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Let’s Reinvent the Game Story

I’ve always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun, and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again.

For generations, that Red Smith quote told you all you needed to know about why game stories exist. But when Smith said it, the newspaper was pretty much the only way to have that fun again. Today, the game story competes with lots of other ways to relive the moment. SportsCenter runs all morning. League and team sites offer key plays in on-demand HD video. Box scores have morphed into game chronicles that include every pitch. I can pull up an app on my iPhone the next day and watch a condensed game.

Compared to all this Jetsons stuff, many game stories feel like antiques, leftovers from the days when sports filled a couple of minutes on the evening news and all you heard about out-of-town teams was the final score.

“The new fan experience involves Twitter and YouTube and has made the game story even more obsolete than it was five years ago,” says Jason McIntyre, founder of the blog The Big Lead. “I usually hunker down for the NFL on Sunday or College Football on Saturdays with the TV on two games and the computer by my side. Twitter is open. If you want to toss ESPN 360 into the mix, you can follow so many games at once it can become dizzying. The last thing you want to do is wake up the next morning and read a reaction to games and events that happened 12 hours ago.” 

At the very least, the game story now must compete with many new ways of discovering or reliving what happened. Pallid game stories that rehash play-by-play and mix in a few vanilla quotes won’t cut it anymore.

“I think play-by-play at this point is worthless,” says the veteran sportswriter (and ace blogger) Joe Posnanski. “It’s worthless because A) people have seen or heard the plays; B) people have seen the highlights and, most important, C) the play-by-play is easily accessible from box scores” and graphics showing how teams scored.

Posnanski thinks part of the problem is that beat writers face two conflicting missions.

“The first is that they have to tell you things about the game that you did not know, could not see, would not have access to find out,” he says. “The second is that the newspapers have to be printed, stacked, trucked, delivered and on the readers’ driveways by 6 a.m. A newspaper reporter needs the time necessary to work a locker room and a clubhouse and get new information. And a newspaper reporter faces absurdly tight deadlines — tighter every year, it seems — which prevents him/her from doing just that. It’s a numbing cycle.”

Some current beat writers seem ready to move on. While emphasizing that he understands why game stories are necessary today, the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan says that “my personal take is that game stories are an anachronism and are pretty worthless. I don’t think that is the best use of a beat reporter’s time. And I don’t think they’re the best use of the reader’s time in terms of providing information.”

Given these pressures and problems, what’s to be done with game stories in the Web age? Should they be revitalized? Reinvented? Or is it time that they’re retired?

Here are four ideas to explore:

1. Retire Them

This is the nuclear option – get rid of game stories. Instead, run a package of statistics, supplemented online by video, links and a discussion forum for reader reactions before, during and after the game.

That would give readers a historical record, while beat reporters would be freed to work on more-compelling stories. Minus the deadline pressures that often leave game stories hurried sketches, beat writers could focus on analysis and behind-the-scenes tales, telling readers why and what’s next instead of what most already know.

2. Revitalize Them

Last month, my co-columnist Dave Kindred made an eloquent plea for the game story, arguing that all the scattered bits and pieces of information leave sports fans wanting a story to tie them together. The games, he wrote, “are the beginnings of all our reporting on personalities, controversies, issues. We cared about Michael Jordan not because he was tall, good-looking, and charming, but because he could play a game better than anyone else ever had. To ignore the games is to tell stories with no foundation.”

If so, perhaps we should help beat writers focus on game stories, by stripping away additional tasks that have multiplied, hydra-like, with the Web’s rise.

Buster Olney, the veteran beat writer turned ESPN columnist and blogger, bemoans an industry trend toward “bits and pieces,” and argues that beat writers are too busy with other duties to make the in-game observations that yield the details that can make game stories great.

