Sports cable television behemoth ESPN announced this week that they will expand their experiment in local sports TV from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas. Already the dominant force in sports broadcasting in the United States, ESPN now takes square aim at newspapers in four passionate sports markets of particular interest to advertisers. This is hardly an idle threat: ESPN Chicago now boasts more page views than the online sports section of the Chicago Tribune, according to reports.

The news reminds me of industry conversations had in recent months that tend to focus on how to out-local Google. Yet it's clear Google isn't the only player taking advantage of newspaper industry confusion and the digital revolution.

Upon hearing presentations at the INMA World Congress, I asked representatives of The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Palm Beach Post their strategy to “beat Google,” and all three responded that they must dig below traditional boundaries of what “local” news coverage is.

Yet there is a veritable revolution occurring on what constitutes local news coverage.

The economics of paid staff reporting on smaller and smaller niches serving smaller and smaller audiences are questionable, ushering in the need for all newspapers to establish volunteer blog forces. For those who get tired-head thinking about this, consider that sports departments have used coaches and volunteers to call in game reports for many years.

Obituaries are becoming art in the form of value-addeds by clever newspapers and clever vendors. There are clever uses of Twitter, including contests by newspapers and their advertisers. Newspapers are increasingly using police mug shots to augment the otherwise boring police blotter. Companies like the Las Vegas Sun are mashing up databases to present local news (storytelling?) in new and different ways.

Newspaper publishers I talk with are beginning to fully understand the commodity aspects of their business. Back to the ESPN move, the game story is pure commodity today. The smart newspapers are “leading” with perspective pieces by their best columnists that lightly touch on last night's game and converging coverage of a team into passion pages. Blogs augment this for the truly passionate.

As a reader, would you prefer ESPN Chicago or the Chicago Tribune?

ESPN clearly is pouring everything they have into a few key sports, using their advantage in video, and even tying into a national news feed from online impresario Huffington Post which also is trying to establish local “editions” in key markets.

The Tribune clearly is spreading their resources across not only the key professional sports, but also the smaller local sports. They also offer depth and history of the major local professional teams, yet this is something that may eventually be matched by an ESPN or equivalent.

I suppose that's the short-term game. National players will commoditize what they can of local newspapers, and local newspapers will respond by either burrowing deeper into a subject (sports > bbseball > Cubs > ?????), or they'll allocate resources to coverage beyond the major content verticals. Moves like ESPN are only the beginning. Can newspapers reallocate resources fast enough to keep up with what's about to happen, and is there a process to pro-actively prepare for such inevitabilities?

The unique selling proposition for newspapers will eventually center on how to make “local” sexy. National players are pushing us closer and closer to radical innovation that will answer this conundrum.

Thanks, ESPN?