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Backlash to Sporting News Revamp

When Tom Barnidge left St. Louis a few weeks ago to take a position in Los Angeles with NFL Properties, a division of the National Football League, a chapter closed on the history of St. Louis sports writing. Barnidge has played a major role in what gets written about the St. Louis sports scene for more than two decades. He started off as a sports reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1970 and jumped to The Sporting News (TSN) in 1982, where he first served as managing editor and then as editor-in-chief, until dramatic restructuring of The News resulted in his leaving the publication in 1990.
Some veteran sports observers would say that Barnidge’s departure also closes a chapter in the history of The Sporting News, the oldest national news tabloid in the United States. Barnidge was one of a number of TSN veterans who were effectively let go because they did not fit into the plans to revamp and relaunch the publication, which began in 1990. That’s when Times-Mirror Co., which has owned the publication since 1970, brought aboard Tom Osenton as publisher and John Rawlings as the new editor.
The official “relaunch” of the publication came in march of this year [1991], when The Sporting News went to press with wholesale changes, including dramatically altered content, new columns and a new printing process. The paper shifted its focus from sports results and information to opinion, analysis and interpretation. Perhaps more important, TSN turned to rely more on contributing writers and a considerably reduced and less-seasoned regular staff. With the exit of Barnidge, pro basketball writer Mike Douchant, pro football writer Howard Balzer, and editors John Hadley and Mike Douchant – The Sporting News lost almost five decades of combined service to the publication.
The wholesale changes at TSN have not had the desired effect of re-positioning the publication to compete more successfully with the proliferation of sports media in the United States. Circulation of TSN is reportedly down from a 1980s high of 740,000. Advertising revenue has also dropped significantly in the admittedly soft market of the recent recession. Perhaps more important, the new direction of TSN has alienated the genuine sports addicts whose loyalty to The Sporting News has been legendary.
“In my estimation, the new management has tried to take what was the corner grocery store and turn it into Schnucks,” said Barnidge, a few days prior to his Dec. 2 departure from St. Louis. “Basically Osenton wanted to give The Sporting News a new look and his position was that to improve the product, you have to drastically change the product. The trouble is that he’s lost the traditional following, while he hasn’t drawn the audience that might be more interested in glitz.”
Rumors in the sports publishing world hold that Times-Mirror has given an ultimatum that advertising and circulation must grow for TSN or the publication will face sale or closure. According to Barnidge, the writing was on the wall for The Sporting News when two “editorially oriented executives” retired from Times-Mirror in the period of a year.
“They were replaced by bottom-line guys who took over Times-Mirror,” said Barnidge. “When my boss, publisher Dick Waters, retired, Times-Mirror made the decision to replace him with Osenton and shortly thereafter, I handed over the baton as editor to John Rawlings. Osenton is a real USA Today guy. In fact, I think he has Al Neuharth’s ‘Confessions of an SOB’ displayed prominently on his office bookshelf.
“You can see the USA Today philosophy now in The Sporting News in the short articles, the snippets, pie charts and graphics. I don’t think that’s a bad formula,” added Barnidge. “It’s all to make for easier reading and to be easy on the eyes. But you can’t change the basic personality of a publication and keep the loyal readers.”
TSN editor Rawlings, however, defends the changes and contends that the disaffection of die-hard readers of The Sporting News had been minimal.
“When you make changes as drastic as we have, you’re inevitably going to alienate some long-term readers,” said Rawlings. “I’ve talked to a lot of them on the phone and answered their letters. I asked them to give us six months to evaluate what we were doing, and if they still weren’t happy, they could have a money-back, six-month refund. Very few have taken me up on that offer six months later.
“It’s true that our circulation is not as high as it was 18 months ago,” added Rawlings. “We’ve done some extensive circulation studies and what we found was that we had a number of readers that cost us a lot to attract, and who are difficult to keep. So our revenues are going to be better in the long run by letting those readers go.
“Our advertising is down about nine percent, but we really feel that is almost entirely due to the recession,” continued Rawlings. “I’ve seen some numbers that show the publishing industry, across the board, is down much more than nine percent. We have, in fact, attracted a lot of advertisers to the magazine who would have never come to us before, but who now find our new look attractive.”
In Barnidge’s view, the new look of The Sporting News involves more than just cosmetics. He said the editorial thrust of TSN also has been redirected, and he credits Osenton with this.
