Do newspapers matter?
The answer to that depends on whom you ask.
They matter to a 90-year-old horseplayer named Mel Brooks, a Santa Anita Park regular who is also known for making a few movies over the years: “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Spaceballs,” among many others.
They matter to his good friend, Carl Reiner, 95, who I remember as the creator of the all-time television classic “Dick Van Dyke” show and younger folks might recall from the remake of the “Oceans Eleven” casino heist film. Together, some 56 years ago, Reiner and Brooks created the “2000 Year Old Man” comedy skit featuring an interview with the world's oldest man. (Go ahead, insert joke about their age here. I dare you!)
Brooks was none too pleased recently when he opened his copy of the Los Angeles Times newspaper to check out the entries and results from Santa Anita Park and discovered they are no longer there. He let it be known to his 207,425 followers on Twitter.
To the @latimes – shame on you for eliminating daily coverage of horse racing (the sport of kings!) from your newspaper.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) April 18, 2017
Reiner, always the sidekick and straight man, also sounded off to his 166,284 followers about the Los Angeles Times.
Anything that makes my friend Mel upset, makes me upset. Put the horse racing coverage back where it belongs. https://t.co/98A3lU2sqD
— carl reiner (@carlreiner) April 18, 2017
So the Times has managed to alienate two of its longtime readers with a decision to save a few of inches of newsprint.
Yet, according to a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times from Jim Benson of Altadena, Calif., the newspaper is continuing to provide coverage to minor league baseball and women's college water polo.
When I entered the Churchill Downs press box in 1988 to cover my first Kentucky Derby, my jaw dropped open when I saw the likes of Jim Murray, Edwin Pope, Furman Bisher and Joe Falls, newspaper columnists I had read and idolized for many years. They were just part of an armada of columnists and turf writers from around the country sent to Louisville each year to cover the most famous two minutes in sports.
Virtually every major newspaper in the country had a full-time horse racing writer, even in towns like Dallas and Oklahoma City where there was no racing at the time. Big races were treated like major events – if they weren't on page one then certainly they were on the front page of the sports section. Over the years, as other sports became more popular and a new generation of sports columnists became enamored with football and basketball, racing coverage slipped to the back pages of the sports section. Retired turf writers weren't being replaced, while others were reassigned, took buyouts or laid off. Then the Internet brought serious economic challenges for editors and publishers who focused their dwindling resources on local college and professional teams and even high school sports.
Today, there are no full-time, year-round turf writers working for an American newspaper.
Some papers hire stringers to cover a big race or maybe send a columnist or feature writer out to the track on occasion. Often, the coverage is tied to an advertising buy. But day-to-day coverage is a thing of the past, and it's not coming back.
The press room for the Kentucky Derby, located in the windowless bowels of Churchill Downs, will be full — as it always is — this coming first Saturday in May. There will be writers for online publications like this one, trade publications and bloggers galore – even an occasional newspaper reporter or stringer called on to cover our sport's most famous event.
The Derby is an anomaly. The rest of the year, horse racing doesn't matter to newspapers. So, with apologies to the 2000-year-old man and his loyal sidekick, newspapers shouldn't really matter to horse racing.
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