On the Furlough: Newspaper hockey writers roll with recession

As a sportswriter for a newspaper, working a team-specific beat is a demanding gig. They put countless hours into following the storylines, digging up new information, cultivating relationships and, in many cases, attempting to beat the pants off the competition.

In a digital age, those responsibilities extend to blogging on the publication's Web site, occasional live chats ... everything from video work to doing a quick hit on the radio to promote their product. That's not even including the day-to-day interaction with readers.

David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury news covers the San Jose Sharks beat. His blog, Working the Corners, is that perfect combination of reporter's notebook scoop and the fan community that grew around it. Overall, Pollak said he works "six or seven day weeks during the hockey season."

Until this season, at least.

Like so many other newspapers struggling with the industry's revenue problems and the financial blows from the recession, the Mercury News implemented a furlough program in which Pollak was forced to take five days of unpaid leave earlier this year -- five days without any writing, blogging or working the beat.

Pollak's coverage on his blog began featuring updates not only about the team, but about his own production schedule:

Sunday was a travel day (made it out of the East Coast about three hours before the snows arrived in New York City) and Monday was a furlough day, which meant I was under orders to do absolutely no work-related activity. That story in this morning's print edition? Written on that plane ride and updated by my colleague Mark Emmons.

So how does a beat writer cope with being forced off the beat by his employer? We asked Pollak and Rich Hammond of the Los Angeles Daily News, who covers the Los Angeles Kings, what life on the furlough is like and if the current state of hockey print journalism tells us anything about its future.

Hammond writes the incredible Inside the Kings blog; one that manages to bring LA fans breaking news and exclusive insights from Kings players to GM Dean Lombardi. He and Pollak were kind enough to take some time to discuss (over email) some sensitive subjects in journalism today:

Q. What is the current furlough situation for your paper, and what was your reaction upon hearing about the plan?

HAMMOND: Our paper instituted mandatory one-week furloughs that had to be taken in February or March, so we're done, at least for now. I can't say I was surprised when they were announced, because one of the country's other major newspaper chains had announced its furlough plan a few weeks earlier. At that point, I figured the clock was ticking for us, and sure enough...

POLLAK: We had to take five unpaid days off between early February and March 31. We're now waiting to find out if that's going to be a one-time thing, a quarterly occurrence or something in between.

My reaction was that if it saved jobs, then this wasn't a terrible thing. Better to share the pain.

But journalistically, this wasn't a good thing. I'll try to explain why.

Reporters did not have to take the five days all at once. But any furlough day had to be in a week that also included two other days off.  Now that may need seem all that bad, but as a beat writer, I generally work six or seven day weeks during the hockey season. By being forced to essentially work four-day weeks during the furlough period, it took me away from the team something more like 10-12 days instead of just five. 

What it meant was that on weeks when the team was home, I pretty much only worked game days. The other days, when players and coaches normally have more time to talk and more complex stories can be tackled, became my days off.

Now on many of those days, we had another reporter covering the Sharks and Mark Emmons does a great job so I'm not sure how much readers suffered. But for me, it not only limited the kinds of stories I could tackle, but also threw off the rhythms of the job. Where you normally feel you have a sense of the day-to-day goings on. I'd come back after two or three days off and feel pretty disconnected.

What happens when you're on furlough? Are you working without pay? Taking unpaid vacation? Are you still "on the beat" or following hockey, or are you disconnected from it all?

HAMMOND: Well, according to the rules of our furlough plan, we were not allowed to do anything work-related during our furlough days, to the point where we were instructed not to check our company e-mail or take part in any work-related phone calls. Of course, I would never, ever, dream of doing anything to violate the rules.

Fortunately, I have a Facebook page that has nothing to do with my company, so I decided to use my personal time to do some blogging about the Kings. It worked out well, thanks to some very loyal readers. I don't know how anyone could be a beat reporter and completely disconnect himself or herself for an entire week during the season. I know it would drive me crazy.

POLLAK: We were basically ordered to do absolutely nothing work-related on our furlough day. No reporting, no blogging, no emailing the editor about anything. Now, I probably watched a game on Center Ice that night and maybe that's a violation of the directive, but I wasn't going to carry things that far.

Now on those other two days off that I mentioned, the rules weren't as strict. No, I didn't go to practices. Yes, I probably spent a few minutes blogging each day, just to keep the conversation going.

