Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is the Racing Media Too Close to be Critical?

In the UK racing scene (hat tip to Scott), a senior writer at the Racing Post recently blasted the paper in his resignation letter for being beholden to its advertisers, which in his opinion is not healthy; "Almost all the racing media is now under the effective editorial control of the bookmakers either because bookmaker advertising is essential to their survival, or because other racing correspondents have been made aware of, er, the side on which their bread is buttered."

"The agenda of Britain's only racing/sports newspaper is now being dictated entirely by its main advertisers," he said.

I often feel the same way over here, across the pond. I read some articles, on both websites and in print, where the racing writers appear to be reticent to be critical. It seems to me, at times, it is an old boys club, where advertisers rule the editorial roost. After all, can we blame them? If you anger a breeder, or an ADW who advertises with you, you are not going to replace that advertiser with Target, or Wal-Mart. You are pretty much toast.

There are independent voices. Often times Ray Paulick is one (although some have said he shows some bias towards horseman and against some tracks). Andrew Beyer, despite the DRF having mucho-advertising from tracks and ADW's, looks to me to be one who would tell someone to go take a hike if they tried to silence his opinion. Here in Canada, Darryl Kaplan of Trot writes hard-hitting opinion from time to time that flies directly in the face of the "protect my slice at all costs" thinking that affects this business like an infected boil. Harold Howe of the Harness Edge is not averse to running critical pieces and letters. But overall, the business itself seems to have very few voices who challenge the status-quo with the verve it may need.

On television as we have touched below, it is a different story, as most simulcast shows have staff that are employed by the track. It is simply not realistic to demand that Mike Hamilton or Greg Blanchard at Woodbine ask a tough question of their track on the air. If they think the detention barn does no good they clearly can not slag their boss.

But I do wonder if we have lost some independence in print, and on the web in racing because of these close-knit ties. Perhaps it is further evidence of the power of the status quo in racing, and that it will take much, much more than handle losses and a few closed tracks to unhinge it.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is happening all around. In the Horsemen magazine they dropped the column by Andrew Cohen, I suspect because he was often critical of the USTA and that ruffled feathers.

Jessica said...

The loss of turf writers at mainstream news outlets has made the problem worse; racing coverage is now concentrated in the trade press. For now, the scene looks bad, but the desire and need for accurate, thorough information about a multi-billion dollar industry will drive the creation of independent new media to fill the vacuum. At least, that's what I hope.

Ray Paulick said...

Guilty as charged!

Without the horsemen, there will be no horses. Dot races might be fun on a baseball park video screen, but I prefer horse racing.

We need to do more for fans and horsemen...if we do that successfully, the tracks will succeed.

Pull the Pocket said...

I admire you for leaving comments up like that fella, and a few others have left on your articles Ray. It is not easy at times to take critical comments when you are slugging away.

I read a recent article written about the web, and commenting in general and how it can revert to name-calling and so forth. They recommended that as long as the comments are on topic they should be left up. I see you seem to prescribe to that theory. Although that commenter was critical of you, he did back up his comments and stayed on topic.

Anyway, thumbs up from another fella that gets slagged from time to time :)

Anonymous said...

I also believe that the silly reason that Horseman and Fairworld gave for removing Andrew Cohen was nothing more than a smoke screen because he was upsetting the big advertisers. And believe me their website is no longer on my list of must go sites!! In fact I try to never go there, I am sure my lack of visiting doesn't hurt them, but they can also be sure I will never buy their mag either. I hope that does hurt.
Regards, Rebecca

Anonymous said...

It is so easy to attack horse racing from a journalistic perspective. The game is on the decline and nothing will save it or return it back to its glory years.
There are few journalists who truly understand the game from the inside out. They have either never been gamblers, horse owners or racetrack operators. They are, for the most part, merely passive observors, armchair quarterbacks if you will.
Some of the best journalists I have known are ones who didn't need platforms to be seen or heard. They spoke from an understanding grounded in experience. I think of Gary West, who has ruffled many feathers in the industry but has one of the best understandings of the game.
Bob Fortus is another.
They understand physiology and can make accurate and intelligent commentary, sometimes which causes friction among the tracks they cover and/or advertisers.
But this happens in all sports. Racing is not exclusive to criticism, it's just it can't help itself.
Traditional journalism has also been replaced by bloggers or, as one person now calls them, sloggers. In the absence of a name or a face, they are people who sit by computers and criticize. Sometimes they have valid commentaries, and sometimes they are merely expressing opinion without fact.
In the end, racing has to take a serious look at itself and where it is heading. The MEC fallout underlined how racing doesn't operate for the good of all but merely as a series of independant operators. Stronach had a vision, perhaps based on individual greed, that would change the game and bring it back to its glory.
That will never happen, so attacking racing is like fishing in a stocked pond.
And you can say writers are being pulled off the beats because they are too critical.
But the bottom line is, racing coverage is shrinking, and journalism as a whole is at stage, similar to racing, from which it will never recover.
You can remove writers and let the bloggers/sloggers talk about all the wrongs of racing, but coming up with a solution is considerably more challenging.
This isn't just about advertisers and they clout they hold. This is about managing editors and/or sports editors who have no passion for horse racing, and when they pull a writer off the beat, be it in a traditional newspaper or a trade publication, it may be because that employer no longer serves a valuable purpose to the bottom line. That could mean bodies are needed for more relevant coverage. If the writer happens to be critical, the paper may simply say, who cares.
I truly doubt the amount of advertising really matters that much.
Having said that, I have seen examples where a writer is pulled off the beat and replaced by someone who isn't nearly as knowledgeable and therefore can't be as critical. In some cases, if it is a one-paper town and the advertiser has clout, it may threaten to pull business if the offensive writer is not pulled.
In summation, take all the shots you want at racing. It will survive inspite of itself, but the weak will not inherent the turf. The strong will, and there will be fewer and fewer people covering racing from a traditional standpoint, and those who choose to blog or slog may not matter anyway.
Nothing short of a miracle plan will make racing relevant.
But be thankful there are at least publications that cover the game.

Sunny Jim said...

Shane Sellers also comes to mind. I think it took great courage to go through with that HBO special - since followed up with his book - presenting some damning evidence against the industry Powers That Be in their refusal to soften the weight requirements for jockeys (among other things). He blew the cover off of a lot of eye-opening stuff. Didn't Churchill ban him for it?

malcer said...

Great post!

However, I strongly disagree with Mr. Paulick's opinion, so much so that I've written a piece about it on my own blog. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Horse racing is a perfect example of a business that desperately needs to be downsized. Through attrition this is happening now in California as a declining horse population is causing race days to be cancelled and a declining owner population is causing a shift of stock to other areas.

Consider that the vast majority (in caps if you please) of horseowners lost money even when the game was "healthy". Owning a horse or being part of a group that owned horses was a vehicle designed to achieve "status". If you broke even that was good and making money was like cheesecake. A few broke even. Fewer had dessert.

Today, owners and trainers are migrating towards those venus that have subsidized purse structures. Most of the subsidies come from other forms of gambling such as slot machines. As politicians figure out that subsidizing horse racing is at the expense of education and health care those subsidies will be downsized and the spiral will continue.

The downsizing has affected journalists too. Why do you think Paulick writes in a blog today instead of in a magazine? If journalists don't talk to horse owners and track owners who is left for them to talk to and write about?

How about the customers? Heaven forbid!

Anonymous said...

We used to love to read the balanced reporting that Brooklyn Backstretch Blogposted.... but then a NYRA press pass was issued and nary a critical word about NY racing has been posted since...We have dropped that blog ad taken up with Left at the Gate.