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Digging Into the AP’s New Approach to Game Stories

The Associated Press is introducing a new wrinkle to its baseball coverage this year: the hometown lead.

The AP will run breaking leads for its game stories like it always has, followed by the traditional optional lead writethrough with quotes and more detail. But then will come the hometown lead – the game story recast to focus on one team, with at least one quote from a player and the manager if possible, ideally on the wires no later than 75 minutes after the game ends.

Andrew Phelps at Nieman Journalism Lab has the details, including comments from me that were drawn from a previous column here. (Apologies for the snake-biting-its-tail feeling of that.) Phelps does a nice job breaking down whom this will help and why. Moreover, his conversation with Scott Petrak, the assistant sports editor at Elyria, Ohio’s Chronicle-Telegram, is a poignant portrait in miniature of what’s happened to our industry. The Chronicle-Telegram once had a staffer covering most Indians road games, then cut back to around 30 road games “in a good year,” and now relies on the AP for coverage of all 81 away games. Now, Petrak explains, an editor rewrites the AP gamer to give it more of an Indians cast if there’s time, with the story running unedited if there isn’t. The hometown lead could save the paper’s very small staff 10 minutes or so at a time when trucks need to roll and every minute’s precious.

I get why this is helpful for small papers like The Chronicle-Telegram, and it’s great that the AP is trying to serve them better. But I can’t help feeling like this is a shinier, more-efficient steam engine in an age of electric locomotives.

In my intern days in New Orleans and Fresno in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I adored the AP’s game stories – they were my lifeline to the distant Mets, whom I otherwise only might glimpse for 30 seconds or so on SportsCenter. I loved reading the optional lead-writethroughs straight off the wire, instead of in print after they’d been boiled down to a couple of grafs. (Having access to the wire was also a big advantage in fantasy baseball, not that it did me any good.)

But that was a long time ago. At least for the major sports, the game story is increasingly an anachronism in an age in which fans are plugged into a constant current of information from a huge number of sources. After an Indians road game ends, Tribe fans can watch the highlights on demand (and review a condensed game within a couple of hours), get bloggers’ takes, and browse stories from elsewhere.

This presents a challenge to the AP itself: The service was once an invaluable way for papers to supplement their local coverage, but now web readers are free to range across the world’s newspapers and a host of new information sources besides, looking for fresh takes, good analysis, discussions with other fans, a compelling narrative voice, or something else that can be signal amid the noise. With all these choices, the AP’s traditional, relatively vanilla gamer simply isn’t very compelling, and recasting a lead isn’t going to change that.

Nor is such a story useful for many of the things papers need to do online. The rise of the consumer web did away with papers’ geographic protections, forcing them into competition with not just neighboring papers but everybody else, too. That’s revealed me-too versions of other coverage for what they are, and turned too much of what the AP does from a print necessity to an online liability. When readers can find the AP story that’s on your website’s sports page on the sports page of paper after paper after paper, it makes your coverage look thin and generic. (This is true of everything, by the way – not just sports.)

I don’t mean this as a criticism of the small papers this change is intended to help: I know they know these things, and I know they’re doing the best they can with ever-shrinking resources. If a hometown lead frees them up to make better use of those resources, that’s great. But there may be other ways to leverage what they have.

Here are two quick ideas to get the conversation started.

First off, you don’t have to go there to know there. Wouldn’t your readers rather hear from your regular baseball writer on his or her couch than an AP writer at the game? Doesn’t it serve your interests better to try and create such a bond? Put your writer in front of the TV with the game notes and everything learned from time on the beat, and drop in an AP quote or two (with the contribution noted of course) if you feel you have to.

What about the audience itself? Set up a discussion thread for each game and use reader comments to create a running game diary. Boil down the best comments into a printed diary, with key turning points highlighted. Those threads can become destinations in themselves, creating more reader loyalty. Or do the same with a Twitter hashtag.

The hometown-lead idea isn’t a bad one. But it’s a refinement of an anachronism, serving an audience that gets smaller every day. The real challenges and opportunities lie elsewhere.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter 
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