Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Media

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John Pricci on the racing media:

Without objective coverage, what passes for reportage these days often is rewritten press releases, that is when industry media bother to make the effort at all.

Internet news disseminators have joined this bandwagon, learning to follow the money—their own—and tend not to trumpet any commentary that could be construed as controversial, thus becoming part of a problematic trend.

Sure, I smirked a little reading that. And then I sighed, because it’s a simplistic critique. There’s a bit too much romanticizing about the Great Newspaper Turf Journalists of Yore these days by those who look across the press box and see only decline in the presence of the digital-first breed now filling the seats.

Oh, that’s a gross generalization, you say? You bet.

When I started following racing a decade ago, both of Boston’s daily newspapers had a turf writer. Most newspapers of any size in a market with a racetrack had a turf reporter. There’s no denying that layoffs and buyouts and retirements and the swift shift to digital media has made the newspaper turf writer an endangered species and left significant gaps in coverage. Everyone who thinks about the subject should feel a little alarm at the thought that Tom Noonan and Alan Mann — both expert as they are in the areas they blog about regularly — are pretty much it for purveyors of ongoing, critical, non-trade press coverage of NYRA. (Noonan, bless him, actually files FOIA requests.)

But a lot of the coverage 10 years ago was rewritten press releases, and bland race previews and recaps that all used the same quotes from the same NTRA teleconferences and track stable notes. It was much of that “reporting” that’s been squeezed out, and it’s hard to call the development bad. Consider the New York Post writers laid off on the eve of the 2013 Belmont Stakes, who Pricci casts in heroic pose as “trying to broker negotiations between NYRA and Post executives, the goal being to recover advertising that was pulled following the critical story.” Admirable. Yet Ed Fountaine had checked out years ago — he was burned out, something even he acknowledged:

Fountaine … said he was relieved to be let go, citing the daily grind of the job. “I’ve got a screenplay I’ve been wanting to finish, and a couple of books I want to write, projects I couldn’t do because of my job,” he said. “Now I have the time. I’m not doing handstands, but I’m close.”

If there’s a bright side to the losses, it’s that stories deserving more depth and reportage are getting attention, because that’s the kind of coverage that offers enough value to cover its costs and has the potential to cross over (disagree or not with how Joe Drape reports on racing for the New York Times — his work has highlighted real issues within the industry, engages more casual observers, and is pushing reforms). “My reality says racing journalism has gotten better,” tweeted Blood-Horse writer Tom LaMarra. “It covers things esteemed writers of the past wouldn’t touch.” Team Valor is rewarding investigative reporting with a $25,000 annual award (PDF). The Thoroughbred Daily News has used its platform to publish work such as a six-part series on drugs in racing, and given space for debate on stories such as the PETA investigation of Steve Asmussen’s barn. There’s also more room for, and possibilities for the inventive telling of, the kind of soft stories that broadly appeal — think the Blood-Horse longform features, or the New York Times’ “Snow Fall”-like profile of jockey Russell Baze.

What’s in danger of being completely lost is independent, daily coverage that encompasses management issues and handle numbers as much as racing results. Work that’s important for transparency and accountability, but isn’t splashy. I’m not sure what the solution is — turf media support, in the form of advertising, primarily comes from the breeding or wagering segments of the industry, and so that’s where most coverage concentrates, and even though an organization like NYRA is state-regulated, state-managed, and operates on state-owned lands, assigning a beat reporter to it is obviously a hard sell to mainstream news executives who see it, if they see it at all, as a niche within bigger beats such as state government, or sports. This is a problem.

Media Matters

A couple of years ago, I stopped at one of the newsstands in my neighborhood to pick up a magazine with a cover story that was being much discussed online, even though it wasn’t available digitally because the publisher was a web skeptic. A student from a local business school stopped me as I left to ask a few questions. He was doing a survey for a class, and he wanted to know what I’d bought, and why I had done so. Because how else could I read the story I wanted to read?, I replied. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I’ve never gone in there. I don’t buy print media.” It turned out that the class assignment was to talk to people who bought products or went to stores with which the students were unfamiliar. It was an empathy exercise, and I was the weirdo.

I laughed and moved on, but the brief conversation stuck with me — to this 20-something guy, a newsstand — a natural part of my then 30-something physical and intellectual landscape — was an alien space frequented by customers who made inexplicable purchases. The encounter comes back to me when I read pieces about the decline of newspapers, about disappearing print; I think about how print still has a place in media, in getting the news to people, and yet how to a rising audience, news is disaggregated and fragmented, delivered by social network and consumed on mobile devices. If you follow the business of media, you know the stats and trends.

“Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now,” writes New York Times media reporter David Carr in his column this week, “and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.” Carr — a journalist rooted in old media but adept at the new — took the train to Saratoga on Thursday, and used the time to catch up on his print reading. His fellow passengers shouted into cell phones and complained about the weak wi-fi.

I’m sure among the those wireless users were people trying to access DRF.com or Blood-Horse, or sites such as Horse Racing Nation or America’s Best Racing. (It was the Ethan Allen Express the day before Saratoga opened, after all.) Steve Haskin, in his latest column, lists the last two among the racing outlets that have largely replaced newspapers in racetrack press boxes, which are now mainly populated by “free-lance writers or bloggers,” not the honorable “fraternity” of sports journalists who once smoked, drank, and typed their way to “the top of the food chain.” Haskin sees a worrisome change:

We may not realize it, but this is a microcosm of what is happening to the sport on all fronts, in that we have lost one of the main concepts of journalism — force the public to become interested, just as poker, NASCAR, wrestling, and mixed martial arts have done. Just as milk did years ago and insurance is doing now. The public has proven time and again they will buy anything if you make them. Make racing a product in demand and the newspapers will return, and so will the journalists.

Forcing the public to become interested in racing sometimes seems to me the primary mission of many of the freelance correspondents and bloggers now occupying the press box seats of the sports writers Haskin misses. (Noted: I don’t exclude myself from that bent; I work for the Breeders’ Cup on their digital media initiatives, such as this year’s dedicated Breeders’ Cup Challenge website, which is publishing original and aggregated content.) And they’re doing that (we’re doing that) via the channels people click, not newspapers.

Like many others, I was thrown last week at the news that the New York Daily News eliminated its racing coverage and laid off Jerry Bossert. He was the last daily turf writer at any of the city’s daily newspapers; he filed picks and recaps, wrote features and profiles, nipped at NYRA about track conditions, safety polices, and management. He covered his beat with diligence. Where does that kind of journalistic work — which includes oversight and accountability as part of an independent mission — fit into a never-ending stream filled with positive stories and viral content? It has to fit somewhere — it’s necessary. This might make me as much a weirdo as buying a print magazine at a newsstand, but I believe in journalism as a force for public good, not for public relations.

How Things Change

Jeremy Plonk has a realization re: how betting is changing at Woodbine:

It reminds me a lot of playing online through Xpressbet and other ADW outlets. We trust ourselves and trust the technology every single day we play. We just don’t typically do it at the racetrack, because we’re often too stuck on tradition to realize how society has changed.

Journalism changes, too: Steven Crist on 35 years at Saratoga.

Don’t Be Disappointed

Oxbow spoiled nothing winning the Preakness, writes Bill Dwyre, because he put trainer D. Wayne Lukas back in the spotlight:

In this age of owners looking for quick prominence and quick return on investment, a Triple Crown winner offers a nice temporary buzz before disappearing into the breeding shed. Lukas coming back, with plenty left in the tank, should have his sport counting its lucky stars.

It has been a few years since Lukas was at the center — the last Triple Crown race he won was the 2000 Belmont, with Commendable.

Rosie’s Ride

This 60 Minutes segment on Rosie Napravnik may be the first coverage of the jockey (who’s riding Mylute in the Kentucky Derby) I’ve seen this spring that doesn’t remind me of Freddy Rumsen telling Don Draper that Peggy Olsen’s insight into the Belle Jolie campaign “was like watching a dog play the piano.”

Go ahead, joke, “There is a filly in the Derby. The thing is this one has two legs, not four.” Wonder, “Can a woman win the Kentucky Derby?” Say, “You can almost classify her as just ‘jockey,’ now.” Because Napravnik can ride: She’s 25, and she’s won the Kentucky Oaks and a Breeders’ Cup race within the last year. So far, in 2013, only Joel Rosario has won more races than Napravnik; only four other jockeys have won more money. And she has the right attitude:

“There still are owners and trainers that don’t want to ride a female. The only way that I deal with that is, you know, to try to beat that person in a race, beat that trainer or owner in a race.”

Napravnik might not be on the Derby winner this Saturday, but she’ll be on a Kentucky Derby winner before her career ends. Bet on it.

3:30 PM Addendum: Napravnik tells Byron King she’s pleased with how the 60 Minutes interview turned out: “They did an excellent job with it.”

