By Murray Chass

July 14, 2013

Readers of The New York Times sports section received a significant signal in late May, whether or not they realized it. If they were paying attention when they read the section from May 20 through May 28, they were seeing a major makeover before their very eyes.

Baseball, which was heating up in the final week of the second month of its season, was not the featured sport in the section that had long featured baseball. Suddenly soccer was king.NYT Sports

In that nine-day period, soccer stories dominated the section, appearing on the first page eight of the days while baseball showed up in that prominent position on four days. Adding sports insult to journalistic injury, on one of those nine days, baseball’s New York Yankees appeared on the first page of the sports section but not for baseball.

The Yankees were announced as a partner of Manchester City Football Club in a new Major League Soccer team, the New York City Football Club, which will play beginning in 2015 at a stadium to be built in Queens.

The article was accompanied by a rare Sports of the Times column, and five photos, two of Manchester City games, one at Yankee Stadium; one of the proposed stadium site in the shadow of Citi Field, home of the Mets, who oppose the project, and two other photos, one of Manchester City’s owner, Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the other of Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, with officials of the league and Manchester City.

This array was not squeezed into a corner at the bottom of the last page of the sports section. It took up all of the first sports page except for a small strip across the bottom of the page, and it consumed virtually the entire third page of the section.

All of that for a team and a stadium that don’t exist.

But there is a raison d’etre for the Times’ decision to adopt soccer as its No. 1 sport, and feel free in joining me in not liking it. The Times is promoting soccer because soccer is the most popular sport in the world and the Times is pursuing the world.

First came the city and then the nation. Now the world.

And if baseball has to be sacrificed to soccer to achieve that goal, so be it.

Yes, The New York Times has gone global, drastically overhauling its sports section to make world soccer the No. 1 sport it covers and render Major League Baseball a minor league sport. If the Times, desperate for readers and revenue, has any baseball readers left, it will very likely not have them for long.

Whatever the Times’ coverage and whatever I think of it, I have come to think a lot of Jason Stallman, the relatively new sports editor, who agreed to do an interview via e-mail even though he had to travel to deal with an unexpected family health problem. His predecessor, Joe Sexton, wouldn’t give me the courtesy of a reply to an e-mail.

I began by asking Stallman if the soccer coverage was linked to the newspaper’s desire and effort to become a global newspaper.

“Yes, absolutely,” Stallman said. “The Times wants to reach more people around the world. And this is my biggest priority as Sports Editor. We must do more. We’re in the process of hiring a Europe-based sports correspondent. (Perhaps the greatest job in journalism, I think.)

“And we’re always looking for smart stories internationally. Soccer is the biggest sport in the world, by any measure, by far, so that’s one obvious place we can do more.”

Sam Borden, who has written a book on soccer, was apparently a natural choice for the assignment of covering soccer. He has traveled abroad at least twice in recent months to write about soccer, but he declined a request to talk about it, saying I should speak to Stallman or Jay Schreiber, a deputy sports editor, who did not respond to an e-mail and, in fact, has never responded to an e-mail in the five years since I left the Times.

Borden, who has worked for four newspapers in 11 years, is one of the members of the Times’ sports staff who if they were baseball players would be said to have been a journeyman. But if the Times is to achieve its global goal, Borden will have to play an important part along with the yet-to-be-hired European correspondent.

In that late May burst of soccer celebration, these were the headlines on the major stories, most from England:

  • Lingering at the Exit
  • Game Hunting in England
  • A Team is Born, but Not All Cheer
  • Manchester City and Yankees Buy Into M.L.S.
  • Gibraltar Moves Closer to Soccer Independence
  • European Soccer’s Biggest Star May Be a Song
  • Gus Johnson’s Crash Course
  • National Champions
  • Bayern Munich Edges Dortmund in Thrilling All-German Final
  • Rogers Says He’s Ready For the Role Of a Pioneer
  • Note the Moment, Not the Man

This is not your father’s New York Times. Neither is the newspaper that produces blockbusters like the one about an avalanche that won a Pulitzer Prize.

There seems to be a desire to expand coverage to off-beat sports at the expense of the everyday, popular sports, I told Stallman. The avalanche piece won a Pulitzer, but it was way off the beaten track of traditional Times coverage. Is all of this an attempt to attract new, younger readers? Is it linked to an attempt to draw readers to the Web site?

“No, no express interest in doing off-beat sports,” he replied. “Just a very keen interest in doing interesting stories, wherever they are. Were our readers clamoring for more avalanche stories? Of course not. But did they delight in John Branch’s epic storytelling? Clearly. Because, simply, it was a good story.

“Some of the best articles we publish are on baseball, others are on football or golf or tennis. And then there are some on sports that might not be considered ‘everyday, popular sports.’ But as long as they’re smart stories that are well reported and well written, I think our readers will be rewarded.

“Any danger of losing the staple of older readers? Not a bit. In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite – we gain new readers every time we publish a piece that’s distinctive and surprising.”

