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Eight fundamentals for building a digital sports journalism program

Here’s a great question that hit my inbox: “What you would consider key points in building a sports journalism program?”

I’m going to change the focus of that one a bit: If I were designing a digital sports journalism program, what would be its basic building blocks? Before I try to answer that, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the folks who give me space for this column have a great sports-journalism program — follow this link for more on the National Sports Journalism Center’s undergraduate programs, and this one to read about NSJC’s other offerings.

Here are the things I see as must-haves for sending graduates out as digital-savvy sportswriters:

1. The Basics: I love the digital world, and it’s changing journalism in profound ways. But it’s easy to miss that these changes are at the margin: I think 95% of sports journalism is the same as it was in the print age. Can you tell a coherent story when you have 20 minutes to do so? Bring people to life? Craft questions to break through the walls of clichéd non-answers? Find the story everyone else looks past? Analyze a performance fairly, expertly and in a way that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go? Being able to do all that requires a keen eye and ear, a relentless curiosity, a desire to understand what makes people tick, a passion for big-hearted storytelling – all talents that work well in the digital world, but existed long before it. I’d much, much rather walk a reluctant print veteran through Twitter than try and teach a social-media whiz how to report and write.

That said, I do think there’s value in insisting from the get-go that we now live in a digital-first world. When digital publishing is an afterthought, as it still is in too many news organizations, our efforts will be hobbled, and we’ll always be playing catch up with digital-only competitors.

2. Multimedia: I don’t think every reporter needs to be a whiz at shooting video, or be able to churn out a polished podcast that would make a radio jock proud. But I do think every reporter needs to be comfortable with shooting basic video and contributing audio reports. When a reporter can’t do those things himself or herself, getting them done is less efficient and more difficult, and finding the heart of the story becomes a game of telephone between people with different backgrounds and skills. Moreover, multimedia offers a reporter another set of storytelling tools to play with.

3. Sports as a Business: The business side of sports is increasingly something fans need to understand to be well-informed, and for which beat writers ought to be the guides. This isn’t just true during periodic labor wars; it’s essential for understanding everything from free agency to split doubleheaders to why teams aren’t going to give up six extra games against the Yankees even if it would help their postseason chances. Digital tools offer sports sections great new ways for providing that understanding: For openers, writers can create or link to explainers about waiver rules, salary caps and everything else.

4. Social Media: This is a huge category, one that covers everything from developing a social-media persona to using social media as a reporting tool/publishing tool to following athletes via social media to the ground rules of what’s admissible information if it comes through social media. To that, add an examination of the boundaries between the personal and the professional on social media and how to navigate the borderline between them. Oh, and get ready to revisit this every semester, because it’s ever-changing. Social media is increasingly where we turn for news, analysis and opinion – it’s where the readers are.

5. Digital Cycles and News Values: We now routinely publish on multiple, overlapping cycles and deadlines. Writers push out bits of news and analysis on Twitter, write quick squibs for websites, craft stories of various lengths for a range of print editions, and so on. What are the best practices for making optimum use of writers’ finite time and effort? (“Do everything and stop complaining” strikes me as a lousy answer.) What are the rules of the road for how we handle developing stories? What are our trigger points for reporting rumors amid white-hot competition for information? How do we handle corrections, amplifications and things we dropped from earlier versions of the same story?

6. Curation: This seems minor, but it’s more important than most news organizations think. Being a beat writer is no longer about just doing your own thing and penning a story that makes readers buy your paper instead of your competitors’ – in the absence of a big scoop or an investigative package, readers consume as many accounts of a game or bit of sports news as they’re interested. Rather than pretending competitors don’t exist, being a beat writer now means also being a clearinghouse for those competitors’ scoops, analysis and opinion. If you’re good at finding and presenting that material, readers will trust you and come to you first.

7. Community: I think any sports journalist today should also be a community whiz. That means seeing Twitter as a two-way medium for interactions with readers and not just a broadcast service or beat writers’ clubhouse. It means regularly stepping in to comments on stories. (If that sounds like consigning writers to wading through moronic comments and anonymous vitriol, I’d counter that one reason comment threads are so poor is that readers feel like there’s no adult supervision, and act accordingly.) It means reaching out to the larger community of papers, websites and independent blogs. It means building relationships and reader loyalty through conversations.

8. Advanced Stats: I’ve gone back and forth on this one – it might not be applicable to all sports, and maybe doesn’t fit. But as I wrote recently, I now think sports journalists ought to be conversant with advanced stats, able to assess them and make them part of their reporting. Why? Because such metrics play an increasingly important role in teams’ strategic planning, which means they have to be understood for beat writers to assess what teams are trying to do and how successful their efforts are. At the very least, let’s put this one down as a highly recommended seminar.

That’s my stab at building blocks. If you think I left something out, missed the mark a bit, or have drunk too much digital Kool-Aid (or all three), leave a comment or email me.

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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