How do you feel the furlough situation affects coverage of the team for your publication and your blog?

HAMMOND: Even without the furloughs, we're stretched ultra-thin. We have 12 people on staff who, collectively, are charged with producing the newspaper sports section, blogs and website. That includes editors, page designers, copy editors and writers, who have to cover six major professional teams and two major colleges, plus local sporting events. I'm fortunate to have another writer on staff, Jill Painter, who steps in to contribute on the blog, but at the same time she was filling in for me, she was also covering college sports and writing general sports columns. It's very much an all-hands-on-deck mentality and it makes it very difficult to give readers the type of coverage they expect.

POLLAK: Sorry, I think I got ahead of myself and answered that earlier.

When I explained to readers in the blog WHY it'd be quiet the next day, they understood. It's not secret that newspapers are in economic trouble and they did a good job of keeping the hockey chat going in my absence.

In a general sense, where do you think print media hockey coverage is headed in the U.S. in the next few years? Can or will blogs fill in the holes in coverage for some fan bases?

HAMMOND: As much as I'd like to think otherwise, I don't see how there's going to be an increase of print coverage for hockey. Newspapers staffs are only going to continue to shrink, and as we've already seen, hockey coverage is one of the first things to go. Unless newspapers enjoy a huge resurgence, I don't know what will turn that around.

Blogs most certainly have an opportunity to fill in the holes, even blogs that aren't affiliated with newspapers or major media outlets. Bloggers who can develop credibility with their audiences have a wonderful opportunity to provide coverage to hockey fans who are hungry for it.

POLLAK: I think more and more papers are going to struggle when it comes to spending money on coverage of anything, hockey included.  I'm lucky this year -- I was able to travel to each game, though we did end up using a stringer once because of some unique circumstances. 

The paper still recognizes the importance of covering the only major sports team based in San Jose and I'm happy to be able to say that.

A couple other things didn't hurt. For one thing, the Sharks have had a pretty amazing season, generating a lot of interest from the very beginning. For another, every other Bay Area pro team is in the dumpster. None of them have had any post-season presence lately and I'm thinking that has to mean that much of what little money that may be left in the travel budget can be earmarked for hockey.

Some blogs can fill the gap in coverage if the writers do serious reporting -- and many do. But not all. If the blogs traffic in information, that's useful. If they just traffic in opinion, well, that's not where the shortage would exist.

Finally, does the NHL have to do more to cut down costs for journalists covering their product? What can the League do, if anything, to encourage more coverage in tough economic times?

HAMMOND: A couple months ago, Mark Cuban posted a blog item and said every pro team should basically subsidize its beat reports in order to ensure coverage. That's problematic in a lot of ways, but it's the only outside-the-box idea I've heard, so give credit to Cuban for attempting to find a solution. Short of that, I don't know what the NHL can be expected to do. Covering road games is impossible for many papers these days because of the cost of flights and hotel rooms. I don't know what, if anything, the league can do about that. Often, home games also go uncovered because reporters' services are needed at other events.

Let's face it, there aren't many markets in the U.S. in which hockey is the top draw. Newspapers' resources are allocated based on interest, which is sort of a chicken-and-egg thing. Does increased interest come from increased coverage, or does increased coverage come from increased interest? Either way, the best thing the NHL can do is market its product to the best of its ability and get fans more excited, so that fans (readers) demand more coverage.

POLLAK: I'm not sure the league can do much in this regard. I know some teams and some newspapers have worked out arrangements where reporters routinely travel on the team's chartered flights. The newspaper pays a share of the overall cost, of course, but my guess is it's much cheaper than flying commercially.

I'm not totally comfortable with that arrangement because it does compromise the independent voice. And I know my boss feels even more strongly about that than I do. Similarly, I think some teams are more willing to consider the cooperative arrangement than others. But maybe at some point there might have to be tradeoffs considered.

On a smaller scale, on the road I have hitched a ride on the team bus to practices at rinks some distance away when I don't have a rental car in that particular city. The Sharks have never said no and I've quietly occupied a seat on maybe four or five occasions over the past two seasons.

Sure, it's only saving the newspaper the cost of a long cab ride, but every bit does help.

Copyright PuckD - Puck Daddy
Contact Us