A newspaper world without agate

Posted: February 25, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Considering how many big things newspapers have cut back on the past decade — paper width, publication dates…people — plans to eliminate the tiniest type in the paper doesn’t seem like a major thing. But you’d be surprised how sentimental people can be about sports agate — and how much readers miss it when it’s gone.

LA Observed reported that the LA Times will eliminate about eight pages a week from the sports section, and that agate will be a major part of those cuts. NBA boxscores will be reduced, as will boxes for baseball, hockey and college hoops. A memo promises “other significant agate cuts.”

Like so many other newspaper changes, the cuts make sense on many levels. Why take up valuable newspaper real estate with stats that can be found online in five seconds? If you’re forced to eliminate something in the section — it’s basically a page a day the Times is losing — why not chop tennis scores or European golf results and use the remaining space for stories from the paper’s reporters? Do we really need to see the previous days’ transactions from the AHL?

But ultimately these types of cuts to the agate and Scoreboard pages — and the LA Times is not unique in making these cuts — hurt newspapers because it means they’re again giving people a product that is simply not as good as it once was. They’re cutting out a page so many people turn to in the sports section, whether it’s to find a baseball boxscore or the results from high school basketball around the state. But maybe there is no other choice, not in the present media world. It might even be the right decision, even if it’s hard for old newspaper people to accept.

Anyone who has ever worked on a newspaper sports section probably dabbled in agate at some point, even if they’re now one of the highest-paid columnists in the country. Maybe they took scores while working part-time as a college student. Maybe they worked as a copy editor for a time. Maybe they helped out on a late shift after filing their game story.

Everyone’s worked on it, but only those who deal with it day after day know there’s an art to working with the Scoreboard page. When I first started at the Worthington Daily Globe I struggled with the basics of laying out our Scoreboard page, which required actual cutting and pasting, and not with CTRL-C. I’ve never been artistically gifted — whether cobbling together a bird feeder in industrial arts class or a clay container in art — and my standings sometimes came out more squiggly than straight on the page. Fortunately a production person was always there to help so readers never had to tilt their papers to find out how far back the 1998 Twins were in the standings. I got better.

At Fargo I worked as a copy editor and that meant working on scoreboards. On Sundays, especially, we had agate overload at The Forum. There was the main Scoreboard on Page 2, but also, depending on the season, separate college basketball or football boards and separate ones for high school scores from Minnesota and North Dakota. Our part-time guys handled most of the local calls that came in and, depending on their competency, organized the high school or college boards. My blog partner Terry could be something of a dictator to these poor guys. As someone who had put in his own time in the agate trenches, he ran a strict Scoreboard ship and had no time for sloppiness, whether it came to formatting tabs or taking the proper information in a basketball boxscore. And there’s no statute of limitations on what Terry did to the poor part-timer who put a North Dakota score in the Minnesota board so I won’t go into details.

The part-time minions toiled in obscurity, at least in the big shots’ world. One longtime worker named Gabe was called Gord by an editor — who was surprised when Gabe didn’t look up from his screen after being renamed Gord — while another Scoreboard slug named Mike was called Donald. Anyone taking agate over the phone dreaded taking the results of a large swimming meet or track meet. A hundred races in each one, top four or five finishers in each race, it meant a half hour on the phone.

“And make sure you get all the names for each relay team.”

The art of Scoreboard maintenance came in knowing what to cut each day. The Transactions were easiest. Leave the major announcements, cut out the hiring of a new soccer coach at a Division III school in California. Chop tennis results from Qatar, leave the next day’s NBA schedule.

Is all of that stuff available online? Much of it, yes. But there’s something to having all of it gathered in small type in one big spot. Ultimately games are about the results and a reader could learn everything about the day in sports by simply glancing at the agate page. I like just stumbling into a scoreboard page, scanning an NBA box to see which team shot more free throws, glancing at the golf results to see who missed the cut.

Still, newspapers certainly have bigger problems than worrying about standings. If a paper loses a page a day, nothing it eliminates will make readers happy or make the product better, whether it’s scoreboard or column space. Maybe it’s the best of a bunch of bad choices. But anyone can see that eliminating agate is still a big deal — even if you have to squint to notice.

  1. My dad recently moved out of my childhood home. Part of the move included going through boxes and files of things that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. We found some really cool and interesting pieces. The guy coached HS sports for 45+ years so there were plenty of old programs, results, etc through the decades.

    Some of the most interesting things I came across were box scores from the Mankato Free Press for adult rec basketball leagues in the area from the 70s. I was shocked to think of a newspaper running these, in the agate presumably. It’s pretty wild to think of a paper using up print and space so some 30 & 40 yr old has beens could get their names in the paper in a day where more broadly relevant info is being cut.

  2. shawnfury says:

    That is awesome. I would be ecstatic to have my stats from old man hoops in the paper. I’d want everything too, points, assists, rebounds, an extended boxscore, and would call and yell at someone if they got them wrong. I’d love for my dad to see those, there’s probably some names of players who were good in high school/college in the ’60s who were then playing in rec leagues.

    When I was home in Jan., I went through some old boxes too and one of the cool things was the old programs from District and Region basketball tourneys in the ’70s and early ’80s. Pictures for each team. The hair was amazing. Also old Free Press and Stribs from the 1983 girls state hoops tourney with the Janesville Golden Bears 3rd place team and, of course…Henderson.

  3. I’ll try and dig them up. They went from storage at my dad’s to storage at my place. If I owned my place and had kids it would be safe to assume they’d be stumbling across them 50 years from now and wondering what they are and why the hell I had them. There’s a good chance when I do settle permanently that any future kids will have that experience.

    I’ll ask my dad but I’m pretty sure one of the leagues he played in was a teachers league. Basically each school district in the area had a team. No doubt you’re dad would know some of those names.

    ’83 was the high point for Henderson Tigers sports. It wiped out the painful memory of the ’77 state football title that was lost when the foreign exchange kicker missed an XP in overtime.

  4. Scott Talley says:

    I love this piece and your thorough explanation of sports agate and its important. I was an agate guy at the Detroit Free Press during the 90s before becoming a copy editor. Indeed, learning to layout the Scoreboard page was a major accomplishment for me. I am a public relations contractor now, but the lessons learned during my agate days will always be with me. Thanks so much for this piece. I will definitely follow your posts! Sincerely, Scott Talley

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