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Five Reasons Sports Departments Are Digital Innovators

Earlier this month, the University of Memphis’s Carrie Brown-Smith and Drury University’s Jonathan Groves offered a post on Brown-Smith’s excellent blog The Changing Newsroom identifying sports departments as homes for newspaper’s Web innovators.

Asked on Twitter if this were true, I agreed that it was. Granted, some of the biggest anti-digital curmudgeons are also found in sports departments (particularly among the ranks of columnists), but to me that’s evidence of a rearguard action: The dissent is always loudest and fiercest when it becomes clear that things aren’t just going to change, but already have.

But why has digital innovation taken root in sports departments? I’ve been thinking about that since Brown-Smith’s post and that flurry of tweets. Here, as I see it, are five reasons:

*Sports coverage is part of the Web’s old-growth forest: The metaphor is from Steven Berlin Johnson, who discusses it here. There’s ample demand for sports news, and from the beginnings of the consumer Web, sports fans used the Web to get information they couldn’t get from their local paper. Some of them were out-of-town fans who wanted more than a box score or 15 seconds on SportsCenter. Others wanted more than they could get from their town’s single paper. Lots of them wanted to talk about the last game – or the next one – with other fans. Sports departments have been finding new ways to meet this demand for nearly two decades now, giving them a head start over other departments.

*Sports coverage is a good match for the Web’s rhythms: Games are a natural fit for serial storytelling, and the Web is a perfect vehicle to deliver such storytelling. While news organizations have come a long way in telling news stories in real time instead of waiting for them to be “complete” (as much as they ever can be), there’s a learning curve there. But it’s a lot gentler in sports: We instantly understand “Phillies 2, Giants 1, BOT 7” and that part of the story is yet to be told. Twitter is a superb vehicle for this, allowing sportswriters to offer bits of analysis or news as mini-stories and distributing those bits in as close to real-time as we can get.

*Sports benefits from a citizen/media ecosystem: For all the sniping between independent bloggers and the mainstream media, most Web-minded sports fans don’t see reading fan blogs or news articles as an either/or situation – they see chances to get more information about their team. And their appetite for this information is apparently bottomless, whether it’s news, analysis or conversation. Sports Web sites, newspaper outposts, rumor and gossip blogs, fan blogs, stat-focused sites, Twitter feeds, Facebook groups – everything complements everything else. This is true elsewhere too – but there are many more sports junkies than, say, political junkies, Linux enthusiasts or global-warming combatants, and sports fans are more likely to take in all points on a spectrum of opinion.

*Sports coverage is a star system: For better or worse, sportswriters are increasingly personalities and brands in their own right – witness the migration from newspapers to talk radio, sideline reporting, and Around the Horn. The Web offers sportswriters tools for kick-starting this star-making machinery, allowing them to amass Twitter followers, Facebook fans/friends and reach them in new ways. This is true for all journalists, but sports may offer a bigger audience, and sportswriters have heard the siren song of personality longer and louder than their colleagues in other departments.

*Sports coverage is benefiting from competition: Journalism jobs are being cut, with everyone from investigative reporters to local beat writers and movie critics feeling the bite of lower profit margins and slashed budgets. People who care about journalism are deeply worried about this, and they should be. Sports departments haven’t been immune to cuts, but as newspaper jobs are vanishing, sportswriting opportunities appear to be increasing. Newspaper sports departments now compete with ESPN local entities, regional-sports networks, new ventures from big Web-news sites and amalgamations of blog networks. That means more opportunities and more competition, which drives more innovation.

Looking over those five factors, they all flow from the same source: healthy demand. Happily, that demand seems inexhaustible. I hope that drives sports departments to continue to innovate, experimenting with crowdsourcing coverage, mobile efforts, building connections with independent blogs, better connecting today’s news with their archives, finding more effective ways of writing game stories, displaying information visually and breaking new reporting ground in sports business and science. They should have ample opportunity to do so: Even if the market for sports news can be saturated, we don’t seem anywhere near that point yet.

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.on 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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