“Rawlings is editor, but I attribute the major change to Osenton,” noted Barnidge. “The general conceptual change is his. The editorial thrust of the publication is now quite different. We did a lot of behind-the-scenes profiles of major sports figures. Now they’re doing a lot of theme issues – ‘gambling in sports,’ for example, or ‘the fiscal responsibility of pro sports expansion.’ I think these are stories for business journals. I think the average sports fan wants to know if St. Louis is going to get a team; I don’t think he cares, if it’s fiscally responsible for the NFL to do.”
Sporting News History
In a 1984 profile of The Sporting News just a couple years shy of the publication’s centennial, Newsweek magazine described TSN as for diehards who “aren’t ‘sunshine soldiers’ who follow the local team only if it’s winning. The readers of The Sporting News are the sort who know that a midget named Eddie Gaedel batted for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and wore the number 1/8, who know that a team can get six hits in an inning and still not score.”
Newsweek noted that Ty Cobb paid 25 bucks, in two installments for a lifetime subscription to The News; that a vice president named Richard Nixon offered to write an article for it, only to have Ike scotch the idea; and that an ayatollah in Iran let American hostages read The Sporting News while in captivity – and very little else.
Newsweek also noted that TSN fans are very resistant to change. They love “the old-fashioned disorderliness” that in the past has been a hallmark of the publication. Purists were shocked in the 1940s when a special football section was added to the exclusive coverage of The Game - baseball. In an effort to stave off criticism, TSN advised that the section was “easily removable” for the offended hard-core baseball fans.
The Sporting News was founded by St. Louis sportswriter Alfred Spink, who happily cranked out the first issue on St. Patrick’s Day of 1886. Al Spink left the paper to his brother Charlie, after writing and producing a play called “The Derby Winner,” which featured six live horses galloping on a treadmill. The play flopped miserably, and when Al realized he had a better thing going with TSN, Charlie let his prodigal playwright brother know that he was now holding tight to the reins of the fledgling publication.
When Charlie died in 1914, his son, J.G. Taylor Spink took over, but not before the twosome had had some knock-down, drag-out fights over such issues as whether baseball should have an American League, an idea that did not sit well with the older National League. By World War II, The Sporting News had a respectable circulation of 80,000. Aggressive marketing and expanded editorial content by Taylor Spink toward the end of the war brought the publication many more readers.
Taylor became ill in 1961, and the publishing responsibilities fell to his son, C.C. Johnson Spink, who was named after his grandfather’s good buddy Ban Johnson, founder of the American League. Johnson expanded coverage into other fields, including more than just the major sport in TSN’s repertoire. However, the biggest change for TSN came in 1978 when Johnson sold the sports tabloid to Times-Mirror for $18 million.
Aside from owning The Sporting News, Times-Mirror owns several other St. Louis properties including KTVI-TV and the medical publishing house, C.V. Mosby. Shortly after the purchase, Times-Mirror brought in Richard Waters, a former top editor at the Readers’ Digest, to “bring The Sporting News into the 20th Century,” as Waters told Newsweek.
Under Waters, circulation more than doubled from an initial figure of 325,000. The growing sports tab automated its plant operations and shed its “blue collar” image with a more-literate editorial content. Revenues soared to the $50-million range. Waters served as chief executive and president of the publication from 1981-1989, when he was replaced by Osenton.
The Reign of Osenton
“The ironic thing about the changes at The Sporting News is that when Osenton came in, he said he wasn’t going to make any changes until the readers were studied,” noted Howard Balzer, one of the refugees from TSN’s “re-launch.” A pro football writer for The Sporting News, Balzer now writes a column for The Riverfront Times and articles for Pro Football Weekly. He also has a popular sports talk show on weekday evenings on KXOK radio.
“Osenton said we would study the readers, and so there were focus groups conducted in Jacksonville, Florida, and Chicago. What they found out was that readers in these two places had totally different needs. Jacksonville readers wanted the sports statistics; Chicago readers said they could get all the stats that they needed elsewhere, that they were looking for something else,” Balzer explained.
Balzer said the Chicago readers “won out,” although he said he feels the changes at TSN were pre-ordained. He said he feels the focus groups were just window dressing to justify a decision to change TSN – a decision that had already been made at corporate headquarters, a decision to pare stats, research and experienced staffers while adding computer graphics and gimmicky layouts.
