It was Jan. 13, 2007, four days after Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, when Newsday published a column in which local TV sports anchors were called “a breed of journalistic dinosaurs who still roam the Earth but make even newspapers seem cutting edge.”
Ouch! Things only have gotten worse since.
The final words in that column went to veteran sports anchor and reporter Sal Marchiano, then 65, who said this:
“I’d worry if I was younger. I don’t think it’s around the corner, but I could see this happening. ‘Tonight’s Rangers highlights: Dial it up on your cellphone!’ That will make me and my kind superfluous.”
Let’s hope for Sal’s sake he at least took that prescient thought and invested in Apple stock.
The role has carried on in the ensuing 9 1⁄2 years, albeit in a diminished state with less high-profile, less highly paid sports updaters than in the genre’s heyday of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
But recently Fox5 took the next historical leap by eliminating a traditional late-news highlights presenter altogether. When Russ Salzberg left that role in April, vice president and news director Byron Harmon replaced him with . . . no one.
Many local channels around the nation previously had made similar moves, but this was a first for New York.
Harmon emphasized that Salzberg still is part of the channel’s news family and will continue to appear during the NFL season and produce features and other projects, but the customary highlights thing is no more.
“It gave us an opportunity to look at how we present sports at night, plain and simple,” Harmon said.
Harmon, 45, is a sports fan and in the past has worked with iconic local anchors such as Warner Wolf and Len Berman. But he sensed there had to be another way forward in a modern media environment.
“I feel like I have an intimate knowledge of the significance of sports in this town,” he said. “But our industry is still producing like it’s 1997, in news and sports . . . So we took this opportunity to take a hard look at why we would devote two to three minutes of air time at 10:55 just to run four highlights and scores.
“To me that’s like a waste of resources when people consume sports from so many different platforms now . . . We wanted to use this as an opportunity to present sports in a different way. It’s not like we don’t care about sports.”
There still is a sports staff, headlined by Duke Castiglione, who appears on “Good Day New York” in the morning and on the station’s longtime Sunday night program, “Sports Xtra.”
And it is not as if important news or highlights will be ignored on the late news. But the priority has shifted to long-form and feature pieces.
“It’s not the regular X-Y-Z sports update,” said Harmon, who mentioned documentaries focused on topics such as concussions and the high number or area teenagers who have undergone Tommy John surgery on their elbows.
Harmon, who worked at CNN International before moving to Fox5 in 2013, said he also has tried to broaden the scope of sports covered, citing a feature on Leicester City winning the British Premier League.
Hardcore sports fans are presumed to get their basics elsewhere, opening the door to stories with broader appeal. Harmon noted a feature on the Giants’ Victor Cruz appearing on the HBO show “Ballers.”
“We talked about the transition from sports to acting, and how accurate is that show with their lifestyle,” Harmon said. “There are people out there who aren’t hard-core sports fans but they watch ‘Ballers’ and they understood the piece, so we’re giving information they would not normally get.”
Harmon began implementing the new philosophy last year, when Salzberg still was in place but was encouraged not to automatically go to the major-sports highlights du jour.
“We had this conversation last summer with our sports department,” Harmon said. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, my God, everyone’s going to be up in arms about this!’ I said, ‘What’s going to happen? Who’s going to call? The sports journalism police?’
“We only had one email that I read that someone said, ‘Hey, I noticed you guys didn’t do highlights,’ and this is in a year.”
Will other stations follow suit? Too soon to tell. But Harmon said he is fine with being the first.
“I’ve seen so many different new initiatives and people want to try things and want to be creative but rarely does a station attempt to do those things,” he said. “We’re doing those things here . . . Everyone says they want to change but no one does it because change is scary.”
He added, “This is such a traditional market and you’re used to seeing that person, the voice of God sports anchor in that same position, and when they leave in your mind you’re thinking, ‘Oh, they don’t care’ or, ‘This is a not big deal’ when actually we now do more sports than we did before.
“Nobody is watching regular TV in the same numbers they have in the past. At some point, people are going to have to change how you present news, sports, weather, etc.”
As Marchiano put the problem in that long-ago article, “We were the first word. Now we’re not the first word.”