Localizing stories keeps outdoors reporting alive

By Terry Tomalin
Newspapers across the country are cutting staff and reducing newsprint. Some blame the recession. Others point to increased competition from on-line media.
paperpileIn the last couple of years, veteran outdoors writers who have retired at major newspapers have not been replaced. In some newsrooms, outdoor writers have had their responsibilities reduced or been assigned to other beats. And in a few unfortunate cases, newspapers that have had strong outdoors coverage for decades have eliminated coverage entirely.
Is this the death knell for newspaper outdoors writing?
The situation does look grim. These are difficult times indeed. But things may not be as bad as they appear. Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
For starters, let’s set the playing field.
Rule one: Newspapers have a different readership than specialty magazines. What works for a hunting magazine in Montana may not work for a daily in Delaware.
Rule two: Good journalism is good business. Produce something people want and need and it will sell.
Rule three: As in politics, all news is local.
Now, one may argue the finer points of these basic truths, and please do, for that will provide fodder for future columns. But these are assumptions based on more than two decades of working full time in a competitive, two-newspaper, major metropolitan market.
Like most newspapers, my employer, The St. Petersburg Times lost readers in recent years. The Times has always made good journalism a top priority; in 2008, the paper won Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing and political reporting.
In 1990, when I transferred to sports after eight years in the news department, most of the folks I encountered at my first Florida Outdoors Writers Association conference considered themselves “hook and bullet” writers. I was 29 years old and recently back from a year-long trip of backpacking, fly fishing and surfing through New Zealand and Australia.
I was young and inexperienced, but with all due respect to my tenured colleagues, I knew there was more to the outdoors than hunting and fishing. During my travels, I bungee jumped off a railroad bridge, went inner tubing down underground rivers and went diving with giant grouper fish along the Great Barrier Reef. I brought this eclectic approach to my new beat and was promptly inundated with hate mail. One reader questioned my sexual orientation because I wrote about a new sport called sea kayaking. Another challenged me to a fight in the parking lot because I suggested that tarpon, a non-edible fish, should be caught and released.
But I stuck with it and our outdoors readership slowly began to grow. Over the years, the column inches devoted to outdoors steadily increased, with the occasional news or investigative piece making it to the front page.
Over the past year, as the newspaper has put more emphasis on local news, space has been cut back in many traditional sections, including business and features. But our outdoors section has remained constant.
Why? One reason is there is something there for everybody. Our Sept. 4 issue had a column about a skateboarding controversy at the beach (they ride outdoors, so in my view, the sport is fair game), a feature about great getaways for after school, another two-page feature on adventure racing and our usual reoccurring columns on sailing and fishing.
Our mix may not work for a paper in Oregon or Texas. I could be wrong , but I suspect those states have their own non-traditional outdoors sports waiting to be discovered. A few months ago we ran a story on the Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) craze that is sweeping Florida. These large, buoyant surfboards, which are paddled like a canoe, have been the hottest sellers at local watersport shops. After the story ran, a reader sent a picture of himself fighting a tarpon. Another called and told me that he had rigged his SUP to carry camping gear. Yet another told me I should do a story on another up-and-coming outdoors sport, “land paddling.”
Sure, you moose hunters in Alaska and trout fishermen in Vermont might laugh at my idea of what qualifies as outdoors sports.
But if newspaper outdoors writers are going to survive, they have to stop thinking of themselves as specialists and start considering themselves generalists. It is a big world out there and people are spending more time outdoors than ever before. The challenge for those of us hacking away at the daily grind is to tap into that energy. The only difficulty is seizing the opportunity. ◊
Terry Tomalin has been the Outdoors Editor for the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, for 20 years. You can reach him at Tomalin@sptimes.com.

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