#3 The Dominance of WEEI, the Decline of Newspapers

Continuing my series on the top 10 Boston sports media storylines of the decade.

They’ve dominated the ratings book, shrugged off all challengers thus far, and used their bully pulpit to sneer at critics.

WEEI has enjoyed unprecedented success as a sports radio station in a sports-mad town. With the success of the local professional teams this decade, they’ve ridden high, and benefited from a fan base that can’t get enough of their teams.

They’ve been challenged three times by rival sports radio stations this decade, two of them were KO’d and the third just started up a few months ago. Both 1510theZone and ESPN850 made a lot of noise as they got started up, but neither really made any sort of impact in the ratings book. Ultimately, they were both doomed by poor signal and with few exceptions, lackluster programming. WBZ-FM has had the most initial success of any challenger, but having been on the air only a few months, they have to prove they can keep it going.

WEEI has a power few media outlets can boast. In many cases, they create and dictate the coverage and storylines, and should anyone challenge or criticize them they can simply rant on air about them, or yell over them and hang up should the hapless challenger actually dare to call them up.

It’s really about entertainment first, and sports second, this is evidenced by their ability to milk a single storyline for weeks at a time. Remember the time in June, 2005 that Edgar Renteria bunted for a base hit with two out in the bottom of the ninth? He was successful, and it set up David Ortiz to be able to get to the plate and knock in Mark Bellhorn from second base for the win, yet WEEI killed Renteria over it for weeks. (Kevin Millar even called up to defend Renteria – over two weeks later, and they were still talking about it. Ordway blamed the callers.)

More so in the early part of the decade, WEEI’s success also forced the sportswriters who appeared on their airwaves into tough decisions. If they were a guest of the show and had gotten some information that day, did they divulge it on the WEEI airwaves, or sit on it for their newspaper the next day? (The addition of blogs to newspaper websites around the middle of this decade took out some of those situations.) Were they more loyal to WEEI, hoping for additional appearances, or to their newspaper?

In 2008 WEEI extended their online presence by re-launching WEEI.com with a number of high-profile reporters, hiring some away from their newspapers, such as Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. Now they were competing directly with the newspapers for content and getting news stories themselves rather than mostly relying on the newspapers to get the information first.

The rise of WEEI this decade coincided with the decline of the newspaper industry, as news became more instantaneous rather than waiting for the morning paper. More and more stories were being broken on the air, and online, rather than in the newspaper. While the sports sections of newspapers here in New England were still devoured by sports fans, the nature of the content changed. Since most people had already seen the game, and listened to some analysis of it, there was more emphasis on opinion, and getting noticed amongst all the noise.

WEEI has the power to make and break sports media people in Boston. If you get on their airwaves, you’re going to benefit from the recognition that comes with that. Larry Johnson and Fred Smerlas are among those who have benefited greatly from their association with the station. 

This power, along with the dominance of all competition and their ability to shape discussion about sports in Boston makes WEEI’s  presence one of the top stories of Boston sports media this decade.

A Decade of Sports Media Change

I’m pleased to present this guest column from Roy Reiss.

There’s an old saying that nothing ever stays the same. Over the last 10 years the local sports media has undergone many, many changes that has dramatically affected the local media landscape in a myriad of ways. Let’s look closer at some of these developments, what’s happened, and what it means to the information hungry sports public in Greater Boston. .

Sports on local TV News programs.

Back at the turn of the century this was the way most fans got their latest news. Bob Lobel, Mike Lynch, and Gene Lavanchy were the envy of most young aspiring sports broadcasters. They would deliver the latest up to date scores, highlights and breaking news. Lobel, in particular, would be a power broker in the Boston sports community with sources developed over a 20 year career. As the decade moved along, these positions became less and less important as cable developed their own sports related shows with local highlights. You didn’t have to wait until 11 to get the highlights, you could watch 30 minutes of all sports highlights, scores, and interviews on NESN and in November 2009 Comcast threw their local sports program into the ring. Special shows were created to satisfy the sports crazed fan for late Sunday night over and above the regular news show. The truth is with the “new sports” media evolving, most of the highlights on news shows were “old news” by 11. And with the departure of Butch Stearns from Ch. 25 earlier this fall as well as the redesign of NECN news and sports in November, you might be seeing the start of a bold move by the other local affiliates to de-emphasize the sports portion of their local news programs. What used to be a dream job could become an endangered species.

The downhill trend of print journalism.

For a whole generation of sports fans, there was and is nothing like getting that morning Globe or Herald and devouring the sports sections. Box scores, game stories, strong opinions in columns would satisfy the appetite for this sports starved generation. Back in 2002 you couldn’t wait for the February 2nd edition to read everything about the Pats first Super Bowl title. Ditto for 2004 when the Sox finally won the World Series. Trouble is the newer generations of sports fans aren’t as dependent on the print media as that older generation since new technology and means of disseminating material has made sports a “real time” business. Game stories are much less relevant because now you may see highlights and have opportunities to discuss what happened almost immediately following the action. Insight and unique value added information has trumped details of how things happened and pushed game stories to the back burner. Late start times for maximum TV exposure further hinder the print media as they struggle to have 100% of their readership receive the latest news. Newspapers nationwide face some difficult decisions on how to cover their local teams in this new era given all the different media forums, the spiraling cost of travel, mixed in with the loss of circulation and advertising dollars. That along with the challenge to develop a multi level media platform (video, audio, print) remains giant obstacles for the print industry as they try to stay relevant in the changing world of sports coverage.

