Last weekend, Lafayette traveled up to Harvard to play the Crimson up in Cambridge. It was the 19th meeting between the Leopards and the Crimson, a series that started in 1966 and has been a frequent event since the early 1990s.
It was a pretty historic game, too: the 700th football game contested at Harvard Stadium.
In years past, you might have found members of the local Lehigh Valley media making a trip up to Boston to cover the game from an independent Lafayette perspective, and you would have seen a recap online and some postgame quotes from the postgame press conference in there as well, as well as seeing an article or two about the game in the Sunday paper.
This weekend, though, there was nothing.
The recap in The Morning Call was not the great work of Paul Reinhard, who freelances for the paper - they didn't pay him to go up to Cambridge to take in the game and ask John Garrett about the progress of the team. Instead, someone added a topper sentence to the AP recap of the game - and that was it. Four paragraphs for the online crowd and the Sunday readership.
And on Lehigh Valley Live online, the old Easton Express-Times - nothing. This week, quietly, they dropped their college sports coverage, citing the fact that there wasn't enough traffic to justify their continued coverage of Lehigh, Lafayette, or Patriot League football.
For Lehigh fans, who still get significant coverage of Mountain Hawks football from Keith Groller of The Morning Call, and yours truly, there's still a fair amount of online and print content covering Lehigh football.
But looking over at Lafayette, the need for a Lafayette Football Nation has never seemed so acute. And in the general scheme of things - the loss of Lafayette football coverage is actually a much more historic event than it seems.
|Creating Real Print Newspapers|
Once upon a time, classified ads and print ads were able to subsidize robust newsrooms in many areas of the country, back in the days before Al Gore claimed he invented the internet and most people got their news in the daily newspaper.
But over the course of the last twenty years, most of the newspaper business model has been disrupted and crippled by the explosion of online information. Classified ad rates and print ad rates have plummeted as more people consume news on their phone or tablets than on newsprint.
The collateral damage of this disruption has unquestionably been local news in general. Slowly, smaller and break-even papers have gone online-only, or disappeared altogether.
The Lehigh Valley has blessed with two competing newspaper groups, The Morning Call and The Express-Times (Lehigh Valley Live).
It may surprise some people to know that the two newspapers have been around for over a century.
Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton had multiple, different newspapers for a long period of time. The Morning Call was founded as The Critic in 1883 and eventually grew and merged to become the sole newspaper provider in the city. A similar thing happened to the Easton Express and the Bethlehem Globe-Times, who eventually merged at about the same time the local economy collapsed with the decline of Bethlehem Steel.
The contribution of these two media companies to Lehigh and Lafayette sports, especially football, was tremendous. From the earliest days, they were the documenters of what happened during those very early days. It wasn't the primary reason that those newspapers existed, but those descriptions are what people like me bring to life whenever we talk about the early days of football and the interactions between Lehigh and Lafayette students.
As odd as it seems today, the creation of newspapers for over a hundred years was closer to a manufacturing process than a creative process. Big machines were needed to print the paper at a scale where it was profitable, and a distribution network had to be created. Even though the reporters needed to be paid to make great content, it took a big capital investment to get in the game. Once the big capital was spent, it provided a formidable barrier to entry for competitors.
|(Photo: The Crimson, Harvard Student Newspaper)|
Sure, it felt great to be published in the paper, too, to reach an even wider audience. But most of the audience was online - and it was growing.
One of the aspects of the "death of local news" that has been talked about a lot is the local paper's role in the oversight of the activities of local governments, making independently sure that local politicians are doing what they've promised and are not breaking the law.
What sometimes gets lost in that debate is the loss of community and history that the local papers can report and foster.
As a researcher, the historical role of newspapers are vital to future understanding of the events of today.
|Lehigh/Lafayette in the 1920s (NY Times)|
And in Lehigh's and Lafayette's case, the press rivalry was a huge factor in the build-up of the Rivalry between the two schools. The Lafayette side had The Easton Express; the Lehigh side had The Bethelehm Globe-Times. When Lafayette students were arrested trying to pre-light Lehigh's bonfire, the Times was there; when Lafayette students shaved the heads of Lehigh students engaged in shenanigans in Easton, the Express was there.
It might seem trivial, but those types of reports give a flavor of what the Bethlehem and Easton communities were like back then - what they tolerated, how the police treated the students, what the populace felt was important. College football and The Rivalry played a part in these people's lives; that's the historical record that the papers provided.
I certainly understand that the group running the Lehigh Valley Live group are making a business decision to discontinue Lafayette and Patriot League football coverage. They are looking at raw traffic numbers - if people don't click on the articles, Lehigh Valley Live doesn't get revenue, and they have made a choice that revenue is king, and honestly I can't blame them in this challenging time for local news.
But that's where a Lafayette Football Nation would be such a wonderful thing - an independent, historical record that continues the story of Lafayette football, which (last I checked) wasn't played only once a year.
Right now, the schools have a lot of interest and money invested to make sure that the front porch of the college or university looks good. Meanwhile, local papers are struggling to survive. If the papers have to choose between stuff that gets website traffic and their role as oversight of the local football program, they're choosing website traffic.
Like many, I have struggled to figure out a way to generate enough money writing online to become a "media group", or perhaps a loosely based "media collective". With folks like Lehigh Valley Live leaving the space, the time feels right for some media group to swoop in and perform that function. The trouble, as ever, is coming up with a bunch of terrific writers, and a business plan that is self-sustaining financially.
I have looked at fencing off content behind a paywall, which I feel is a losing proposition in every aspect. People write because they want people to see it - why on Earth would they want to restrict the number of people reading their stuff?
Yet relying on ads to pay for content is impossible - to make enough money, you need a scale that is ridiculous - and though it's nice having readers voluntarily thank you with small or large donations, they don't generally make enough to keep the lights on, either.
Maybe there is a way for me, or someone, to create that online media group or media collective that gets enough great writing voices that can be paid a living wage. But until that day comes, the need for a Lafayette Football Nation has never been greater, for it would be terrible to lose that weekly documentation of Lafayette sports forever.