The Northwestern Debacle; The Death of The News
The mess unfolding at Northwestern took me back several decades to when I was Associate Athletic Director at Stanford and the folks at Northwestern came calling. Two close friends of mine--Doug Single and Denny Green--had just left Stanford to become Athletic Director and head football coach in Evanston, and they were pushing hard for me to join them. They created a job especially tailored for me. I would be "Director of University Relations," but unlike most positions with that title, I would also have the Athletic Department's media relations and marketing offices under my purview. The University Relations department was located in a beautiful old house on campus. I'd also have an office in the Athletic Department. Jim Vruggink, the SID, was a man I respected and liked. The pay would be a significant upgrade from what I was making at Stanford. So my wife, Christy, and I flew out for a recruiting visit. They really rolled out the red carpet. They held a fancy dinner with the football team in our honor. A realtor showed us around Evanston, and we looked at some very nice houses. The University Vice-President, Denny, Doug, Vruggink, and several coaches and players all told us how much Northwestern wanted and needed us. The job, the people, and the university all appealed to me. Northwestern, in my mind, was a great school and the closest thing to Stanford in the country. I had started to sour on the idea of being an AD, so returning to my PR/media roots was enticing. I had several sportswriting friends and associates who'd gone to school there--Mark Purdy of the Mercury-News and Sports Illustrated's Rick Telander, to name a few. In the end, we decided to stay at Stanford. The weather had something to do with it, and I couldn't quite pull the trigger on leaving the Bay Area.
I bring all this up because Northwestern's reputation has been badly sullied in the past week with the revelations of hazing rituals in the football program that involved disgusting elements of sexual assault. I couldn't help but think about how I would've had to handle the scandal if I were head of university relations. It wouldn't have been fun. A six month investigation by an outside law firm corroborated the hazing accusations. Several former players came forward, and the student newspaper uncovered shocking, and sickening, details. Tinges of racism were also uncovered. Head football coach Pat FItzgerald, a former All-American at Northwestern, has been the face of the program for the last 17 years. He claims not to have known about the hazing. If that's true, he should have known. And he should've put an immediate stop to it. Initially, new Northwestern president Michael Schill, who'd just arrived from Oregon, suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks. But as more details became known, and Schill spoke with one of the players and his parents, Fitzgerald was fired. (As of today, however, no other coaches, staff members or players have been punished). Two years ago, after Northwestern reached the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald signed a 10-year deal worth $5.7 million per year. Last week, he was fired "with cause," which means the University wouldn't owe him anything. Naturally, his lawyers have proclaimed his innocence and announced plans to contest the firing. Regardless of how Fitzgerald's legal gymnastics end up, the damage has been done. Northwestern is coming off two very poor seasons--3-9 and 1-11. After this debacle, it will be hard to recruit a good coach. It will be hard to recruit good players. Faculty members are already asking that moneys earmarked for the football program be redirected to other campus programs. Ugly stuff. And it's not over. More revelations and legal maneuverings will come. It was already going to be hard for Northwestern to keep up with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue and Iowa in the Big Ten--not to mention incoming USC and UCLA--in the era of NIL and the transfer portal. Now it may be flat out impossible. The Dying "News" Paper: The investigative reporting by the student journalists at the Daily Northwestern notwithstanding, last week marked yet another sobering moment in the slow death of journalism and "news" papers throughout our country. The New York Times disbanded its sports department, replacing it with coverage from The Athletic, the online sports publication it had purchased last year for $550 million. A few days later, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was doing away with three of the main staples of sports coverage--game stories, box scores and league standings--to take on "the look and feel of a daily sports magazine." Just what their readers wanted, no doubt. These developments at two of our nation's most respected papers are a gut punch for those of us who love sports journalism. The Athletic was founded in 2016 and raised $140 million in venture funding. At the time, one of its founders, Alex Mather, in a Nikita-Kruschev-like "we will bury you" moment, boasted that "we will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them." Seven years later, Mather's arrogant predictions don't seem so far-fetched. The publication has over three million subscribers, twice what it had at the time of the NYT purchase, but is still losing money, lots of it, including $7.8 million in the most recent quarter. In fact, just a couple weeks before the Times disbanded its sports department, the Athletic laid off 20 writers in its own cost-cutting move. As for the LA Times, a paper I once dreamed of working for, the shift in approach is a tricky balancing act. In announcing a "new era" for the sports section, the Times pledged to offer "the best, most ambitious sports journalism...more innovative reporting, in depth profiles, unique examinations of the way teams operate, investigations, distinct columnists' voices" in the magazine-style newspaper, while still providing local game results, box scores, standings, and breaking news online...and somehow doing all this while "managing production costs." That's not going to be easy. Perhaps they'll use wire service game reports to save money, but the people pulling the purse strings will still have to provide resources for the "magazine." As my friend Glenn Schwarz, former sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, points out, Investigative and enterprise journalism requires a heavy investment in time and money, including travel expenses to interview sources in person. The Times has laid off scores of reporters in recent years; no doubt more layoffs will follow in the not too distant future. These are unsettling times in journalism. It's not an exaggeration to regard last week's developments as another nail in the coffin of the daily newspaper. Mainstream print and broadcast news have been under siege for several years from the internet, network propaganda, and other content alternatives masquerading as news, not to mention a barrage of criticism from right-wing politicians. It's not a pretty picture.
As technology pushes an entire industry toward obsolescence, the nation becomes more addicted to devices, AI looms, and demagogues demean the value of a free press, journalists wait for the other shoe to drop.