The continued growth and impact of sports talk radio. 24/7.

Entertain. Shape perceptions. Rush to judgment and paint a picture as quickly and decisively as possible. Never has sports talk radio been as powerful a resource as it is today. Hosts are entertainers who succeed or fail based on how many people listen to them. They need to get people engaged, tap into their emotions, develop controversy, and keep people tuned to their particular station. Talkers like Glenn Ordway are masterful at their craft. And latecomers to the talk radio field like Mike Felger epitomize the new wave of pot stirrers. As we reach the end of the 10 year run, these stations have become more important than the local TV stations sports segments, and one could argue they’ve even replaced the print columnists. They’ve become the power brokers in the sports community. If you need proof look at the number of sports talk stations in each major market. The common thought used to be Boston could only support one sports talk station, but with the emergence of WBZ FM, WEEI now has a very formidable opponent. Down the road there’s even speculation that ESPN will enter the sports radio battle in Boston. Who would have ever thought 3 sports stations could survive in this sports crazy region? Need any more proof of this powerful force and where it stands in sports coverage in Greater Boston.

The emergence of the multi faceted internet.

This is all 3 of the above rolled into one powerful platform. Real-time information. Analysis. Insight. Video or audio easily seen or heard. Plenty of print and entertaining data with no space requirements. Interactive capabilities like chats and mailbags to allow the fans to have a powerful voice. And who knows what else future technology will bring to this intriguing tv/radio/print triple threat combination. There’s growth potential that will be determined by how quickly technology develops, and thus the rush to be on board in this rapidly developing media. In the last 20 months, Boston has seen the emergence of competing local websites, WEEI.com, ESPNBoston.com, and CSNNE.com, join the battle for the local sports fans eyeballs. Throw in the Globe, Herald, NESN, plus the individual pro teams sites and you have a plethora of destinations to cull news from. There’s never been a better job market for aspiring journalists or sportscasters who seek employment in this ever changing media business. If history teaches us one thing, the only constant in this sports media business is that by December 2019 the landscape will be dramatically altered again!

Roy Reiss is a former Channel 7 sportscaster who started in radio working for Curt Gowdy Broadcasting. He is also the father of Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com.

#4 Plagiarism Scandals

The decade was rocked by two major plagiarism scandals involving newspaper sports reporters in Boston.

In February, 2005, the Patriots were in Jacksonville, getting ready for their third Super Bowl of the decade. Ken Powers was covering the team for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, when we learned on the morning of February 2nd, that he had been sent home from covering the team. The Editor & Publisher reported that Powers had been accused of lifting material from a Peter King Sports Illustrated story.

Later that day, with the help of a couple BSMW readers, I posted a side-by-side comparison of what King had written and what Powers had written.

Powers was promptly fired by the paper, after an investigation turned up “at least half a dozen” cases of plagiarism. He responded by telling WBZ-TV – “The termination is a terrible injustice to me.” – even as more cases were being posted here on BSMW.

It ws discovered that Powers had copied Michael Smith of ESPN.com and even his friend Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.

BSMW got a mention in The New York Times during that week. Here is also the Associated Press story on the incident.

Since that time, Powers has been working as a reporter for The Community Advocate and Central Mass. Sports Insider.

Two years later, in a Sunday Football Notes column for The Boston Globe, Ron Borges used numerous passages originally written by Mike Sando of The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington. The passages had been submitted by Sando to a “notes-sharing network” used by sports reporters across the country. Borges did not credit Sando in the notes, but there was a disclaimer at the bottom of the column (which ran most of the time in those Sunday notes columns) that “Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.”

Borges was then suspended for two months from the Globe, and barred from making outside media appearances.

Some have defended Borges, claiming that what he did was not really plagiarism. However, the Globe editor specifically stated in the announcement of Borges suspension that “The Globe does not tolerate plagiarism.”

Here are a couple of link collections about the story from that time period.

Media Reaction on Borges 

Borges Suspension Followups

After serving his two-month suspension, Borges wrote one column, relying on fired Raiders offensive coordinator Tom Walsh, who had been operating a bed-and-breakfast in Idaho prior to taking charge of the Oakland offense, to tells us that Randy Moss was washed up, that his skills were in decline, and Moss was “in denial of those eroding skills.”

Five days later, Borges “retired” from the Globe. He was hired by WEEI.com during the summer of 2008, and then bolted WEEI.com in September for a gig at the Boston Herald, where he remains.

In 2003, Hartford Courant college basketball writer Ken Davis was suspended for a month after he lifted nine paragraphs from a Syracuse sports writer. (Journalist Plagiarism/Fabrication Scandals – also used for background on the Powers and Borges cases.)

These scandals put a black eye on sports coverage, and journalism as a whole, and certainly were among the biggest stories this decade in the Boston sports media.