Sports Essay:  Sports Reporting in the Digital Age

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Analysis by Sam Kraft
The Red Line Project
@RedLineProject
Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011

On a typical Monday morning, my father, a Chicago sports enthusiast, will walk outside and pick up the Chicago Sun-Times, Tribune and Daily Herald off of the driveway. He’ll then pour himself a cup of coffee and read the majority of the sports section in each of the three newspapers.

During Bears season, he’ll read longer than usual because he thoroughly consumes each article regardless of the content. Afterwards, he’ll pour the rest of the coffee in a to-go mug, hop in his truck, and listen to 670 The Score sports radio on his way to work.

 At about the same time, I will be getting on the Red Line to head down to work in the Loop. I’ll grab a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts in the lobby of my building and head up to my office on the 20th floor. Within a minute of signing on to my computer, I will have ESPNChicago.com open with live-streaming sports radio, video from last night’s games, and several blog posts from any of the beat reporters and columnists covering the Chicago teams.

In another tab, I’ll have my Twitter feed open, littered with sports journalists and media personalities with comments, analysis, and links to their work. All of this sports media consumption is done simultaneously within minutes, and it is representative of the momentous changes sports journalists have seen during the digital age.

The avid sports fan taking in his morning coffee with three sports sections and a few minutes of sports radio is rapidly disappearing. Taking his place is the sports media junkie accessing multiple platforms simultaneously and demanding coverage even faster than that.

This has wrought rapid changes in the way a typical consumer accesses his sports news as well as the way it is distributed. This includes multiple platforms, different forms of multimedia, social media, intense competition to break stories, media personalities, added responsibilities for reporters, and significant changes in the quality and length of stories.

“Today, print's influence pales against the power and scope of a digital domain that permits broad user access and has a global reach,” said David Sheets, sports editor at St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I feel at times that an entire century of progress and change has been crammed into just the past 25 years.”

Some people, like my father, resist these changes and continue to use newspapers and television as their only sources for sports news, but they have become the exception to the rule. Newspapers have been forced to adapt with smaller sports departments, and they must now alter the types of stories in the print product to fit consumer demand. If a fan really wants to read a game story, it will be available online less than an hour after the game.

“The traditional game story has gone the way of the dinosaur,” said Sean Jensen, Bears beat reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. “If you’re working at a newspaper, you can’t expect the reader to open the paper the next morning and read a story from the previous day’s game that pretty much re-hashes play-by-play what happened. That’s just not going to make people want to open up the paper and read it anymore.”

This presents a challenge to newspapers in terms of what type of content to produce for the print product. If the consumer no longer wants the traditional game story, what should fill the sports pages? Should the paper focus on investigative stories or should they add more analysis? Sheets believes newspapers made a mistake by not switching to different types of stories earlier.

“There was a time when print publications might have saved themselves by focusing on analysis instead of rehashing raw facts,” Sheets said. “However, even that has become impossible in an age of instant analysis.”

As the St. Louis chapter president for the Society of Professional Journalists, Sheets is particularly knowledgeable about the rapidly developing trends in journalism, and he believes newspapers are dangerously close to becoming obsolete.

“Let's be clear -- electronic media are replacing printed sports pages, not adding value to them,” Sheets said. “The content of print pages is many hours old when it arrives in readers' hands and may contain nuggets of forward-thinking reporting but remains well behind the breaking wave of news.”

Print Journalism and Video Merge Online
According the Sheets, the print product should facilitate the public's transition to electronic media for information-gathering and news reading. Jensen won’t go quite as far as to say that all news reading will be done electronically, but he acknowledges that newspapers need to work hard to produce content that remains relevant to the readers.

“I think the challenge is for us to understand what’s already out there and how can we do things distinctively to make sure we’re able to keep our audience engaged without giving away too much,” Jensen said.

Sports journalism’s transition to digital creates possibilities for storytelling and analysis through a variety of different mediums, and sports reporters have been forced to adapt quickly or potentially become irrelevant. Over the past 15 years, the typical sports reporter’s job has changed dramatically and become a truly 24/7/365 profession. With social media, video, audio, television appearances, radio appearances, blogs, and the intense competition to break news first, sports reporters have a full, if not overflowing, plate.

“The Internet has created myriad demands on beat writers that didn't exist before,” said KC Johnson, the Bulls beat reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “For instance, I have to write quarterly, in-game updates for our Chicago Breaking Sports website along with my deadline duties for the print product. I also have to blog and tweet throughout the day.”