“Too much time is being spent posting minutiae — the lineup, the routine quote from the pitcher who just had his bullpen session, the manager saying that out loud that his closer, who has pitched four three straight days, is not available that night,” Olney says, adding that “the simple fact is that beat writers will not have the opportunity to write strong game stories if they are asked to twitter 60 times a game, because they’ll be looking at their laptop rather than watching the game.”

In Olney’s view, “any transcriptionist can file 10 blog posts during a game, but only the baseball beat writers have the capability of writing something that takes the readers inside. But they cannot do that unless pointed in that direction by the folks they work for.”

Posnanski agrees about the added pressures, saying that today’s beat writers “need to be offering insight, a little bit of analysis and a whole lot of perspective. These days, beat writers are pulled in a dozen different directions — Internet, radio, TV, Twitter, v-logs, on and on — and it’s hard to find the time for the old-fashioned information-gathering that is still at the heart of the job.”

3. Reinvigorate Them

Maybe strengthening game stories isn’t enough. Maybe they need something more to hold readers’ interest.

“If I were a sports editor,” McIntyre says, “I’d have some opinion mixed in with all game stories. … It isn’t like beat writers aren’t forming opinions as the game is going on. They’re tweeting opinions. Why can’t they offer theirs in game stories?”

Harlan, the Washington Post’s Nationals beat writer, might be a model of that form. He may not cross the line into opinion, but his game stories certainly have a point of view. And they manage something that’s unfortunately rare: They’re consistently surprising. Pull up most any Harlan story and you’ll find an unexpected turn of phrase and a lack of punches pulled.

On Sept. 20, for example, the Nats lost to the Mets, 6-2. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningless late-season game, yet Harlan’s lead is anything but dull: “Neither science nor sabermetrics has yet devised a method for measuring energy, so any attempt to moderate a debate on the Washington Nationals’ energy level Sunday afternoon might be as futile as the baseball itself. It’s hardly worth assembling the anecdotal evidence, either, because that would require some brave steward to revisit the details locked away within three hours of best-forgotten baseball.”

Beat writers who go this route may have to answer for pungent turns of phrase. But the best columnists have always offered opinions and then looked their subjects in the eye. And isn’t the occasional peeved player better than routinely bored readers?

“I think the motto that I would aim for – and often fall well, well short of – is to try not to be obvious,” Harlan says, passing along a colleague’s judgment that his game stories are “almost more like theater or movie criticism.”

4. Roboticize Them

Ever heard of Stats Monkey?

The name is an unfortunate one for our purposes, but the idea is interesting: Stats Monkey is a program developed by students and professors at Northwestern. It imports box-score and play-by-play information, uses statistics to identify key plays, then constructs a narrative, headline and story from this raw material, together with historical data for context.
I know, you’re horrified. But read this account of Stats Monkey by Rich Gordon, a Medill professor who worked on the project. Now, read a Stats Monkey sample story in David Carr’s examination of the program and see if you don’t agree with his somewhat-grudging assessment: “The weird thing about Stats Monkey is how not-that-terrible the stories are.”

The idea isn’t to use Stats Monkey as a replacement for beat writers, though I’ll grant that given the newspaper industry’s current woes you’d be justified in worrying about exactly that. Rather, think of Stats Monkey as an automated apprentice, meeting that tyrannical print deadline while the beat writer is free to work the clubhouse and write the kind of story that will grab a reader’s attention during SportsCenter’s third go-round.

Whatever the answer is, it’s clear that game stories face unprecedented competition for readers’ attention – and it’s clear to me that they need to change if they are reach any kind of audience in the future. Too many game stories follow a tired formula – lots of play-by-play, paint-by-numbers quotes – that was adequate when newspapers were largely protected from competition. But that day is gone, and that formula has to change.

“If I read a game story now with a lot of play-by-play I will conclude that (A) The reporter was on a ridiculously tight deadline or (B) the reporter didn’t have anything to add to the conversation,” Posnanski says. “Neither one is good for the future of game stories.”

Jason Fry is a freelance writer 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 (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.
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