It is perplexing, if not surprising, that the Sports of the Times column, a staple since 1927, has faded and has nearly become defunct. Bill Rhoden writes it occasionally (5 in the past 10 weeks), and Dave Anderson and George Vecsey write a certain number of columns in their retirement. But clearly it ain’t what it used to be.

“As you know, we used to have lots and lots of people writing under the SOT label,” Stallman wrote. “Bill Rhoden still writes under that label, as do a few others on occasion. Now many of our ‘columns’ appear under different labels – On Baseball, On Basketball, etc.I’m always open to considering new voices for the section, under any label.”

I noted that the“On” columns are written by reporters, who continue to report and write news articles. Is that a conflict, I asked? Isn’t there a danger of confusing readers with what is news and what is a column?

“This is something we discussed quite a bit several years ago when we first started encouraging reporters to write more analytically,” the editor said. “But it’s never really been a problem. The reporters we turn to for those pieces have been masterly at producing intelligent analysis without raising any kind of conflict. There’s certainly a line to walk up to but not over.”

I suggested that news coverage seems to have suffered, perhaps as a result of coverage of new events. For example, coverage of baseball news, in my view, seems to have become non-existent, except for an occasional steroids piece by a reporter who now works in the Washington bureau, and even there and the New York Daily News have taken the coverage lead.

“Sorry, I totally disagree with this one,” he responded. “We’re as potent as ever on news. Head injuries in football – perhaps the single most important story of this generation: We’ve owned it. The fall of Lance Armstrong – another story for the ages: Juliet Macur owned it. We frequently break news off all our beats.”

I have to agree with Stallman on the coverage of concussions. Alan Schwarz created the coverage out of nothing, focusing on the National Football League, and his coverage should have won a Pulitzer Prize, if not two Pulitzers, but it won none.

Schwarz’s work initially embarrassed the N.F.L., whose officials at first denied any link between concussions and football, but eventually induced the league to act on the information it had. Schwarz’s reporting was the best and most effective I have ever seen.

So it’s legitimate for Stallman to cite the paper’s concussion reporting, but he would be hard pressed to make a case for its coverage of baseball and football news. Its baseball writers, for example, write game stories and soft features. No news might be good news, as the old saying goes, but in the case of the Times, it means its reporters are missing something.

Speaking of Times reporters, their number has proliferated so much that a reader can’t tell the players without a scorecard. I offered that suggestion to Stallman, asking how readers are supposed to know who is a Times staffer and who isn’t? “That used to matter,” I added; “does it no longer?”

“I don’t know that this is true,” he replied. “I’d have to go back and look at the pages from decades past to see how many bylines there used to be. As long as I’ve been here (10 years), The Times has had the same policy on bylines – those for staffers and freelancers look the same. So as far as I can tell nothing has changed.”

In the past 10 weeks, the period of my study of the Times sports section, I counted 113 different bylines. I was able to identify 24 as staffers (there could be more), including 3 editors; 2 retired sports columnists and 1 retired sports editor, 5 reporters from other departments and 7 essayists.

That leaves a possible 74 stringers or freelancers, which is a lot of unknown reporters to ask readers to trust, including some who often appear in the paper.

On the other hand, at times the Times raises questions about veteran reporters well known to readers.

Two years ago this past Saturday the Times created a revisionist history of baseball’s free agency. It published a television sports column by Richard Sandomir in which he credited Curt Flood and Catfish Hunter with creating free agency, citing Flood’s losing 1970 lawsuit against Major League Baseball and Hunter’s 1975 breach-of-contract grievance against the Oakland Athletics.

As blatantly wrong as those alleged facts were, the Times’ failure to correct them was worse. I tried in vain for six months to convince Times editors that the Flood lawsuit had no effect on the creation of free agency and that the Hunter grievance affected only him and no other players.

The Times’ response was all disappointing, but two aspects in particular represented the worst of the response. Greg Brock, the Times’ chief corrections editor, refused to accept what was the correct view of baseball history and demonstrated his blind view with a response to me that included this paragraph:

“If the Catfish Hunter case is one of these queries, you should go ahead and take that up with the public editor. I spent an enormous amount of time – too much – on that one. I talked to about 8 editors. We do not think that is correctable. That is the final decision and we’re not going to debate it and discuss it further. So there is no point in sending me back a lengthy rebuttal. Again, you can appeal to the public editor.”

So I did, shaking my head at how ignorant nine Times editors could be. The public editor, Arthur Brisbane, asked if I could provide him with some independent information on the matter, and I did, citing two books that completely destroyed the Times’ version of baseball history. One of the books was John Helyar’s excellent 1994 work, “Lords of the Realm.”

But I went one significant step further. I spoke to Marvin Miller, who negotiated free agency for the players, and he said he would be “delighted” to talk to Brisbane. I gave Brisbane Miller’s telephone number, but the public editor never called him and never addressed the issue.

I included the Sandomir matter in my list of questions for Stallman and followed it up in a separate e-mail with greater explanation.

To Stallman’s credit, he did not reject my effort outright. “Let me give this proper consideration,” he wrote.

After two years, I’ll take that, and I might even read a soccer story or two.

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