Spring training is a national sports event, in part because of the way teams are clumped together in two popular winter vacation states. Unlike the other big-four sports, baseball's preseason garners immense attention among fans all over the country. Covering the spring in the same fashion as the NFL, NHL and NBA, therefore, is impossible. There's too much interest in the run up to the season. The challenge, then, was how do you continue to provide comprehensive coverage with a significantly reduced budget?
One of things that makes spring training special is all teams have camps in one of two states: Arizona and Florida. In Arizona 15 teams are centrally located in the Phoenix metropolitan area. In Florida, 15 teams are clustered in several areas throughout the state. The geographical homogeneity made it possible to conceive a plan where a small group of stringers would cover several teams throughout the month. Their assignments would be made based on the news and the needs of members. In the past we were at all 30 camps, nearly every day. Now we visit every camp throughout the week but only 4-5 a day.
Game stories were replaced with capsules written by the college desk. A roundup was compiled in New York, topping the capsules with the newsiest stories of the day. In 2016, we strung about 500 games over 30 days _ 1,500 stringer hires. This year we employed 4-5 stringers a day to cover the news _ 120-150 stringers.
The AP saved $35,570 on spring training freelancers in February and March over previous years because of our revamped coverage. Historically, we had sent a freelancer to every one of the 520 games in Arizona and Florida at an average cost of $125 per game. We would have spent $65,000 in 2017 if we had kept to that model. Instead, our 2017 costs for game freelancers came to $29,430.00. With better communication and coordination with stringers, and being more selective in what we cover, we can realize further savings next year.
With 17-18 game stories plus news and features, an already taxed desk would be overwhelmed with baseball copy in March, mostly from stringers. The new system reduced that load to a handful of stories a day. New York was also responsible for editing the capsules from the college desk and creating a roundup that was topped by the news of the day. This took one person about 45 minutes to an hour. As the college desk becomes more experienced and the capsules need less editing, that time should come down. We need to better utilize the newly freed up time the baseball writers in New York have, perhaps producing some sort of fixture or features of national interest.
The new super-stringer system works, but it could work better. The most difficult part of corralling the stringers was knowing each day what the best stories were. Some stringers were meticulous in pitching stories days ahead and were willing to adjust when news broke. Staffers on occasion would point out news that needed covering and that helped us mobilize a stringer. But there wasn't nearly enough regular communication between the beat writers and us and beat writers and their stringers. A more defined expectation for long-distance collaboration between stringers and staffers would go a long way toward making our coverage crisper and more relevant.
In Arizona, relying on a small group of stringers worked well. It was easy to deploy staff on short notice. Sometimes, in Florida, we got into binds when a stringer was in one area but needed in another. We saw how having a good network of stringers is essential to saving the report when a player was hit in the head in Lakeland but our main stringer was over an hour away. We were able to locate a writer at the ballpark who has worked for us in the past. Beefing up that network of stringers at ballparks - especially in Florida - would ensure better protection for breaking news coverage.
Without the burden of covering meaningless games, staffers who were assigned a spring training trip produced some very nice content.
Most staffers, though, chose to go early in camp and we had a little too much overlap. With overlapping staffers roaming the camps, there were a couple of instances where a staffer took another's story. Better spacing of staffers and communication between staffers should help enrich the report throughout March.
Understandably, staffers want to spend as much time as they can with their teams. But the demands of a national report require much more than the localized ideas. Selecting the traveling crew based on a willingness to tackle stories with broad thematic appeal at the expense of spending a week with their home teams is essential to a bright report.