Observing the Tennessean die is like watching the Titanic sink in super slo-mo

titanicsinks-20090310-173941[Note: An update to this post can be found at the bottom.]

Last night, my newsreader picked up a post from an anonymous blogger who is a fan of Nashville’s NHL franchise, the Nashville Predators. In the post, the blogger claimed the following:

“John Glennon, beat reporter for the Tennessean who primarily covers the Preds, is no longer traveling on the road to cover the away games. (Sunday’s) sport section had AP wire reports for the Preds game last night in Philly. Glennon will continue to provide local coverage of the team.”

As I’ve written many times, the coverage of local sports is perhaps the last differentiating feature and competitive advantage a local newspaper has, so my inclination was to dismiss such a rumor. While I would never underestimate the judgement of a Gannett (owner of the Tennessean) executive, my low regard for their corporate management could not sink low enough for me to believe such a rumor.

However, I did check, and sure enough the Sunday paper’s coverage of the game was an AP story pick-up. I also ran across an item about Tennessee newspapers entering into a “hand-shake” agreement to pool coverage of certain types of news in an informal wire-service-like model.

Last month, I posted what I’ll admit was a rant suggesting that pundits place the fault of the failure of the U.S. newspaper business model where it belongs: on the people who run the companies — and stop blaming the Internet and free-loading readers and the economy. In the post, I also wrote:

“Executives and bankers (destroyed) the Golden Goose of local newspapers: the local. They sold investors on the myth that bigger was better and more synergistic. They sold investors on the myth that national advertising could be sold when you have a national chain of newspapers. They sold investors the myth that customers will buy a local newspaper because it contains national news.

On Twitter last night, I asked if anyone could confirm or correct that rumor.

Today, I’ve received a steady stream of messages from “reliable sources” that yes, the Tennessean’s management has, indeed, stopped sending its Predators reporter on the road — at least “for some games.” As the team is making a run to squeeze into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I can’t think of any game that would be unimportant to cover, at this point.

I also heard a rumor that the Tennessean is not sending reporters (or perhaps a scaled-backed crew) to this week’s SEC basketball tournament. Another rumor has the paper shuttering what was, in effect, a “bureau” in Knoxville that covers University of Tennessee sports. That rumor was a bit muddled, but the version I heard suggests UT sports will now be covered by Nashville-based Tennessean reporters who travel to Knoxville, wire-service stories and stringers.

Another rumor I heard suggests that fans of the Triple-A baseball team in Nashville shouldn’t expect a staff reporter to be assigned to cover Sounds games — even the home ones. And away games? Forget about it.

So I’ll say it again: There is only one thing local newspapers have which separates them from their competition: Local.

And if you’re operating a newspaper in a market where people name their children after college and professional athletes who have a good season — in a market that’s just been named the manliest city in America, for godsakes — and you don’t realize the importance of defending your local sports’ turf, then you might as well shut ‘r down.

Damn, this is painful to watch.

Later: I meant this post to be more “irate reader” than cub-reporter, but here are some things I’ve learned from “reliable sources” since posting this earlier:

The Tennessean will no longer have a beat reporter in Knoxville. Bryan Mullen, who had that job, is returning to the sports department in Nashville.

I was also told I could already see in practice the “hand-shake content sharing” arrangement with the E.W. Scripps-owned Knoxville News-Sentinel: the Tennessean has started picking-up News-Sentinel stories about UT basketball and football spring training. (However, one of the Tennessean’s veteran sports reporters was in Knoxville covering practice on Tuesday.)

As it is doubtful Knoxville News-Sentinel readers are chomping-at-the-bit for Vandy sports coverage, I presume the quid pro quo for the News-Sentinel will be Titans coverage from Tennessean writers.

Other insights provided by those who closely follow the Tennessean’s sports coverage: The paper did not send its Vanderbilt basketball beat writer, Maurice Patton, on road games this season.

According to a reliable source, the newspaper will have no writers at the SEC mens basketball tournament in Tampa and has no plans to send any reporters to the men’s or women’s NCAA tournaments unless a strong local-angle develops.

The paper used AP reports of last week’s SEC women’s basketball tournament, which was won by Vanderbilt. Ironically, the Knoxville News-Sentinel had a reporter at the game who could have filed a Vanderbilt-angled story under the “content sharing” arrangement. The paper went with an AP story instead.