According to Sheets, new sports journalists must be proficient with written and video storytelling, Web and app coding, and prove mastery of social media. Social media has become increasingly important in the current media landscape because of the wide variety of tasks it can accomplish.

“The social media part is important for its wealth of source information, potential to provide story ideas and its ability to help journalists distribute and market their work,” said Sheets. “Now young people entering sports journalism must be communications experts, not just journalists.”

Sports journalists with little to no experience working with multimedia and video have been forced to learn on the fly. Adam Rittenberg, who blogs about the Big Ten for ESPN.com, said that he was given a small video camera and told to shoot some interviews himself while reporting. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune said that reporters at the Tribune are being told the same thing.  Consumers have grown to expect video to accompany all stories and blog posts on their favorite publications’ websites. Jensen knows it is important to become more proficient with these technologies so that he can be more visible to his readers.

“I do love to see video complement things, so that’s an area I’m trying to improve on,” Jensen said. “Once in a while, I’d like to do some video chats or some video blogs so people who follow my coverage can read my stories but also see me a little bit once in a while. So I think it is important to integrate multimedia into the stories and take advantage of what’s out there.”

The industry has also seen significant changes over the past few years due to the infusion of social media, specifically Twitter. Sports journalists are now able to provide live analysis during games, promote their stories, and interact with fans in ways that were impossible before. Athletes are able to speak freely and make unfiltered comments that any journalists can see and use in a story. It has become an important tool for journalists and sports media personalities, and many media organizations require their reporters to work it into their daily routine.

Social Media's Role
Lindsay Jones has been the Broncos beat reporter for the Denver Post since the summer of 2008. In a 2010 Nieman Reports article, she said the sports department for the Denver Post is constantly having discussions about how best to get breaking news to readers while integrating the social media strategy with the print and online publications.

The Post doesn’t have concrete social media policies; the individual reporters must use their own news judgment when deciding how to use Twitter or whether or not to post something. Jones discussed her approach when using social media in the article:

“I am a journalist first, reporting for a newspaper," she said. "My standards for sending something out on Twitter or Facebook remain the same as if I was going to publish the news in the print edition. As much as possible, I adhere to the same reporting rules with social media when it comes to breaking news. Do I have a reliable source? Is this information on the record? Am I absolutely sure the information is accurate?”

Twitter allows sports reporters to use their privileges and unique access to sporting events to provide their followers with behind the scenes information and analysis in real time. Johnson said he tweets before, during and after games to break news like injuries, but he also likes to provide information and analysis during the game that his followers would be unlikely to find anywhere else.

For example, on May 26 during the Game 5 of the Eastern Conference between the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat, Johnson tweeted “official Scott Foster, perhaps still burned by Thibs riding him for errant opening jump ball, just said ‘Get away from me’ to Thibs.” Johnson’s access to the team and seat near the Bulls bench allowed him to provide an interesting tidbit from the game that very few, if any, other people would have been able to do.

KC Johnson's Twitter Page
KC Johnson's Twitter page shares breaking news,
links to his stories and dish from around the league.

Jones echoed Johnson’s thoughts in that she likes to blend traditional pieces of new with behind-the-scenes nuggets. “My tweets highlight behind-the-scenes insights about what is happening on the field before and after the play, what's happening on the sidelines, or what the atmosphere of the stadium is like, along with the information I've gleaned from being around the team as it prepared for the game,” she said in the 2010 Nieman Reports article. “Often that includes why a play worked or didn't, or I might tweet about why a certain player is being used or isn't.”

She also expressed concern that there seems to be a lack of accountability developing in the Twitter era because the exchange of information is so instantaneous and the competition to break news first is so intense. It is tougher and more complicated to make decisions about using off the record sources when the decision has to be made immediately. These are the issues that sports reporters face with increasing regularity in the digital era.

“The sports journalist has become judge and jury over content, making complex decisions in an instant on the completeness, fairness and legal correctness of their reports,” said Sheets. “The demand to be first can task even the best journalists and put them in a position to make errors they may not have made given time to test the validity of the information before them.”

Sheets likes how Twitter has made reporting more immediate and personal, but says there are risks involved as well. When reporters push out a high volume of content while making split second decisions on the newsworthiness or validity of a piece of information, errors are made with more frequency. Sheets thinks this trend is having a negative impact on the industry and needs to be addressed.

“Today, electronic journalists usually try to erase their errors by reposting and not apologizing, though the original error remains archived somewhere,” he said. “In due time, as media law catches up with technology, and it always does, this behavior will prove costly, with the price measured in legal fees and credibility.”

