Could it come back Today?
It’s a tough question to answer, but I believe an all-sports daily newspaper could come back. If I were at the helm, I would try two things: first, I would put the newspaper out in the afternoon, aiming to sell the majority of copies by hand as alternative programs at sporting events. I can’t imagine that someone who paid upwards of $35 for a Major League Baseball game wouldn’t find a way to buy a smart newspaper that had today’s news and a preview of the upcoming game for a dollar. This is an expansion era where every major pro league in America has more than 30 teams. That means that there are close to 15 active stadiums every night during the baseball, basketball and hockey seasons, and three of the four major sports in America are setting attendance records. The stats and box scores from last night’s game could still be in the paper, and they would be just as interesting in the afternoon. A lot of the appeal, even today, of The National’s box scores is that they were smart, and if you were a savvy reader, you could interpret them and use them as a numeric preview for the upcoming game. The only thing that you would have to include with the “new” National, would be the starting pitchers’ stats. This would concede that people get their game scores these days from television and I would strive to make my newspaper better at telling stories than just listing stats. What is the pitcher thinking? What is the goalie thinking? What did tonight’s starting pitchers have for breakfast? Deford said that at the end, he did ask about switching the paper to afternoon distribution, but it was shot down quickly.
The other major change I would make is that I would sell the newspaper in highly-populated areas with just one major professional team. I mentioned Raleigh earlier, but there are other cities like this: Sacramento only has the Kings, San Antonio only has the Spurs, and Las Vegas, where The National surely would sell, has no major pro teams. The large population and the lack of major league teams means that local fans would look to The National for news of the Rockies or the Yankees before they would look to their local paper. I would exploit the hole in the market that today’s skinny sports sections have opened up – the displaced fan. Just look at the success Major League Baseball Advanced Media is having with its MLB.TV and the condensed game package. If I’m a Cleveland Indians fan in Arizona, it’s hard for me to follow Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, but if I subscribe to the Internet video package, I can watch all of the key at-bats in less than an hour to stay up to date. Additionally, the migration from snowbelt to sunbelt came too late for The National. In just 15 years, I believe there are significantly more Boston Red Sox fans in the southern half of the United States than there were in 1990.
Finally, if I did have a chance to re-start The National, I know I would have no trouble finding a staff.
“At last, we were A1, we not C1 or D1. We were not the toy shop, we were the whole show. I didn’t really realize it coming in, because I’d worked on a sports magazine,” Deford said. “I didn’t have that feeling of inferiority. But indisputably, a lot of the workers really loved that. It was the lure, in a lot of ways, to come into the paper – we’re going to be the show, we’re not going to be the sideshow. We’re going to be in the big-time.”
And The National, despite its short life, was big-time, and it could be bigger today.
I miss the National, but it would never work today with the boom of the internet, even daily newspapers are dying off . . . Perhaps if it were relaunched as a website . . .
This was an excellent article, and provided great insight about the paper, its potential, and the reasons for its demise. Scarcely a week goes by that I don’t spare a thought for the excellent columns and feature writing of that paper, often when I happen along a column or piece by one of the writers that I grew to appreciate from those 18 months now so long ago. I partly understood then, and I understand even better now, why it did not work.
Nevertheless, I imagine that occasionally every sports editor in the country mentally measures up their coverage and writing to that of The National and finds that it lacks in some way. So long as that measurement results in even slightly improved sports coverage, The National’s legacy — checkered though it was — lives on.
Thank you for posting this.
I was living in S.F. when The National rolled out there. We had several sports fans in our office and we'd take turns picking up the paper and it would be passed around the office and read on breaks during the day. I remember Scott Osler's back page columns being pretty darn funny. I remember how great the box scores were…I loved it and didn't even mind when it went to 75 cents. I was sad the day it folded but haven't thought about it much in the last 18 years. This article brought it all back and has made me sad all over again!
Thanks for reading, Mike!