No one goes to more high school games than ECM

Like many, if not most, parents of young athletes, I spent much – probably too much – of my parenting time following my children’s exploits on the athletic fields. My two oldest were soccer players whose games I rarely missed and whose accomplishments engendered an abundance of fatherly pride.

My daughter lost interest in sports during her senior year at Edina High School, but my son remained serious about soccer, hoping he’d get to play in college, which he did. During college visits his senior year, we carried copies of a feature story about Eric written 20 years ago by John Sherman, sports editor of the Edina Sun Current.

John is still writing stories that are being pasted into the scrapbooks of young athletes in the west metro. He is one of about two dozen sports editors at the four dozen newspapers published by ECM, my employer and the state’s largest company of weekly newspapers and community websites.

Since ECM acquired the Sun papers in December of 2011, our company has claimed the distinction of sending more employees to prep sports events than anyone except, perhaps, whoever delivers popcorn to Minnesota high schools. And many of our sports editors have, like John Sherman, been writing about prep sports for more than 20 years.

We have a few rookies, such as Patrick Slack, who covers five schools in the Little Falls area for our Morrison County Record, and Kat Ladwig, who joined the Forest Lake Times less than a year ago. But at most of our papers, those who cover the teams have seen coaches and athletic directors come and go, and they’re still telling the stories of local heroes in the suburbs and small towns we serve.

Who does the sports writing has remained the same in most of our cities, but how we do it has changed and probably will continue to change. Sherman, Mike Shaughnessy in Dakota County, Bruce Strand in Elk River and many other ECM-Sun sports journalists used to be able to cover games and interview coaches and players for stories that appeared only in the weekly paper. But the Internet’s arrival meant they had to become daily reporters who now post game stories as soon as they have results.

The Internet and the explosion of websites devoted to sports have led to discussion in our company about whether we should change the nature of our coverage in newspapers. Many of our local papers devote most of their space to feature stories rather than extensive coverage of games, while other ECM papers continue to provide the stories of games that might have happened a week before.

In this age of instant information delivered by smart phones, should we assume those who care about high-school sports know who won or lost long before the paper is delivered?

If so, should we be using our precious “news hole” for profiles of players and coaches, stories about interesting and important sports trends such as the current discussion of checking in hockey and reports on key upcoming matchups between schools?

And, more fundamentally, how important is the coverage of prep sports to our readers?

When I was managing ECM’s Thisweek papers in Dakota County, we conducted focus groups to hear what regular readers wanted in their newspapers. Rob Daves, a consultant who has been conducting reader research for as long as Sherman has been covering sports, asked our focus-group participants to rank the subjects we cover – government, the arts, crime, schools and sports.

Sports was ranked last by two groups of readers that, as it turned out, contained few parents of high school athletes. Does that mean the only people who want sports coverage are those whose kids play? I must admit that I stopped attending Edina soccer matches when Eric graduated, even though I still love the sport.

We’ll be getting our sports editors together in June to discuss how we cover what happens in the local gyms, in pools, on tracks and on fields. I’d be interested in hearing from readers about sports coverage in our papers and  websites. — Larry Werner  (Editor’s note: Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His email is [email protected])