Another important factor when analyzing the impact twitter has on sports media is the fact that high profile athletes and coaches have a forum to make unfiltered comments with raw emotion whenever they feel compelled to do so. According to a January Poynter.org article by Roy Peter Clark, journalists’ access to athletes is over-controlled by team management, which is unfortunate for both sports journalists and the fans that wish to consume the media.

Now Twitter and social networks allow athletes to speak unfiltered, making it more difficult for teams and leagues to manage what they say and benefitting fans and journalists. Players tweeting with real emotion also benefits reporters because it allows them to get more than the typical cliché driven responses they may get at a press conference.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Twitter is the level of potential interactivity between journalists and fans. Sports reporters can answer fan questions, receive feedback from followers, perform informal polls and even use followers as a source for a story. It allows reporters to showcase their personalities and develop a style and a relationship with their followers and those people that are interested in them.

“The most amazing effect of social media is being connected directly with readers unlike what was ever possible before,” said Jones in her Nieman Reports article. “Having a direct line to the fans often changes the tenor of my reporting since what they write clues me in to what they care about and want to read.”

Jensen realizes that interacting with fans is important and that some of his followers may be following him for reasons outside of his Sun-Times coverage.

“People are following me because of the information I provide, but they also maybe follow me because they’re interested in my personality, or because I went to Northwestern, or because I’m Korean, or the things that I talk about and write about outside of sports,” he said.

Sean Jensen's Columnist Page

Sean Jensen's columnist page on SunTimes.com

The notion that the sports journalist is a personality has become more important in the age of Twitter and digital media. Part of what interests a journalist’s followers and readers is the way the writer creates a personal brand. Reporters can still create a unique personality and brand while adhering to journalistic principles of fairness and objectivity by crafting their own distinctive style over time.

“Twitter and all of the things that have developed – you’ve seen over the course of the past ten years sports reporters become sports personalities,” Jensen said. “Some people that follow those reporters are as interested in that reporter’s personality as in the news that he’s presenting. So I think it’s the sort of thing where reporters should know why those people are following them.”

The Role of Today's Sports Journalist
Sports coverage has become a star system. In the past, reporters would work hard to write a long game story for the newspaper and leave it at that. Now we see reporters drift from newspapers to radio and television shows to sideline reporting to blogging. Their carefully honed brand is what is driving their popularity.

“Your entire objective when I first entered the field was to be this anonymous gray byline in the newspaper,” Johnson said. “Now, through Twitter and radio and TV appearances, your job is to promote your coverage and your brand.”

The sports journalist is becoming a personality that must provide constant, thorough content to the audience in an attempt to grow their following and increase their traffic or their circulation. Some people feel that sports journalists bending to the demands of the audience and providing constant content through social media and blogs has tarnished the profession.

“Warren Buffett, who knows about making money, once said that no one ever built an audience without making money from that audience,” said Dave Kindred in a 2010 article for the Nieman Reports. “So journalists know what they must do. Build the brand. Drive traffic. Draw an audience. And hope that someone figures out how to make the money that makes it possible to again do real journalism.”

Kindred is not alone in his opinion that the quality of sports journalism has suffered in the digital age. In the same article quoted above, Kindred describes a typical game day for Wally Matthews, a former New York newspaper writer who now covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.

Matthews said he receives tweets hours before each game asking him what the lineup for the night is. The competition is so fierce among beat reporters that it matters if someone posts the lineup on Twitter a few seconds before you do. He is writing constantly for hours for live blogs, social media and game stories on deadline for the website.

“The running blogs are such a waste of energy,” said Lisa Olson, columnist for AOL FanHouse, in the same article. “Wally Matthews is a great example. He’s a wonderful writer, but the games I’ve sat near him, he’s typing furious running blogs (play-by-play), then scrambling to write a completely different story on deadline. What a waste of talent.”

It has become difficult for beat reporters like Matthews to write detailed, substantial game stories when so much of their attention and energy is focused on blogging and staying active on their Twitter accounts. They are, however, simply giving in to readers’ demands, many of which are for instantaneous information and constant content at the expense of the larger stories.

“The 24-7-365 news cycle has been the biggest change during my 20 years in the business,” said Johnson. “One harmful byproduct of the Internet, in my opinion, is it has dumbed down readers' attention spans. I think what once separated beat reporting was the ability to place events and people into greater context and give them substance. I think with the demands of so much immediate information that that quality gets lost at times.”

