The Sporting News is trying to rage against the dying of the light.
Once the bible of baseball, a weekly newsprint tabloid that was must reading for anyone who cared deeply about the national pastime, it had in recent decades become a moribund glossy general sports magazine and Web site. Its niche of baseball wonkitude long since taken over by USA Today and then the Web, unable to hang with Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, it was left with little reason to exist beyond a historic name and a large radio network.
Wheezing, it was sold at a bargain to American City Business Journals two years ago and moved from St. Louis, where the paper was founded in 1886, to Charlotte, N.C. This is the kind of tale that usually ends with a once-proud publication quietly dying.
But the old paper turned magazine is trying to reinvent itself -- as a newspaper. Online. Late last month the Sporting News launched Sporting News Today, a free daily online publication that looks and reads like a newspaper, though it still acts something like a Web site.
Sporting News Today is searchable and the links are clickable, but there are no blogs, no podcasts, no breaking-news updates. Sportingnews.com is still around for that kind of thing. Sporting News Today publishes once a day, around 7 a.m. Eastern time, with analysis and news roundups.
It uses print, rather than Web, design techniques. When I showed it to a Web designer I know, he instant-messaged, "Whoa," then wrote, "It doesn't compute because it flies in the face of everything I've learned is Good for the Internet."
"Web design is an artifact of a limited set of tools," says Martin Hensel, the president of Texterity, the Boston-area company that created and patented the delivery system used for Sporting News Today. "The best design historically is in magazine design, and this is basically taking the best of magazine design and bringing it into the Web."
That's been possible for a long time. What's new here is that it isn't just the text and some accompanying graphics. The magazine itself, in all its glory and with all those big ads that people actually open magazines to look at, is online. And not in PDF format either. The hyperlinks are live.
"It looks like it's just a straight replica of print," Hensel says, "but actually there was a lot of back and forth here about how to design this and optimize it for the screen so that it had a lot of signals that were printlike in terms of layout. But, for example, there's no scrolling. There's no up and down to below the fold or anything like that. So it's definitely an experiment."
The idea, Hensel says, is to create a design "that's a good citizen of the Web, but pulls all of the style characteristics and style flexibility and high production values from print pages over into the Web."
Sports fans practically live on the Internet, so design innovations there can be sports news. Our very environment might be changing.
"We didn't know what to expect, what the reception would be like, how many people would get it, how many would tell their friends about it," says Sporting News editor-in-chief Jeff D'Alessio, who headlined his introductory letter about Sporting News Today "Changing the Way You Follow Sports."
"And now we're getting 10 [e-mails] a minute," he continues. "And like eight [total] have been negative. I'm not exaggerating."
D'Alessio is a newspaper guy who came to TSN from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April. He says Sporting News Today is able to provide the second-day analysis that newspapers have long offered, but without many of the restrictions papers face. The last page is sent to Texterity at 3 a.m. EDT, long after other newspapers have been put to bed.
"We want to be the only newspaper where you can get the 17-inning Dodgers-Rockies game with quotes," he says. "We've already been able to put that to the test a little. The WNBA fight happens late and we're able to blow that out more than most papers. We're able to really keep reporting Manny Ramirez [trade rumors] deep into the night and then report what others are reporting as well, even if it happens at 1 o'clock in the morning. We want people, when they get it around 7 o'clock in the morning, to have everything that's been reported."
Sporting News Today, like any Web site, also doesn't have the space restrictions that dog newspaper work, and that are getting worse as that industry shrinks.
"That's probably the biggest upside for us when we're putting it out," D'Alessio says. "We can say, 'Well, if there's 10 trades, we can do five pages of trade coverage tomorrow.' It's just a matter of do we have the people to do it."
Sporting News Today coexists with sportingnews.com, which provides more immediate news, and also with the print magazine, which this month is going from a weekly to a biweekly schedule. D'Alessio says that aside from a managing editor in charge of each and some production staff, "everyone thinks of everything. We have a writing staff that writes for all three platforms."
A writer covering a game might write something immediately for sportingnews.com, then go back and do a more thoughtful or analytical piece for Sporting News Today. It's similar to what reporters for wire services or newspapers that publish multiple editions have done for a century or more. Not surprisingly, D'Alessio says he's been hiring writers with wire service experience.
The magazine itself will "focus a lot more on issues and people," D'Alessio says, "not nearly the extent of X's and O's that we've had in the past."
It all could add up to the same dreary end the Sporting News was heading for before D'Alessio showed up for his first day of work in April with "a blank screen and no staff." It's going to depend on the writing and editing, and it's too early to tell if Sporting News Today and the revamped magazine will distinguish themselves in those areas.
But in a way that didn't look possible four months ago, the patient looks like it has a fighting chance.