• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

BAD NEWSPAPER NEWS IS BAD NEWS for NASCAR

The Chase is on and the ratings are off and I say that's because the newspaper business is down and moving closer to out.

This saddens me; the emotions are similar to how the rapid and perhaps irreversible decline of open-wheel racing makes me feel. I guess that's understandable since I devoted the majority of my adult life to one or the other. I'm a journalism school grad and spent six stimulating years at the Philadelphia Daily News as a sportswriter, assistant to the sports editor, assistant night news editor, and special projects editor. When I left, it was to accept the challenge of serving as CART's first communications director. After publishing CART's first media guide and starting negotiations for the first ESPN contract and being hands-on for the first temporary course races and creating the first version of the organization's fan club, I moved on to be a part of five title teams, with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi. I've got the championship rings to prove it.

Newspapers should be reporting -- not making -- news, but too-often lately the business pages have carried bold headlines above bleak stories. Most of the country's biggest and most prestigious titles -- including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times -- are cutting jobs and costs that would make the uninitiated think they were Ford or GM. My old paper, the Daily News, along with the sister Philadelphia Inquirer, changed hands earlier this year. Disgruntled investors forced the sale of the Knight Ridder chain to McClathey, which then sold the Philly publications to a local group.

Wrote Reuters: "The summer of 2006 has brought a rash of notices of job buyouts and layoffs at U.S. newspapers, and experts say more nips and tucks will come as advertising dollars dry up and more readers cancel their subscriptions." Industry analyst John Morton said, "Any time you reduce the staffing of a journalistic enterprise, it's inevitable that you're going to lower the quantity, and probably the quality, of the journalistic product." The L.A. Times shockingly decided not to send its beat writers on the road with the NHL's Kings and Ducks this season, and the Tribune Co. recently forced out the Times publisher, after he defied demands for more staff cuts.

Be not ye fooled! Less coverage -- and less informed coverage -- hurts NASCAR. Even the Winston-Salem Journal -- serving the hardest of hard-core stock car fans -- parked Mike Mulhern for several weeks, apparently to save a few bucks. As veteran writers take buyouts, they typically are replaced by journos who have less interest in and knowledge of racing, and are required to divide their time among various sports. I'm not saying some don't try hard, but the end result often is stories lacking depth and context. In other words, the kind of stories people actually want to read. Those, by the way, are the kind of stories that help sell tickets and draw readers to the TV. Prior to last Saturday night's Charlotte show, only two races this season produced better ratings vs. a year ago.

The situation calls for some old-school PR. There was a time in this business when team and sponsor publicists were actually pro-active. (!) Some of us actually worked to develop solid relationships with journalists, make newcomers welcome, take them to lunch or dinner WITH our driver (!), and steer a few good story ideas their way. I question just how many current credential holders actually know how to pitch a story.

With the ratings down, and some writers parked by budget restrictions, how about trying this: Pick up the cell phone and call a couple of 'em. "Sorry you're not here this weekend. Would you like to talk to (insert driver name) for a few minutes?" I'm sure many track publicists would welcome the chance to help facilitate such contacts. Please don't tell me the driver doesn't have time -- we're talking about maybe 15 minutes -- and the goodwill generated from such a gesture might well pay dividends for years.

Of course, the easiest thing to do would be nothing. That's not how NASCAR got to be NASCAR.The Week in Review:

* NASCAR driver, team and sponsor publicists didn't come off looking too good in Yahoo! Sports' national columnist Dan Wetzel's controversial piece about the Confederate flag flying in the infield at Talladega. Regarding his requests to PR reps for driver comments, Wetzel wrote: "Email responses were often bitter. Face-to-face encounters often worse. Interview and statement requests were summarily denied. At some drivers' scheduled weekly press conferences, I was told that any question involving the flag would end the session." What everyone apparently didn't grasp was, once Brian France answered this question on CBS' 60 Minutes, it became fair game -- and more likely to be asked given NASCAR's aggressive pursuit of non-traditional media coverage. I wonder how many of these PR people even bothered themselves to watch the high-profile France family segment on TV's most-viewed and acclaimed newsmagazine? I bet even fewer realized that, with the issue out in the open, they should have their driver prepared to answer it. This is a perfect example of why I believe it's essential to think beyond what is happening in the garage area; to learn from politics and business and other sports. By the way, ladies and gentlemen, you and your driver's stock reply could have been as simple as this: "Brian France has already answered this question and I agree with him."

* My faith in the business would have been made stronger if just one -- ONE! -- media outlet had actually looked into Bruton Smith's statement that he planned to assign extra security to Brian Vickers at Lowe's Motor Speedway because of what happened on the last lap at Talladega. Bruton said his ticket office was "inundated" with calls from angry fans. Even ESPN's SportsCenter reported this as "straight news" -- unchallenged. Couldn't someone have taken a look at the track's phone logs or records in an attempt to quantify "inundated"? The speedway's news release was posted on Jayski.com and contained what, in my Constitutionally-protected opinion, was a clue: "Tickets are still available . . . "

* The combination of the various sponsor liquids splashed around victory lane and the confetti now routinely blasted into the air doesn't mix. Actually, it sticks. Saturday night, at Charlotte, some colored papers stuck to winner Kasey Kahne's uniform -- obscuring the Nextel Cup Series logo. (!) Meanwhile, Nextel and STP were this week's victims of "The Terrible Towel" (Oct. 3 blog) via the red rag drapped over Bobby Labonte's shoulder. Not very wise, coming just days after Sprint Nextel announced Tim Donahue -- who authorized the reported $750 million NASCAR series sponsorship -- will step down Dec. 31 as executive chairman. The company has hit a rough patch lately, with weak second-quarter earnings, a credit downgrade, and the ouster of its president.

* John Cardinale of Infineon Raceway released its 2007 schedule the other day. Since I know we all want to be completely accurate, next year's events at Sonoma comprise the track's "Big O Tires Racing Season."
Someone who did mourn the state of the American newspaper business was my friend Harry Blaze. "Blazer," who held various editor's posts at the Trenton Times as well as being a columnist and auto racing writer since 1968, died last week at age 70. Harry and I shared many press boxes and dinner tables while covering races at Pocono, Trenton, Dover and other East Coast tracks when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News. His laugh was as hearty as his appetite. He had retired earlier this year but still wrote a weekly column. Harry had a sharp eye for detail and that made him an excellent editor. One thing I always respected about Harry, who won numerous writing awards, was he possessed a healthy journalist's skepticism -- but fought letting that swerve into cynicism. I wish that were so with many current-day journos. Motorsports in general, and especially dozens of Eastern short track and superspeedway operators, owe Harry a most respectful bow of the head.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]