Not only is the quality of some sports journalism diminishing, but accuracy and professionalism in reporting have been lost as well. It will be important for young journalists going forward to recapture a passion for accurate, ethical journalism.

“I think the quality has suffered, but I think the challenge is to make sure that it doesn’t suffer,” said Jensen. “That’s what I try to do – while there is that increased pressure to break news, you want to make sure that you’re still following the same journalistic standards that journalists have abided by for a long time.”

Because of the intense competition between reporters in this age of lightning-quick information exchange, some journalists may decide to publish a blog post or a Twitter post in order to be first without necessarily confirming the information.

“Such instant analysis can be reactionary, inflammatory and misleading,” said Sheets. “But what's most important for us to do now is try to minimize all that with better journalism and high ethical standards on the electronic side, and in doing that we will make strides toward improving all news media.”

Despite such drastic changes in the industry over the past few years, it’s important not to lose sight of what is really important in all types of journalism. There is an inherent responsibility to be honest and fair that comes with being a journalist.

“Our journalism school at Northwestern was known for its journalistic ethics and teaching reporters how to do a thorough job reporting and writing,” said Jensen. “Even though we’re in this new era with Twitter and digital journalism, where people want information right away, you still have to be responsible and make sure you’re putting out info that’s accurate and not doing it prematurely.”

Although sports stories may be getting shorter, there will always remain readers who appreciate quality, in-depth storytelling. Once the technological transformation begins to slow, sports journalists may be able to work the long-form story back into their routines.

“As long as people love stories, there will be a need for storytellers in every subject, not just sports,” said Sheets. “The key is writing stories and reports with a keen eye for detail, a respect for the language, a respect for the reader's time and intelligence, and a clear understanding of sound journalistic principles.”

Challenges in a Mixed Media Market
Competition is not necessarily limited to news organizations. New challenges have arisen for journalists as sports teams and leagues have increasingly begun to break their own news. For example, University of Iowa hired a new head basketball coach last year -- Fran McCaffery – but his coaching staff and his players would not speak to traditional news outlets like the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest paper. Instead, they spoke to Big Ten Network, which is partially owned by the team, and the team website.

“We used to compete against other news organizations,” said Bryce Miller, the Des Moines Register’s executive sports editor, in a March 14 Washington Post article. “Now it seems like we’re competing against the university.”

According to the story, news organizations now face restrictions that did not exist before. In some cases, reporters are prohibited from live-streaming, live-blogging or tweeting from certain event or a certain venue because of exclusive contracts. Even news photographers face limitations. For example, last year the NBA protested the use of several live-action game photos being used in succession by news organizations because it can be seen as representing video.  The NBA now only allows a “reasonable number” of game photos.

Some news outlets have taken a different approach to staying relevant while competing with the plethora of sports news websites that have appeared all over the Web. Yahoo! Sports, for example, has turned investigative reporting into its concentration, using old school methods, multiple sources and in-depth reporting. This approach seems to be finding success going against the grain of the majority of sports news websites, which report the latest injuries, developing storylines, extensive analysis and even gossip.

“It seems that Yahoo! Sports stepped back and asked itself, ‘What can we do that’s special and different from everyone else? How do we stand out in this crowd?’” said Tim Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, in a December 2010 Poynter.org article. “And they appeared to have answered that question with, ‘Enterprise journalism.’ They’ve produced a very impressive array of sports investigative stories, most notably the USC football scandal and the Reggie Bush story.”

One potential reason for Yahoo!’s success in this arena could be the fact that newspapers have cut back on investigative reporting as their sports departments and budgets have shrunk. As other online sports media outlets catch on to this trend, we may see more of them tailor their approach to counter the approach of the traditional outlets.

Young, aspiring sports journalists must enter the industry with all of these issues in mind and develop a skill set in everything from writing, multimedia, and social media to reporting and developing relationships. While it will be difficult for young writers to find work at a large market newspaper like the Chicago Tribune as Johnson did years ago, their skills will be valued somewhere.

“I will say that the path I took doesn't really exist at the Tribune anymore because the downturn the industry has experienced has dropped our staff,” said Johnson. “But quality reporting and writing is read and recognized no matter where it occurs.”

The world still needs sportswriters – the medium through which the story is being told is the thing that is changing the most. The new digital world may be more crowded than ever with both professional and amateur writers, but good writing and quality work will likely find a way to be rewarded. And now more than ever, the reporting needs to be accurate, ethical and fair.

“Keep in mind, in this time of instant reporting, it's better to be last and right than first and wrong,” said Sheets. “Because being first and right goes without saying.”

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