A new coverage conundrum

With expansion … comes limitations. That’s becoming evident in the changing geography of college hockey.

After last summer’s conference realignments – the founding of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the imminent end of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the naissance of the Big Ten Hockey Conference, the expansion of Hockey East – it helped the sport create a stronger geographic reach. But more geography brings more travel … which, in all likelihood, will hinder newspaper coverage of a handful of college hockey teams by a handful of local newspapers. Because it costs money to travel. And in the world of newspapers, which is pinching more and more pennies, it’s difficult for some editors to justify traveling to a college town when reporters are better used on local assignments or doing desk work on a weekend.

Several newspapers have already slashed their travel budgets – even my former employer didn’t send a reporter to Maine hockey’s away games during the first three months of the season – yet consider that the University of Maine, in Orono, is 140 miles from the newsroom. Still, one thing that’s worked in Hockey East’s favor for so long? Proximity. From its most central location in Boston, road trips are a maximum five hours (barring weather/highway conditions), either to Orono, Maine, or Burlington, Vt. That will change when Notre Dame joins the league in the fall of 2013.

Anyhow.

With today’s announcement naming Jim Scherr as the new commissioner of the NCHC – which starts play in the fall of 2013 – it also drew some speculation as to what local newspapers who cover each of the league’s eight teams will do. How they will strategize in the future to cover these teams on the road.

But it also exhibited the collision of an area of growth and the continuous shrinking of budgets in newspapers. With the debut of the NCHC, it means that fewer smaller papers will be able to adequately and properly cover their local programs. Because it costs a lot of money to travel from Duluth, Minnesota, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, or Oxford, Ohio, to Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In an exchange Wednesday on Twitter, a pair of college hockey beat writers – whose schools will join the NCHC – discussed what all these changes might mean to the future of their beat:

What solutions do newspapers – who may not be able to afford to send their reporters to properly and adequately cover teams – have in order to communicate and to deliver the message in this arena?

Editors can establish and/or maintain a network of freelancers across the country (shameless self-promotion: hey, I’m good for the money if anyone needs coverage of Maine hockey. Or Portland’s AHL team). Because there’s still a need for readable, editable and timely copy.

Or reporters can stay in the office and rely on technology – watch a webcast and make a post-game phone call for interviews, which is what’s happening at a few newspapers already – and as you and I know, technology may not always be reliable.

It’s a conundrum, and it’s indicative of what’s happening at newspapers, and not just in the sports departments. Less resources for more things to cover.

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