NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As if falling TV ratings and the decline of live attendance at the tracks weren't enough to worry Nascar execs, the auto racing league faces another problem this season: diminishing numbers of journalists covering the sport.
The attrition of both space and writers at newspapers around the country has meant a growing number of empty seats at Nascar media centers and press boxes, and less mainstream media coverage for the sport.
In response, Nascar has created the Citizen Journalist Media Corps, a group of 28 websites and blogs the racing league approved earlier this month to start receiving media credentials to cover the sport's races.
"The last 12 to 18 months, we've seen a drop in print media," says Ramsey Poston, Nascar's managing director-corporate communications, who oversees the Citizen Journalist project. "We've not only lost some of the biggest auto-racing writers in the business due to layoffs and cutbacks -- people like Jim Pedley of The Kansas City Star, John Sturbin (of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) and Grant James (of the St. Petersburg Times) -- but we've lost the papers themselves. We used to get great coverage from the Rocky Mountain (Colo.) News, and now it doesn't even exist. And other papers are simply cutting back coverage. I mean, look at Atlanta. That's our No. 1 TV market, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution doesn't even have a Nascar beat writer anymore after it let Rick Minter go. They mostly use (the Associated Press wire service)."
So Mr. Poston and Nascar began monitoring cyberspace with the help of Nielsen Media, and found more than 30,000 websites and blogs that were Nascar-related. That number was winnowed to about 100, and the final 28 were chosen and granted credentials on July 17.
"There was a lot of activity out there," he said, "and a lot of them took Nascar very seriously.
Clearly, Nascar is seeing the light. The league is about as old-school as it gets when it comes to dealing with the media, but it also realizes it can ill afford to lose print coverage -- in newspapers or online -- as it has with TV coverage. But Nascar isn't alone in worrying about losing coverage due to newspapers folding and cutting back staff. After all, coverage of professional sports amounts to free publicity for the leagues. Fans want to follow their favorite drivers, players and teams, and leagues benefit the more involved fans are.
NBC Universal last month purchased ProFootballTalk.com, one of the most influential sites covering the NFL. The site is situated prominently on NBCSports.com, and owner Mike Florio remains at the helm and has editorial control.
"The sites that are most successful are the ones that have the most unique voices, and Mike definitely has one of the most unique voices," Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics, told the Los Angeles Times. "I can't think of another pro-football website that has the unique following in such large numbers that Mike does. I'd be a fool if I tried to change that."
An NBA spokesman said the league this year credentialed bloggers from FanHouse, TrueHoop, HoopsWorld and HoopsHype, among other sites. The spokesman said individual teams also credential bloggers on a game-by-game basis.
An MLB spokesman said the league has not credentialed any bloggers this year, although it has given press passes to writers from established websites such as ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, FoxSports.com and Yahoo Sports. The Baseball Writers Association of America, which has lamented its dwindling ranks because of newspaper layoffs and cutbacks on space, voted in December 2007 to open its membership to web-based baseball writers.
While some in traditional media also initially shunned the idea -- longtime Charlotte Observer racing writer Jim Utter wrote, "For many years Nascar wanted no part in dealing with many of these sites, nor were tracks interested in granting them credentials, mostly for reasons that dealt with their 'legitimacy'" -- the sites chosen by Nascar nonetheless include a mix of both amateur and professional.
Racin' Today, for instance, is a site formed by Mssrs. Pedley, Sturbin, Minter and former Nashville Tennesseean auto writer Larry Woody.
Haddock in the Paddock is run by former Los Angeles Daily News racing writer Tim Haddock.
"As more and more fans turn from newspapers to new sources for their racing information, and as more websites become more professional, Nascar had to take notice and act," Mr. Pedley said.
Mr. Poston said the sites were chosen based on their professionalism, quality, timeliness of posts, growing audiences and unique views of the sport. He emphasized that the sites are not under Nascar control, and "it's OK if they don't have a positive view of the sport." He added that it never crossed his mind to have Nascar control editorial content by purchasing Turner Interactive-owned Nascar.com or by creating its own site.
"Now we have a greater diversity of voices speaking about the sport," he said. "This is going to be the future of sports, maybe beyond."
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