremendous local interest. After all, the United States Olympic Complex is based in Colorado Springs, and many of the athletes who will compete either live or train in these parts. So every sizable news organization in town will be sending personnel to cover the competition, right?
Wrong. Channel 4, a CBS station, Channel 7, part of the ABC family, and Clear Channel-owned KOA, the only area radio station with a substantial news department, don't plan to ship folks to the Olympics — and while Channel 9 will, partly because NBC, its parent network, has the broadcast rights for the games, news director Patti Dennis is trying her best to rein in costs she says are "in-the-stratosphere expensive." As for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, both are dispatching staffers to the Far East, but Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple reveals that for the first time in recent memory, he's not including a photographer. One reason for the decision, Temple says, is the likelihood that a Beijing-bound shutterbug wouldn't be available to cover a subsequent bash: the Democratic National Convention, which gets under way on August 25. But dollars and cents are important, too, especially when Temple can grab photos off the Associated Press wire for a fraction of the price.
"I think you're going to see people scaling back on the Olympics and stuff like that because there's so much duplication," Temple predicts. "You've got to be picky."
Indeed, news purveyors are choosing carefully when it comes to road ventures, and the current condition of the info biz is the reason. TV and radio stations as well as newspapers are trimming budgets and, in some cases, jobs in the face of an economic downturn that shows no immediate sign of reversing course. As a result, travel expenses are coming under closer scrutiny than ever before. "We're very selective in the stories we send a reporter to," says Kris Olinger, head of AM programming for Clear Channel Denver. "If we can get the information we need through other means, then we're more inclined to go that route than send one of our own people."
At the same time, Olinger, like her colleagues, emphasizes that if a story demands to be covered in person, it will be, and damn the expenses; that's why the station picked up the tab for KOA Morning News host Steffan Tubbs when he went to Virginia Tech in the aftermath of on-campus shootings there last year. But she's also open to more creative approaches. On April 23-25, when Tubbs broadcast from Australia, where he joined six World War II veterans from Colorado who were being honored there, he did so under the auspices of the Greatest Generation Foundation, an organization with which KOA has partnered in the past. Although Olinger doesn't think such an arrangement would be appropriate for a news story, she sees no problem with it given the feature-oriented tenor of Tubbs's Aussie programs.
Other news supervisors have found imaginative ways to save money beyond surfing to Expedia. Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland wanted to get fresh observations from Regis University president Father Michael Sheeran right after he met with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff's recent visit to Washington, D.C. — so, he says, "we worked with Father Sheeran in advance and asked him to go to a CBS live truck and do a live interview with us from there," thereby saving the station the cost of a plane ticket. Over at the Rocky, political reporter M.E. Sprengelmeyer rented an apartment in Iowa and stayed in the state for ten months in advance of January's caucuses there — a tack that Temple believes was actually cheaper than flying Sprengelmeyer back and forth a dozen times over the same span, and one that led to better reportage. And to combat the spiking price of gasoline, Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy has started leasing hybrid vehicles for his charges. By doing so, he stretches resources even as he makes the outlet look environmentally responsible.
Still, no amount of cleverness can mitigate the damage caused by unexpected outlays — and afterward, the piper must be paid. Denver Post editor Greg Moore looks back in frustration at the costs associated with the 2006 case of John Mark Karr, a false confessor to the '90s murder of JonBenét Ramsey who was taken into custody in Southeast Asia. "I never had it in my budget to go to Thailand," he says. "That probably cost us $10,000. And then we had to go to Atlanta, where his father was. It was a very expensive misadventure." Worse, Moore adds, the amount of dinero wasted "caused us to choke down on other travel later in the year." In his words, "That stung quite a bit."
These days, the pain has spread to sports, with even travel that was once seen as a no-brainer falling victim to the bean counters. When Denver sports franchises made it to the playoffs in past years, the major network affiliates routinely assigned anchors or reporters to accompany players. This year, however, channels 4, 7 and 9 chose not to fund visits west to watch the Denver Nuggets be drubbed by the Los Angeles Lakers or north for the Minnesota Wild's home games against the Colorado Avalanche. "We're fortunate that the first rounds happened where there were CBS owned-and-operated stations," notes Channel 4's Wieland. "Minneapolis and Los Angeles both helped us, and we helped them by providing locker-room interviews here."
Of course, the Avalanche eventually defeated the Wild, and their second-round opponents were the Detroit Red Wings, the Colorado squad's arch-enemies. No match-up could have generated more intrigue with viewers — but stations still resisted booking flights. In explaining why he chose not to have his minions head to Detroit for the series' first two games, Channel 7's Grandy says, "Those games, and all the post-games, are all fairly available. I'm not quite sure what added perspective we'd be getting on site."
In contrast, the dailies continue to see value in having a beat reporter travel with the teams even before the post-season. The Rocky has slimmed its staff in a significant way through attrition and buyouts, but Temple doesn't believe that having scribes stop traveling to Colorado Rockies games against dreary opponents would help him keep an extra body or two. "There are a lot of costs associated with people that are much longer-term than whether or not you go to Los Angeles for a Dodgers series," he says — and besides, "you can't expect somebody to be an expert on a baseball team if they're only spending half their time with them. That's not the level of coverage we're devoted to."
Moore's mind isn't quite so closed on the subject. He can imagine cutting back on some regular-season coverage, especially if a team is going nowhere. "There have been times at other places I've worked where that's been the case," he says, "and that might become the case for us" if the budgetary squeeze doesn't ease. But he's not ready to stop sending sportswriters to certain significant annual contests, even when there's not a specific local hook. In February, Rocky media critic Jason Salzman criticized the Post for sending columnist Woody Paige to a Green Bay Packers-New York Giants tilt, claiming his coverage "contained almost nothing that a writer sitting in front of a television couldn't have gotten." This point was reinforced when Paige spent about a week in Augusta, Georgia, covering the Masters golf tournament. Paige filed four columns, but the only stuff that smacked of original reportage revolved around his attempt to quiz Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods; Mickelson kept his distance, and Woods blew him off at his earliest opportunity. Even so, Moore is ready to buy Paige a pass to next year's tourney. "We've decided that there are some signal events, like the Super Bowl and Wimbledon and the Masters, where it's important to give our take on what happens there," he says.
Good thing the others don't take place in China.