Does A Last-Place Team Really Need Beat Reporters?S

The Mariners fly to Chicago today, 12 games back in their division, and five teams ahead of them in the wild card hunt. Despite a healthy winning streak, these last few weeks will likely be an exercise in playing out the string. But the Ms, and their fans, are bringing their hopes with them. Not tagging along for the ride: the beat writers.

From the Mariners communications office (as highlighted by Hardball Talk):

Because the Seattle Times and the (Tacoma) News Tribune as of now are not planning on sending their beat reporters to cover the team on the road the remainder of the season, the only coverage of Mariners Baseball by the regular reporters will be provided by Greg Johns, the fine beat reporter for Mariners.com.

That's three more road trips, comprising six series and 19 games. That's an awful lot of AP gamers.

It's not officially decided that the newspapers won't have writers on the two remaining road trips, says Don Shelton, sports editor at the Seattle Times. In an email, Shelton writes:

"We make decisions about whether or not to travel with the team earlier in the year and adjust them regularly based on the team's performance and reader interest. We are not planning to go on this trip and have lined up experienced freelancers to cover it. We will decide each remaining trip this season on the merits."

Running a sports desk isn't cheap, and in these days of tightened budgets, travel's often the first thing to go. ("Like all news organizations, we try to get the biggest bang for our limited dollars," Shelton says.) This is far from a uncommon situation. But the saddest part might be: fans may not even notice the difference. Between freelancers, pool quotes, and the regular reporters working the phones from Seattle, it's completely possible for a newspaper to put together coverage that's almost as comprehensive as their usual stuff. For a team going through the motions in September, the average reader will be hard-pressed to see a drop in quality.

Bill Simmons touched on this during the NBA playoffs:

If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven't we experimented at all? Any "improvements" in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them?

That's all well and good—if we're only talking about single-serving games, attended by scores of reporters. The beat guy's job is different. He's in the locker room every day, making friends, learning secrets and gaining trust. He's tipping off his paper's other reporters and columnists to the real juicy stuff, the stuff he can't write himself without poisoning his relationships. He's there to notice trends from at-bat to at-bat, game to game, month-to-month. All the rewritten wire copy in the world isn't going to replace someone whose informed context gives a gamer meaning.

Beat writers are also expensive. It's hard to blame the Times or the News Tribune for being cost-conscious with their baseball budget at a time most Seattleites' minds turn to the Seahawks, and doing it in way that probably would never have been noticed if not for the Mariners' PR office offhandedly narcing them out. It's a shitty sacrifice they have to make—Seattle readers will be indisputably be worse off for it, even if they can't put a finger on what's lacking—but it's a small one compared to the consequences. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication in 2009. So yes, unequivocally yes, we need beat reporters. But while 162 games with one would be better than 143, 143 is still better than none.

Photo from The West End's Flickr stream