In the Archives

Sometimes Eliza McGraw just has to go to the library:

I love to turn the flapping, oversized pages of actual turf papers. For me, reading about a horse like the 1920s-era racing giant Exterminator in the same way his fans would have makes the writing that much more vivid …

Tangentially related: Among the assets of the bankrupt Thoroughbred Times are the rights to the Thoroughbred Record, which began publishing in 1895 and continued, in some form, until 1991. Bundled with the TT archives, that would make a rich trove of turf journalism for some library to acquire.

KYC Wrap-Up

The Saturday after the Belmont Stakes, the last rewards packages promised Kentucky Confidential supporters on Kickstarter were mailed, putting an end to the Kentucky Derby site for this year. We were six weeks planning, two weeks running, and six weeks closing, and every stage offered a chance to try something new. Before I move on to the next thing, here are a few notes on our experiment in funding and publishing pop-up turf journalism:

Kickstarter. Along with seeking sponsors, we decided to use the start-up crowd-funding service Kickstarter to raise money for KYC, a move that turned out to be a great way to involve friends and supporters in the project from the start and an all-around interesting experience. It was also where we made our biggest mistake. Kickstarter recommends entering a funding total that is the absolute minimum necessary for success. We entered $13,000, or about 85% of our budget. Our error became apparent almost immediately, when sponsors and supporters who, for various reasons, preferred to back us by cash or check directly and not through Kickstarter, began to contribute, creating two funding streams that we had to find a way to combine without violating either the rules or spirit of Kickstarter, which doesn’t allow changing the funding goal after a campaign has started or offer a simple mechanism for adding outside monies. In the end, we entered the combined contributions of several supporters as one lump sum (all backers, however, were acknowledged individually on the site). The backer who ensured our success on Kickstarter wasn’t an individual making one large donation, as some speculated, but the backer who gave the $40 that brought us to our goal.

For a great analysis of using Kickstarter to fund a project, read Craig Mod’s Art Space Tokyo case study. We used Mod’s research to structure our support tiers, and found that backers at the $50 or higher levels — I’m writing here of just the contributors who directly gave through Kickstarter — were more than 50% of our supporters. Backers who gave outside Kickstarter — excluding sponsors — gave a minimum of $100, comprising the bulk of our funding. The take-away is that people will support projects to which they feel strongly connected, and at a level higher than might be anticipated.

Something Mod addresses only slightly, and which I spent much time thinking about, was how to convert goodwill into support — Kickstarter doesn’t provide stats on how often a page is visited or referral sources, making it difficult to track the most effective messaging or determine a conversion rate. Based on traffic from the KYC placeholder site, along with Facebook stats, I estimated we converted approximately 1.5% of visitors to the Kickstarter page into backers. At that rate, and at the average pledge of $77, we would have had to reach approximately 12,000 interested people to hit our funding goal fully through Kickstarter. If I were using the service for a new project, I would base the goal on the total number of potential supporters that would most likely be reached, as well as the project’s budget and additional funding sources. For KYC, a more suitable goal might have been in the $5,000-$7,500 range.

Amazon Web Services. Because KYC would be live for such a short period, I wanted to avoid any down time, whether due to a traffic spike or hosting issue. To make our WordPress installation as fast and redundant as possible, I installed the plugin W3 Total Cache, instead of the usual WP Super Cache, and enabled both page caching and database caching. I then added Amazon Simple Storage, using it as a CDN for images and files; we used Brightcove for videos. Total costs were less than $350, mostly for the videos, and considering that there was at least one Dreamhost outage during our run, which affected other sites on the server, but affected KYC only on the backend, the set-up turned out to be well worth the time and expense. Our page load time was also consistently snappy, with one exception — Typekit, a hosted web font service that I’m using on more projects, would sometimes pop in a second or so after the rest of a page on a first visit. It was a minor inconvenience.

Blurb. As a thank-you gift to backers giving more than $250, we published a keepsake KYC book (pictured above). Although I explored using a traditional printer, I knew print-on-demand would most likely be our most cost-effective choice because we were doing such a small quantity. The service we ended up using was Blurb, which recently added Mohawk premium papers as a printing option. We went with the ProLine Uncoated, a textured, creamy, matte paper that really showed the full-bleed photographs to good effect. Price per book was $41, but the quality surpassed my expectations.

Thanks to everyone who supported KYC. We had a great time, and I know my collaborator, John Scheinman, as well as several of our awesome contributors, are eager to come back next year for the entire Triple Crown season.

Note: I’ve temporarily turned off comments because of a spam surge.

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