By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Radio’s challenge to print

You may have heard that two Boston Herald sportswriters, Rob Bradford and Michael Felger, are leaving the paper to join as full-time sports bloggers. The move hasn’t gotten much attention, but I think it may prove to be pretty significant in terms of how the media continue to change.

The buzzword for what this is about is “disaggregation.” What it means is that the one-stop package that is the daily newspaper — hard news and automobile ads, obituaries and sports, political analysis and comics — is coming apart, with niche media better able to give people what they’re looking for.

You can already see this with television sports journalism. The sports segments on TV newscasts have been shortened because the true fans are watching ESPN. Now it’s coming down to the local level, with WEEI (AM 850), a phenomenally successful all-sports radio station, taking the first step toward competing with the sports pages of the Herald and the Boston Globe.

This is going to be a challenge for Bradford and Felger in that there is virtually no adult supervision at WEEI. They’re going to have to provide their own journalistic standards, and no doubt there will be occasions when they’ll have to stand up to management and say “no.” In a larger sense, though, I’m fascinated at the notion that a radio station is going to try to fill at least part of the role traditionally held by newspapers.

In that respect, the WEEI move is more significant than Sacha Pfeiffer‘s decision to switch from the Globe to WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) earlier this year. Pfeiffer’s new job, after all, is to be a radio reporter, not a print reporter who writes for the station’s Web site. It has more to do with a first-rate reporter moving to a medium whose non-profit business model, built on a foundation of listener contributions and corporate underwriting, is more solid than the newspaper industry’s.

Yet here, too, there are developments that bear watching. Every day I receive an e-mail from WBUR with the latest world, national and local news, complete with photos, AP wire copy and sound clips. It is a reasonably comprehensive wrap-up of the day’s news, even if it’s not quite as detailed as what I find in the Globe.

Currently the Globe offers a six- or seven-minute podcast that is little more than a teaser for what’s in the paper. But if WBUR is going to publish what is, in effect, an online newspaper, why shouldn’t the Globe compete with a half-hour podcast consisting of a reasonably complete news report, with paid advertising?

If digital convergence gives radio stations the power to become newspapers, then newspapers ought to consider what it would take to become radio stations. In the current environment, no one can afford not to experiment.

More: Dave Scott has some thoughts on what Felger’s move means for the local ESPN Radio outlet at AM 890, where Felger had hosted a show, as well as further background on the Bradford-Herald situation.

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  1. man who is a WBUR fan

    Except many news radio stations…WBUR included…are notorious for taking what the local paper has already reported and re-writing it for radio.Allegedly Paul LaCamera’s leadership has made WBUR “better” about not ripping off the Globe nearly as much as they used to five or ten years ago. But it still happens by default because EVERYONE in print and radio is still relying heavily on the AP Wire.By the way, NPR announced today that the Bryant Park Project (their grand experiment for an alternative to Morning Edition) is being cancelled and will stop airing at the end of July. D’oh!

  2. Aaron Read

    Hey Dan – what about the Phoenix and WFNX? How much convergence was there in that regard during your time there?People often berate WFNX for sticking with the alt-rock format due to low ratings in 12+…which those of us in the biz know are practically meaningless. Supposedly the 25-54 numbers for FNX are much better, and those are the ones that matter to advertisers. Regardless, WFNX’s affiliation with the Phoenix means that neither can easily/quickly change their format or style in response to a changing marketplace. It’s a definite risk.

  3. John

    WBUR is probably the best aggregator of news in the city. It bills itself as ‘independent,’ but in reality, it produces little fact-based, investigative journalism. Its national programs, in particular, provide news summaries and analysis almost exclusively.It’s also a little misleading to characterize WBUR as purely a non-profit. It is a department of Boston University, a private university. WBUR staff are BU employees who receive University benefits and follow BU policy.The Globe, on the other hand, remains the city and region’s source of record for beat reporting and true enterprise work. You will never find the line, “WBUR is reporting today … ” in the Globe, but you will hear the reverse almost daily on WBUR. The Globe needs to remind its readers of these facts as often and as pointedly as possible.John

  4. Dan Kennedy

    John: Boston University is a nonprofit organization, so yes, WBUR is a pure nonprofit. You are correct that the Globe continues to originate more quality journalism than any other news org in New England, and by a substantial margin.

  5. Anonymous

    actually, I don’t even think true sports fans are watching ESPN anymore, not when you can go to Yahoo or youtube or your favorite sports blog and get the clips you want to see without being subjected to ESPN’s idiot culture.

  6. chelms

    There’s a typo in the WEEI link. The “I” was left out.More on-topic, my two-person news site tried for months to produce a short video round-up of the week’s news. But we just didn’t have the resources to keep doing it.

  7. another face at zanzibar

    This really isn’t a challenge to print, as you write in your headline. It’s more WEEI looking for legitimacy in the online world after years of offering an abysmal web site.

  8. Will Seberger

    Two quick thoughts:1) A lot of ‘sports-as-news’ coverage, at least as a profession, is likely to fall off.Leagues are busy locking out photogs and reporters in favor of foisting leage-generated content on them.All the while, more and more people are willing to write, blog and critique sports simply for the experience of being there on the sidelines. In other words, for free.2) Maybe this is a sign that we’re reaching the point where we’re losing the distinction between print and broadcast, video and audio and stills and copy.’Bout time.

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