Sportswriters of this generation have seen quite a few changes to their job description.
Digital publishing proved a perfect fit for sports, unleashing a pent-up demand for more sports news, analysis, opinion and chatter. At first, the web was just another outlet for beat writers’ game stories and columnists’ takes. But it soon became a new demand on their time: In addition to gamers for various print editions, writers had to file online and feed blogs, and readers soon came to expect news in close to real time.
At the same time, digital publishing brought new competitors into the mix. Sportswriters were no longer competing just with their peers on the newsstand – now, they were competing with every other publisher with a web presence, including new digital-only outlets. As blogging software became easier to use, more and more readers took to their keyboards, bringing their passion for a team, sport or issue to a potentially world-wide audience. Most such efforts were dreck (as most of everything is dreck), but a few were smart, well written and came to command audiences of their own. More recently, some organizations have begun to wonder why they shouldn’t keep readers’ valuable attention for themselves, breaking news on their own sites instead of giving it to journalists.
Sportswriters have also been in the vanguard when it comes to adopting Twitter, the microblogging service that’s one of those differences in degree profound enough to become a difference in kind. Twitter started as a perfect vehicle for instantly publishing news updates and bits of analysis that would seem undersized as articles or blog posts. But it’s become a terrific venue for conversation between sportswriters and readers (as well as between athletes/organizations and everybody), one that usually avoids the toxicity and torpid stupidity of comment sections.
All this has driven a sea of change in sportswriting, for better and for worse. What’s better, in my opinion, is that sportswriting has become quicker and more muscular, and more responsive to readers. That should increase readers’ loyalty to writers (if not the publishers they work for), in part by reminding them of the value of professional journalists in ferreting out news and offering top-flight analysis. What’s worse is that sportswriters have been asked to do more and more things without having much if anything removed from their job descriptions. Being forced to race around like digital sorcerers’ apprentices makes it harder to catch one’s breath and focus on digging for hidden stories, deeper, richer storytelling and weightier analysis, all things that would differentiate you from the horde.
And of course, digital sportswriting isn’t holding still – it’s constantly being remade by unexpected changes, additional duties and new flavors of uncertainty. With that in mind, here are five suggestions for getting ready for changes that may be coming:
1. Get ready for athletes as social-media veterans: The first wave of athletes who took to Twitter were already famous before their first tweet – and many of those tweets were written by publicists. Now, athletes are more likely to tweet themselves, and teams aren’t always happy about it – witness the dust-ups between the Marlins and Logan Morrison over his outspoken Twitter presence. But the real change is not yet upon us. It will come with the first wave of stars who were Facebook and/or Twitter veterans long before they signed a professional contract. Athletes like that will adapt much more readily to communicating with people they don’t know via social media than they will to addressing a scrum of writers with notepads and recorders. In fact, they may not see the point of locker-room colloquies – after all, they’re already answering fans’ questions.
2. Think about location-based services: For all their wonders, digital services still aren’t great at delivering information that’s timely and local – it’s much easier to learn about the society of ancient Mongolia than it is to find a good deal on tires within a couple of miles of your house. Little by little that’s changing, with everybody from Facebook to Foursquare and Yelp and pro-sports leagues offering incentives for people to “check-in” to locations. There’s an opportunity there for sportswriters – if I’m checking into today’s Mets-Marlins game at Citi Field, I’m a prime candidate to read about that game and those teams and athletes, and get other information you or your publisher might want to push to me.
3. You’re a middleman, and that means you’re vulnerable: Teams are awakening to the idea that they’re publishers in their own right, which means the ancient, unwritten bargain between teams and publishers (publishers get access and readers, teams get publicity and customers) is ripe for being reconsidered. What will you do if teams (and leagues and athletic organizations) see news organizations as competition and take on the jobs of breaking news, delivering game stories and supplying reaction from coaches and players? How will you offer readers value beyond that?
4. Consider finding a niche and owning it: The era in which people chose Paper A or Paper B at the newsstand is dying – today’s fans read what they want from Paper A, Paper B, Web Publisher C, Blog D and so on down the alphabet. If your coverage is similar to everybody else’s, you’re in danger of not being read – so why not find something unique and outperform everybody else? That niche might be the minor-league beat, or a historical perspective, or long-form analysis, or the mechanics of the game, or scouting opponents, or the most lyrical writing, or the liveliest opinion.
5. Burn this list in a year – or maybe in a month: The digital era is marked by constant churn, so here’s a big caveat: This list will be obsolete before you know it. Or, conversely, one of these changes may only blossom after a series of false starts — how many times were tablets predicted before the iPad finally succeeded? And, of course, I may be dead wrong about what’s coming. Predictions are a dangerous business, but so is living in a defensive crouch – so keep your ears open, be willing to experiment, and always serve the reader.
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This is my final column for the National Sports Journalism Center. As a farewell, I’ve collected 19 of my best columns in an ebook, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 (less than 16 cents a column!) from Amazon for the Kindle, and in other formats (including epub and PDF) from Smashwords. I hope to have it available from Apple and Barnes & Noble’s online store soon.
Heartfelt thanks to Tim Franklin for offering me the chance at a gig that turned out to be enormous fun, to John Oehser and Larra Overton for terrific editing and patience with my absurd filing habits, to Dave Kindred and Eric Deggans for being such smart company, and to Dan Drew, Brad Hamm, Linda Blair and Jeffrey Buszkiewicz. But thanks most of all to everyone who read and commented or emailed. I’d love to continue the conversation – email me at email@example.com, visit me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter.