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Scott Humber wants you to know he’s not only a sports fan, he’s a highly enthusiastic sports fan. His office is decorated with sports memorabilia, and some of his most memorable moments in the news business involved sporting events.
So when the news director at Hawaii News Now recently decided to cut the obligatory sports segment from the back end of the station’s broadcasts, he said that decision was not about downgrading coverage of athletics.
Just as television no longer features shows about rural life, or Westerns, this decision instead reflected the changing nature of video journalism, in which virtually all media companies are now converged 24-hour newsrooms, competing against all other media, with traditional channels of distribution (such as the nightly news broadcasts) wrangling for attention with popular and continually updating digital channels (such as HNN’s website and mobile apps).
From a media-ecology perspective, this is a survival-of-the-fittest moment.
In meritocratic terms, this decision to pull the training wheels off HNN’s sports coverage makes sense. Most sports fans already know scores and have seen video highlights by the time the local broadcast airs. They want that information as soon as it’s available, and a time-locked segment at the end of the evening news is no longer the best way to deliver it for most people.
For traditionalists, though, this is a sort of sacrilege, and Humber said he has received many complaints about the decision.
From my perspective, I remember tuning into local broadcasts as a child in the 1970s, not when the news officially started but at 22 minutes after the hour, when the sports segments began. As one station would break to a commercial, I’d quickly turn to the other channels to see if I could pick up any additional highlights.
“I didn’t like what I was seeing. We were giving three minutes of review and preview, or a bunch of coaches or coach-speak. At times, we were six hours old.” — Scott Humber, HNN news director
Yet those were the days when we had three channels, no other options, and I spun a round plastic dial on the television by hand (no remote available) as it click, click, clicked through static-filled screens en route to its next destination, which also required some adjustments of rabbit ears. I’ve adapted since then, and so should journalism.
Even though the journalistic ideology is sound and timeless, its practitioners (and business people) need to evolve faster and with more sophistication, especially in terms of delivery methods, audience interactions and procedural transparency.
Some media foolish executives have responded to the industry’s existential crisis by lowering or obliterating the hard wall between news content and advertising, betraying a critical principle of editorial independence. Humber is not doing that in this case; he instead is challenging sports news to compete with other types of news for airtime. Why not?
I started my career as a sportswriter. I still enjoy watching and reading about sports. But I also find many other aspects of society interesting, including civics, history, culture, the natural environment, science, technologies, business and all of the arts.
Why should sports news get a free pass each night, when arts coverage, for example, doesn’t? We have very few professional athletes living and working in Hawaii but hundreds of at least part-time paid entertainers, including musicians, painters, singers, actors, dancers, etc.
Some of the state’s media companies, such as HNN or the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, try to cover it all, from government news to the Merrie Monarch Festival. Others narrow priorities as a matter of strategic philosophy and pragmatics. Civil Beat, for example, focuses on “public-affairs” journalism and engaging its community in issues of broad impact, including hosting events about a wide range of topics, such as public-policy debates, Hawaiian cultural development and news literacy. The fundamental idea there is that strong journalism and community engagement creates a better society through a more robust democracy.
Civil Beat thereby does not try to keep up with local sports, food, fashion, entertainment, weather, traffic or the arts, unless those topics somehow intersect with bigger-picture societal concerns. Civil Beat also has about 20 editorial staff members and only can do so many things well. As a nonprofit news organization, according to an email from Editor Patti Epler, it also has a legal obligation to serve an educational purpose.
Hawaii News Now, as a for-profit arm of Raycom Media, has commercial as well as audience concerns. In a recent phone interview, Humber said he spent a significant amount of time earlier this year analyzing the station’s broadcast, from start to finish. He clearly identified a weakness in the sports coverage.
“I didn’t like what I was seeing,” Humber said. “We were giving three minutes of review and preview, or a bunch of coaches or coach-speak. At times, we were six hours old (in comparison to other delivery channels).”
He started seriously questioning the station’s compulsory sports coverage in April, he recalled, in which sports every night had to earn its place in the broadcast. For about a month now, as The Star-Advertiser has reported, some broadcasts have been without any sports coverage at all.
Humber said one of the sports-dedicated reporters recently left the station, and the other one, Taryn Hatcher, has been taking a vacation. But Hatcher will return, he added, and Humber plans to hire another sports journalist as well, recomposing a two-person team that is roughly the same size as the channel’s primary competitors in Hawaii.
Humber emphasized that this decision had nothing to do with ratings (HNN doesn’t participate in the Nielsen ratings system anymore) or costs. He said the amount of coverage will not change, just the delivery method.
Humber said he reflected upon his own use of media as a fervent fan of teams in the Boston area, and also has checked with other stations in Denver and New York, which have dropped their mandatory sports coverage as well. If those cities, with at least four professional sports teams each, can do it, he reasoned, why shouldn’t Hawaii (which has none)?
“There’s going to be a fight every newscast, among every reporter we have, to get the best place (in the show),” he said. “Anyone can pitch a story, and if it’s solid, I’ll get it in the newscast. I don’t think we need a dedicated place for sports.”
Humber paused for a moment, though, when the conversation turned to traffic and weather. HNN has three weather reporters and one and a half reporters dedicated to traffic. Those obligatory segments, Humber said, will remain in the newscast even on perfectly sunny and delightful days when the freeways are clear.
Nobody would argue against coverage of a pending hurricane or a Zipnado, but on most days, Hawaii has the most predictable weather in the United States. It also has relatively predictable traffic patterns, which are terrible around Honolulu’s freeways during morning and evening rush hours but otherwise pretty good.
If the argument about sports is that other channels of delivery work better, and are more timely, then I also would contend that up-to-the-minute and location-based weather and traffic mobile apps are drastic improvements in terms of personalized information value and convenience. So are those next on the list to re-evaluate?
No chance, Humber said, recalling the successful marketing push about a decade ago to brand KGMB, which later was consolidated into HNN, the “severe weather” station.
“Weather factors into everyone’s lives here,” he said. “Whether they are surfers, or they have kids playing sports, or whatever, (the television audience) wants to know what it’s going to be like outside. A raindrop in this town could cause a massive traffic jam. … Weather affects way more people than a score of a football game. It just does.”
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.