S.F. Chronicle Page One, 3/25/2000

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Which spring event was so important that it consumed most of the front pages of the Bay Area’s largest newspapers day after day?

Major new laws being fashioned in Sacramento? An environmental catastrophe? The last $200,000 house for sale?

No! Bigger than Elian.

This story made the front page of the Chronicle and Sunday Examiner 14 times in 18 days. Often it consumed more than half the space below the masthead. And there were four special sections related to this story. Even a magazine. And six more stories on the fronts of business and local news and lifestyle sections.

None of this includes the sports section, where you might have expected news of a new stadium for the Giants.

The Mercury ran nine front page items on Pac Bell Park, and two special sections, as well as three other section front stories in places other than sports. The “Miracle on Third Street” often crowded almost everything else off the front page.

Wider seats than Barry Bond’s Range Rover

The Merc even devoted the most sought after story space of the week--Sunday, top of page one--to an article about the seats at the Park. Turns out seat backs are 2.25 inches higher than in Baltimore and Cleveland, and even the narrowest are as wide (18 inches) as Barry Bond’s Range Rover’s seats. (Hey, it was important enough to lead the paper; I thought you’d want to know!) 

Both papers threw teams of reporters and columnists at the story.

The Contra Costa Times was a bit more restrained--only lifting one pom-pom. It published six front pagers plus a special section. One page one article also dealt with seats--potties.

It’s awesome!

The tone of coverage in all three papers was pure boosterism. “Cutting the Perfect Diamond! A Field Fit for Giants! It’s Awesome!” read the headlines.

Let’s take nothing away from the Giants’ sparkling new waterfront stadium. I’m sure I’m like many of you in wishing I could get a ticket to the new park. (But they’re pretty much sold-out for the year.) There’s no question the $319 million dollar stadium deserved a front page story or two. Yes, even an attic-stuffer, a “souvenir” section.

But it’s still only a playground for a mediocre bunch of club-wielding guys in knickers. Even for those rich enough to buy a seat license or far-sighted enough to buy an early ticket, it’s simply a diversion, a passtime.

Dominating the most important page in the paper

So why did it dominate the page readers pay most attention to, the best chance an editor has to alert us to what we need to know?

 Jerry Roberts, managing editor of the Chronicle, answered: “I go along with Pulitzer’s dictum that news is ‘the important, the dramatic, the apt to be talked about’ and [I] think that in our region a good crossover sports yarn can qualify on the last two criteria.”

Roberts also pointed out that the Examiner--which produces most of the Sunday paper Chronicle subscribers receive--ran its own coverage of the Park, including two of the special sections.

His counterpart at the Mercury, Susan Goldberg, said the extraordinary coverage was justified, “because sports is of intense interest to many of our readers and, in many respects, is as much a cultural, business and social event as an athletic event.” (With the Sharks in the National Hockey League playoffs, the Mercury is running prominent front page sports stories and columns daily.)

"Wretched excess"

Former newspaper editor and now Stanford journalism professor William Woo saw it differently: “The wretched excess of the local papers was evident to anyone who followed the press. My students were aghast….

“Here's my take,” he explained. “In addition to their following the cues of the establishment when big time local developments are concerned, news organizations usually come to a common understanding -- they truly come to believe and actually talk seriously in their editorial conferences about it -- that this or that is a really significant story.

“In the case of Pac Bell Park, the papers were right that this was a signal event for San Francisco and the region. New stadia have lives of their own and we ought not to diminish the coverage merely because it focuses on fun and games -- the circuses instead of the bread. The question, of course, is how much coverage.

“But having said that, and having been in the cockpit myself many times, I would further say that in these situations news organizations typically run without a governor on the motor. They are like binge drinkers, of whom often it is said that no amount of alcohol is enough and yet one drink is too many. What I'm saying is that the press cannot help itself.

“I'm inclined to think of it, therefore… as an issue of character or strength and resolve and the wholesale disappearance of judgment, rather than one of venality.”

Me? I don’t think the editors are venal. And I do think the Chron, the Merc and the Times do lots of thoughtful, serious journalism.

Sports reporting is a cash register

But I can’t help but notice that across America spectator sports are becoming a larger part of the culture. Sports coverage is spreading faster than a sniffle in a day care, according to recent reports in Columbia Journalism Review.

Perhaps it’s coincidence. Maybe excess testosterone in the executive suite. But sports is a cash register for the media. It attracts a group advertisers covet, a demographic that has been abandoning newspapers--young men. Sports trumps most government news. It’s dramatic. And unlike a school board or city council story that’s specific to one community, sports appeals to fans across the region.

It’s also relatively cheap to report--over in a couple of hours, free passes to the best seats in the house, teams ensure access to key sources, the total story guaranteed. If a reporter can’t make it, the league provides free photos, video highlights and press releases.

Unlike consumer reporting--an endangered species in most papers, according to Columbia Journalism Review--sports reporting doesn’t anger any advertisers. Unlike investigative reporting--also declining, according to researchers at Ohio University--sports coverage doesn’t alienate powerful interests in the community.

Last, but not least, sports provides a reason to buy the paper or watch the news daily. Baseball provides a game almost every day for half the year.

News media have good reason to promote sports, indeed to fill the calendar so that one sport’s playoffs overlap another’s opening games.

The only problem

The only problem is sports isn’t really news at all. It’s entertainment. If it attracts people who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to the newspaper or newscast, I’m for it. But when it takes over the front page of a newspaper, it’s a distraction, displacing what’s important. It’s pandering.

         --John McManus

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