By Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Gary Lawless spent years in the media business in Winnipeg before leaving journalism in 2017 for a similar job in Las Vegas.
A longtime writer and broadcaster, Lawless was part of the Manitoba media contingent that would regularly staff road games. Now employed by the NHL’s Golden Knights as an online columnist and on-camera insider, he has noticed scrums of visiting reporters in the Vegas-Winnipeg first-round NHL playoff series haven’t been as deep as they were in the past.
“To me it’s disappointing that more outlets aren’t travelling,” he said in a recent interview at T-Mobile Arena. “I don’t think the Winnipeg Sun is here … that would have been unheard of when I worked in the business. It was really important to have two papers going in town.
“It gave you someone to compete against and kept both places honest. The Winnipeg Sun is a good paper and the (Winnipeg) Free Press is a good paper. The staffs are smaller.”
The Winnipeg-based media that stayed home will likely be out in force for the next two games with the series shifting to Canada Life Centre. Game 3 is set for Saturday afternoon and Game 4 will be played Monday night.
The Jets are the only Canadian NHL team that opened on the road this post-season. The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs split the first two games of their respective series at home.
A message left with a Postmedia spokesperson regarding its road coverage plans wasn’t immediately returned. Postmedia, whose publications include the Winnipeg Sun, National Post and Calgary Herald, announced last January it would be cutting 11 per cent of its workforce of 650 employees.
Some NBA, NHL and MLB broadcast crews — including a handful in Canada — are calling games off screens to save on travel costs. There are several newspapers and websites across the country that have stuck with the pandemic-style model of writing game stories off TV rather than provide traditional in-person road coverage.
“That was always a major issue among us,” said longtime sportswriter David Shoalts, who recently retired after a long career with the Globe and Mail. “Trying to fool the reader by covering something off TV to save money was just appalling to us. Now it’s common practice.”
Remote coverage and the use of bylines and quote credit lands in a grey area in a business that has been dealing with cutbacks for years.
Some writers include their names on game-over stories despite not being on site. Others will say that athletes or subjects provided quotes to the reporters who were on location at the event, but that’s not always noted.
Sometimes scribes who are covering remotely will transcribe material from media availabilities that are available on TV or social media.
“I have a certain amount of sympathy for management,” said Shoalts. “They’ve got difficult choices to make because (most) people don’t read newspapers (anymore). That’s the root of the problem.
“We’ve all got two-second attention spans now and we’re all looking at our phones. So a lot of this was inevitable.”
Mike Naraine, an assistant professor of sports management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said economic realities are to blame.
“For many (outlets), it’s, ‘OK how can we still present these stories and save money?’ he said. “If you can save a couple grand here and there, you’ll take that. It’s unfortunate but that’s why I suggest that this symptom is emblematic of a much larger problem which is these linear forms of sports media are in palliative care.
“There’s no clear vision and there’s no clear strategy.”
Lawless, who spent over two decades in the newspaper business as a beat writer, reporter and eventually a Winnipeg Free Press columnist, recalled a time when outlets would send not just one, but two writers along with a photographer for coverage of big road games.
For the Jets’ 5-1 road victory on Tuesday night, the visiting media list in the press box included staffers from Sportsnet, TSN, Winnipeg’s CJOB Radio, The Canadian Press, Winnipeg Free Press and The Athletic.
“There is always stuff going on behind the scenes that you miss if you’re not there,” Shoalts said from Caledon, Ont. “There’s always these little dramas going on and things that add colour to your stories.
“You don’t get any of that when you’re (not there). Which is fine with some bosses, but I don’t want to read their publications.”
Lawless, who also previously worked as a national online columnist for TSN, said he felt the timing was right a few years back to make the transition outside of traditional journalism.
He moved to Vegas ahead of the Golden Knights’ expansion draft and has been there ever since.
“With the increased ability for people to have a profile on social media, podcasts, et cetera, opinion became way less important and way less distinguishable from the fray,” Lawless said. “I was noticing that in my time in Winnipeg.
“I kind of thought, ‘This club in the golf bag is going to be like the 2-iron. You’re going to throw it out and everybody is going to be able to hit that shot with one of those fairway woods.’ So that was something that I wanted to change.”
Lawless has a variety of duties as a Golden Knights insider, including providing radio commentary, contributing to television broadcasts, and writing digital columns and essays.
“I’m learning stuff all the time,” he said. “I’m 54 and still being challenged and finding out new stuff. It’s been great.”