“I’ll never forget when Rawlings came into a meeting and said we were dropping the football statistics,” recalled Balzer. “I disagreed with him. Rawlings argued that readers can get their stats in the Monday newspapers. I argued that The Sporting News is delivered to readers at the end of the week, when people are ready to look at them as they start thinking about Sunday’s game. The irony is that Rawlings eventually had to put those stats back in after the readers wrote all kinds of angry letters.
“The same thing happened with the box scores on the baseball games,” continued Balzer. “I’ll never forget that meeting, when they put together the prototype for the new Sporting News. There were no box scores or statistics. I emphatically pointed out that those were missing.”
Once again, reaction from readers, who learned of the impending change, was vigorous. Rawlings expressed surprise at the outpouring of unhappiness. In the meantime, USA Today’s baseball edition was established, in part, because TSN was dropping baseball box scores in its new format.
“I would have bet my bottom dollar that’s one of the things we would drop,” Rawlings told John Sonderegger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “In my mind, I figured people were relying on other sources for box scores.” Rawlings made the comment to Sonderegger in an article entitled: “By Mistake, Sporting News Created Own Competition.” The headline referred to the USA Today baseball edition.
“Despite that new, improved prototype the box scores were kept,” said Balzer. “The editorial management made a lot of these moves without really knowing what’s been in the paper for years.”
Another of the famous meetings that Balzer remembers involved the announcement of the elimination of reporting on transactions – all kinds of personnel changes taking place between clubs and on teams. Once again, reader protest brought the reporting on the minutiae of transactions back into The Sporting News.
“The irony of what happened with the transactions is that they were brought back after all the people who were experts in the area had their jobs eliminated,” said Balzer.
“Most of us did not disagree with the need to make some changes at The News,” added Balzer. “But you have to strike a balance. You can’t throw out everything that the traditional readers want. It was almost as if someone came in and decided to put together a competitor to The Sporting News and brought in all these graphics and short pieces, while not worrying about all the nuts and bolts.”    
Balzer is still bitter about the manner in which he and some of the other stalwarts of The Sporting News were let go. He does not mince words.
“I would just say that we were treated like dirt,” said Balzer. “There was never any respect for what we did or what we had done at The News. We were marked for departure. Rawlings is the type of manager who has to have control over everyone. Free spirits and different ideas are not tolerated.
“When all the changes were going on, I put in Sundays from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. Monday morning, and one of those weeks I was called in by Rawlings and told that if I didn’t drastically improve by the end of the football season, there were going to be problems. I knew I was being set up to be fired once football season was over, and I wasn’t needed anymore.
“The same thing happened to Mike Douchant. He was used all through basketball season, and then, on the morning it was over, he was fired,” noted Balzer. “Rawlings said that The Sporting News didn’t need experts on sports, we just needed good editors. I think it was that he didn’t want anybody around who knew more about the individual sports than he does.”
For his part, Rawlings said he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of employees. He said he regarded these as personnel matters “and it would be inappropriate and less than professional for me to comment.”
Rawlings said he was familiar with trade gossip which suggested that Times-Mirror might be interested in unloading the publication, and that the continued existence of TSN might even be in the balance.
“There are a ton of rumors that go around,” said Rawlings. “I think it is accurate to say that Times-Mirror felt it was time to take a hard look at The Sporting News and do a serious evaluation, and we have. And we’re making changes. And I would put Tom Osenton at the top of the list as a creative manager who knows the direction he wants to take this product. We’ve got a new look. We’re attracting major new advertisers like Nike and Anheuser-Busch. That’s why I think our future is bright.”
Balzer says he’s aware of the stories in the sports community that suggest the survival of The Sporting News could be in jeopardy. There is bound to be a day of reckoning when the “Baseball Bible” is tampered with. But Balzer doubts such a fate awaits the venerable, old institution of The Sporting News.
“I think The Sporting News is going to remain with us for a while,” said Balzer. “I don’t know that it’s going to be considered the paper of record in sports that it once was. I don’t think that it’s going to be counted on, as it once was. It’s gone Yuppie. It’s just another one of those things that’s out there. It’s nice and flashy, without a lot of substance.”
By Don Corrigan
(Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 12/1991).