Read All About It -- Or Not

By T.D. Thorton
There's plenty to be said in favor of the raw aesthetics of print journalism: The definitive, black-and-white gravity of words on a printed page; that timeless "hold it in your hands" sense of immediacy that comes only from the smell and feel of fresh ink on newsprint. This appreciation for newspapers is especially true in the realm of the racetrack, where ritual and tradition are interwoven with our sport's pleasure, and deep-rooted habits die hard.

Thus, it was no surprise the Thoroughbred industry went into its well-practiced "wounded party" act when the Boston Globe and Washington Post both recently announced that statistical racing coverage--those several-inch squares of abbreviated agate type--would be slashed from each paper's sports section.

The outcry was predictable, but let's be realistic: If you're just now alarmed that cutbacks in print coverage might be ominous signs of impending change with the way racing information is delivered, then I'd respectfully suggest you've already missed a decade's worth of hints dropped by mainstream media.

The first misconception to clear up is this: No one's picking on horse racing. Print media is simply consolidating at a mind-boggling clip. Papers are smaller, the space available for content is shrinking, and fewer bodies are employed to fill those spaces with something worth reading.

Racing likes to think it is alone in this struggle, and that's mistake number two. Consider the trend of major newspapers dropping entire pages of stock tables. The thinning of the business section elicits similar protest, but the finance industry differs noticeably from racing in its collective response: New technologies are continually being hatched to make it super-simple (and free) to obtain comprehensive market data that is superior to columns of tiny type whose quotes are destined to be outdated long before the paper thunks against one's front door.

I know it's not the actual disappearance of entries and results that's at issue. It's that fear of losing a foothold that is perceived as the threat to racing. No one likes being dis-invited from the party. Yet instead of lamenting the loss of coverage, why not instead apply that energy to creating new opportunities for spreading the word?

Racing's core data can be delivered better, faster, and cheaper online. The game's most elemental info--entries, charts, pedigrees--is already easily accessible. Trouble is, these features are exclusively one-way sources of information, meaning that the industry has yet to establish any significant interactive framework to allow fans to exchange ideas the way they do in other sports.

Take Weblogs, which are self-published online journals that offer personalized, offbeat commentary on any subject the writer chooses. Anyone can post one. Type "baseball blogs" into the search engine Google, and you'll see references to some 606,000 Web pages. Key in "horse racing blogs" and the number drops to 582. Is the national pastime really more popular than playing the ponies by a magnitude greater than 1,000? Or is it because there are so few online resources for horseplayers? Major League Baseball devotes an entire section of its Web site to hosting blogs. Similar interactive features are absent from the sites of racing's highest-profile entities--the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Kentucky Derby, and the Breeders' Cup.

Today's most engaging conversations about racing's most searing issues are all happening online, and, for the most part, under the radar in loosely structured groups and forums. Traditional media gatekeepers are no longer the only trusted authority, and fans are becoming more comfortable with looking outside conventional sources for the real story.

Like it or not, horse racing was last truly in sync with cutting-edge media during the golden age of the newspaper, way back when broadsheets were hawked on city street corners. Those days are long gone, and it's OK to feel a wistful twinge of loss for a bygone era. But it's off the mark to view the decisions of the Globe and Post through the haze of nostalgia and leap to the conclusion that racing media is dying.

Perhaps the better way to put it is that racing media isn't dying, it's changing.

It's those industry entities who refuse to change who will, inevitably, perish.