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ESPN Goes Loco ... er, Local

Like a vulture swooping down on a defenseless, wounded animal, ESPN is embarking on a new venture by creating offshoots that cater to individual cities and regions. Our comrade Ryan Hudson of RealClearSports has some interesting details.

ESPN's first target is Chicago, ripe for the picking because it's a city of passionate sports fans - and its two local papers are in financial distress. The Tribune's parent company filed for bankruptcy protection last December, and its rival Sun-Times is arguably in worse shape.

It's certain that Chicago will be just the first of the many, as a number of major metros are easy preys:

Denver - Rocky Mountain News may be closing in a month. Denver Post's parent company Media News is in financial dire straits.

Seattle - The P-I is going out of business, barring an 11th-hour deal. The Times is asking state legislature for a tax break to stay afloat.

Twin Cities - Minneapolis Star-Tribune is in bankruptcy, St. Paul Pioneer Press is in worse shape.

Detroit - The two papers are cutting back deliveries to three days a week and are expected to slash staff if it doesn't go well.

Philadelphia - The joint operating company of the two papers just filed for bankruptcy, with the Daily News teetering on the brink.

These are but a few cities with at least an NFL and a Major League Baseball franchise. With ESPN's reach from its TV, radio and web properties, it's not difficult to see how it may pull this off with relatively low cost. In addition, these markets may offer ESPN a prime opportunity to scoop up freshly unemployed sportswriters on the cheap - don't think for a minute that this idea isn't on its business plan.

About a week ago Steven Stark, writing in the Boston Phoenix, suggested that newspapers may want to consider shrinking down to just sports papers with a little bit of local news thrown in it.

Can local papers charge something for what they're offering now on the Web? Well, yeah -- but not much. But let's say local papers beef up their sports sections, as suggested. Would there be an audience willing to pay more for that? Quite likely, particularly in sports-mad towns. And there might be some incentive for individual papers along the line to develop types of expertise they could sell -- say, rugby for one paper or international news in India and Pakistan for another, and so on.

Stark may be onto something there. Other than the national papers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the sports section has always been the one that drives a paper's sales. (How many times have you been to a coffee shop to find a newspaper completely intact - only to realize that the sports section was missing?)

But if this is a survival strategy, the papers had better catch on fast. ESPN isn't going to wait.