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The right kind of access

Years back, access was a huge competitive advantage for sportswriters. A good chunk of a team’s games weren’t on TV or on radio, and sports reports occupied a couple of minutes near the end of the evening news, before the weather and the cute and/or heartwarming feature. When that was all fans got, beat writers’ descriptions of the game were a critical connection between them and their favorite teams.

But that advantage has been steadily eroded by a host of new connections. Today, fans howl if a single game isn’t televised, and they can listen to sports radio all day and night if they’re not already watching an all-sports cable channel. The Web has taken this a step further, allowing instant access to highlights, stats and player information and letting obsessed fans join the publishing ranks. But the Web is a relative latecomer to the party, and just a continuation of a long-running trend.

In last week’s column, I noted that in the era of high-definition broadcasts using multiple cameras, the press box has become one of the worst places to watch a sporting event. And I observed that access to the locker room isn’t what it used to be, not with athletes adopting blandness for self-defense and sometimes saving news for their own blogs and tweets.

But sportswriters can still use their access to make new media work for them. The problem is that too many of them use that access to tell readers things they already know.

An increasing number of sportswriters have blogs, but those blogs don’t work when they reiterate stuff from game stories or offer run-of-the-mill information that will soon be raw material for game stories. (Do game stories still work today? We’ll talk about that within the next few weeks.) The way out of this trap? Write for a loyal, well-informed fan who’s stuck in a cubicle and hungry for news – but who’s also busy and impatient. What can you tell that reader that she doesn’t already know?

Skip game descriptions, recapitulations of the team’s recent play and the challenges of the upcoming schedule. That stuff’s available everywhere, and your reader already knows it. (An exception: In-game descriptions of games played during working hours. There’s still value there. Quite a bit of it, in fact.) Most postgame debriefings are similarly useless: If a glum Derek Jeter is surrounded by three TV cameras and 12 microphones, whatever he says will be commodity information within the hour. (It will also be dull and dutiful, but that’s another problem.)

What’s left? Plenty – including a lot of stuff that’s become background noise for sportswriters used to print routines and working in stadiums, but has considerable interest for fans and value online:

* Up-to-the-moment news: Did someone leave the stadium for X-rays? Did the X-rays come back? Is someone a late scratch from the lineup? Is there a restart time for a game delayed by rain? Are the umps packing their gear because the radar’s a sea of red? Did a player test his [insert name of injured part here] in pregame warm-ups? How’d he look doing it? That stuff will be routine information by the time the game story’s being written, but it has enormous value when it’s new. As soon as you learn it, post it on your blog and tweet it. (You’ve got a Twitter account, right?) Lots of writers now post the game lineups as soon as they’re available, and that’s a good start. But there’s a lot more they could do.

* Insider stuff: Every good reporter is superb at filtering information from game notes and other sources, and goes into a game with a checklist of things to watch for. What are the scouts saying about tonight’s opponents? What statistics jumped out at you from the game notes? Are there key matchups you’ll be watching? What will the manager and coaches be watching? Little of this stuff is proprietary, so don’t keep it to yourself – tell readers what you’ll be watching for and why. That makes for a lot better game preview than reminding us who’s hot and who’s not.

*The ballpark routine: Few Mets beat writers could go toe-to-toe with me on team history, but all of them are familiar with places in Citi Field that I’ve never seen. So take me there. I know pinch-hitters get in a few swings in the underground batting cage, but what’s their routine? What’s the route from the dugout and how much time do they have? How do players get to the bathroom between innings? What’s happening in the bullpen three hours before game time? Where do groundskeepers hang out during the game, and what are they focused on? Players and beat writers lose interest in this stuff quickly – it’s the background noise of their workplace, after all. But it’s an unknown world that interests many fans.

* The new guys: Profiles of new players are welcome, of course. But fans want to know more than where they grew up and what skills they still need to work on. In the summer of 2002, a fringe Mets reliever had some kind of seizure after smoking pot with a reserve outfielder in the parking lot of a hotel near Shea Stadium. (The 2002 Mets, ugh.) As you might imagine, that generated a lot of stories, but I had other questions: The marginal guys on the roster stay in skeevy hotels by La Guardia? Do they complain about it? How do they get to and from the park? Who decides it’s time for them to get an apartment? Does the team help them with that?

* As told to: Stick your tape recorder out and ask the bullpen catcher to describe his day, then post it. (Or if he can write a little, have him send you an email.) What’s a bat boy’s day like? The head of park security? The PA announcer? Whoever helps out the umpires? The guy in the mascot suit? There are a huge number of jobs that revolve around a team and a game, and these jobs share a characteristic that’s run of the mill for writers but magic for readers: They happen at the stadium.

Parcel material like this out and you have months of stuff for a blog – with stories yielding more stories, as is always the case. I rarely see this stuff in professional sportswriters’ blogs, and fan bloggers can’t give it to me because they don’t have the necessary access. Give me a steady diet of material like that in your blog and I’ll not only be your loyal reader but I’ll also spread your posts far and wide to other potential readers. And so will lots of fans like me.

Jason Fry spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy, and is now the Web evangelist for EidosMedia, a maker of editing-and-publishing software for newspapers and other publishers. While at www.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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