The Economics of Sports Writing

If you know many print journalists, you’ll know they love nothing more than complaining about how underpaid they are and how word rates for freelancers haven’t risen for half a century. So it’s mildly encouraging for all of us that the NYT has a big article today on one group of print journalists which seems to be making lots of money:

ESPN and Yahoo Sports are on a furious hiring binge, offering reporters and columnists more than they ever imagined they could make in journalism. And ESPN, in particular, has gone after the biggest stars at newspapers and magazines, signing them for double and triple what they were earning — $150,000 to $350,000 a year for several writers, and far more for a select handful.

On its face, this is puzzling. Sports is more coveted even than travel as a beat: the demand for jobs on any sports desk is immense. Meanwhile, it seems improbable that a few dozen new openings at ESPN and Yahoo sports would suffice to change the supply-and-demand balance of the entire industry.

But in fact there’s an old story behind this new one. Television has always paid its star journalists enormous multiples of what their print colleagues get paid, and every so often star writers have made the extremely lucrative switch from the page to the screen. Think Roger Ebert, or even Charlie Gasparino, for that matter.

Now, a new medium has arrived: the internet. And a huge amount of web-only original content is sports-related:

On most topics, nearly all of the news offerings from Yahoo are collected from other sources. But not in sports, where the company has made its first major foray into being a creator of original material. It has more than 20 sports staff writers, up from 4 just two years ago, in addition to sports celebrities who write columns for the site… is one of the most popular sports sites on the Web, with 20 million visitors in November, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, behind only Yahoo Sports, with more than 22 million. The Web site holds the vast bulk of what the writers produce, much of which is never seen on printed pages or heard on the air, including news, features, analysis, commentary and articles to accompany segments produced for television.

Given the woes of the newspaper industry, it’s hardly surprising that well-capitalized global websites, published by highly profitable enterprises like Yahoo and ESPN, will pay much more than a local broadsheet. And it’s also not surprising that talented sports writers love the web: not only is their audience more sports-obsessed and responsive, but it’s also much less parochial.

There is a lesson here for top newspaper brands which seek to become top web brands as well, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian. At the moment, these businesses’ websites still make only a fraction of the profits that the print publications do – and that’s after essentially getting most of their content for free from the print side. What will happen as journalism becomes foremost a web-based phenomenon, with print newspapers the afterthought? There’s a risk that even as print revenues decline, costs on the content-creation side of the business (journalists’ salaries) could rise substantially. Which is a very nasty squeeze to be in.

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