"Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer." - Leonardo Da Vinci
It's been a long time since I've written a column. I think the last one was on Dec. 31 - so right around three months. And in that time, I traveled the state of Montana working, but did manage to take five days for relaxation in Florida. And no, much like my trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., the HDN didn't spring for this. If they are, I'm still waiting for the checks. Still waiting still waiting still waiting.
Anyway, much has happened in that time in the world of sports, both locally and nationally. Don't think for a second that I couldn't have expounded on my opinion on any number of topics. In fact, I had an entire column written about the Randy Moss mooning incident, but I simply didn't have room for it.
With a choice between a nice photo and a lengthier high school basketball preview and Moss' immature antics, I'll take the local coverage without hesitating.
Because that's what our paper is based on - local coverage. That being said, I thought I would use my first column in months to outline my policies regarding the Sports section, because they have recently been called into question.
That's right, I said "my" policies. Obviously, Managing Editor Karen Datko and Publisher Harvey Brock offer their input when it comes to my decisions, but in the end, the responsibility and the choices are mine.
However, those choices come with stipulations, first and foremost being space. We don't have an unlimited number of pages for sports, or in the paper as a whole, each and every day. The amount of advertising sold determines the amount of space available for news and sports. One pays for the other. It's not complicated, nor is it exciting enough to write about. Basically, you won't ever see our sports section growing to four pages daily.
Really, we have to maximize our coverage per page. That's why on Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays in the fall or winter, you will rarely see any national coverage.
From the time I've been here, until the time I leave, the focus will always be on local sports. With ESPN, the Internet and our competitors in Great Falls, national sports for serious fans can be found in other outlets.
So with our focus being on local athletes, it seems that everything should get easier from there. Actually, it gets more difficult. One of the things that I found myself fighting with when I came here, and I find myself fighting with still today, is the extent of our local coverage.
Do we cover everything equally? Do we give 9C schools the same coverage as Havre High? Where does MSU-Northern fit in this? Do we treat our stories like Title IX with equal space and coverage for each? What about younger kids sports such as Little League all-stars, Ice Hawks hockey and junior high sports? Who gets covered in person? And how do we cover all of this effectively without upsetting or alienating parents, athletes and readers?
To this day, I still don't know if I have the answer or the exact formula for all of those questions, except for the last one. The answer to that is: "We can't." At some point, parents, more often than the athletes, will be upset with our coverage. It's a fact. It happens at every newspaper.
We've had our fair share of complaints. It's something that I've grown accustomed to. If you're looking to make friends, you're better off working in a pet store. Honestly, the criticism doesn't bother me. We address it, make sure it is valid, embrace it, try to learn from it and look for improvements that we can make. What else can you do?
This has actually been pretty mild compared to my time in Missoula, where I once criticized a mining protest with the line, "there is no such thing as a stupid protest; just stupid people, who protest in idiotic ways."
Let's just say there was a very large group of nature-loving people who made their anti-Ryan thoughts very public and very loud whenever they saw me.
So criticism aside, and after much thinking and debating, my philosophy when it comes to our sports section is very blunt: "We're not here to build your child's scrapbook. We're here to report the news."
It may seem a little harsh, but it's true. A parent once asked me, "What does it take for my son's name to get in the paper?"
My response: "Either rob a bank, or write the story about it. You're guaranteed to get your name in the paper that way."
Look, just because your child competes in a sport, we can't guarantee their name or picture is going to be in the paper. We'd love to do that, but then we would be nothing more than a glorified scrapbook builders. We cover the games with unbiased perspective and report what is important. We don't favor certain teams or particular athletes. It may not seem like it to some people, but that's what we strive for. I used to joke to people that I disliked all the athletes and sports equally.
Obviously, in our hearts we want to see local teams win because the stories are easier to write and they sell more papers. But, win or lose, we still have to report the story.
To be perfectly honest and somewhat logical, some sports are naturally going to garner more coverage than others. It's not favoritism. It's a fact. And really, it's not decided by us. It's decided by you the readers. We base much of our coverage on what readers want. Consequently, Blue Pony football had more stories than the local slow pitch softball tourney. When 2,000 people show up to watch a game, that is probably the biggest story of the weekend. It's going to accrue a little more coverage.
But this explanation doesn't even pertain to youth and junior high sports. For people who want me or George to cover a game featuring kids younger than 13. It just isn't going to happen, unless its for the national title.
It's not snobbery; it's sense. Sports at that age and level are supposed to be teaching tools. Yes, winning is great. But the whole purpose is to learn about ideas such as sportsmanship, competition and teamwork, not worrying about who scored the most points or touchdowns.
By over-covering those early youth sports, it places an unnecessary emphasis on getting your name in the paper, instead of getting your team's name in the paper. It's doesn't set a good precedent - not for the athletes, but the parents.
If you think I'm kidding, you're mistaken. We receive more phone calls and complaints about so-and-so's kid always being in the paper. Loosely translated: "My kid isn't in as much as someone elses."
That isn't to say that we won't put youth sports in the paper. We've tried to do that as much as possible in as timely fashion as possible. We'll also still continue to preview big tournaments and events for youth sports and run results, if people bring them in. But if you think, I'll have George covering a Little League game and then interview a 12-year-old pitcher about his performance, you might as well check into a little place we like to call reality.
If you think about it, at that age, how important is it to get your name in the paper? For the kid, it's neat. Your mom cuts it out and puts it on the fridge and it's forgotten about an hour later. I'm not sure who it is more important to, the athlete or the parents.
At times, I lean toward the latter. It's cynical, but you'd be surprised how ruthless parents can be when it comes to their children.
Sometimes I believe that the line: "It's only a game" was from a child telling it to an outraged parent. Kids seem to remember that better than adults.
I don't know if explaining why we put in what we put in has helped or hurt our cause. Frankly, I don't care. We've been doing this for more than two years now and that philosophy has developed in that span.
We still want your comments, criticism and suggestions. We take them all with consideration, and at times, a very large grain of salt.
Regardless of what people think, George and I treat this as a local paper with real reporting and legitimate coverage, along with a little fun sprinkled in.
It can be a very entertaining job at times, because, as my parents have found out, it isn't about the money. Speaking of money, I'm still waiting for that check from my trip to Chattanooga. Still waiting ... still waiting ... still waiting.