Adapt or Die: The new role of the contemporary sportswriter

by azaleon

If I want to find out who won the game, I won’t read an article.

I’ll record it on my DVR, watch the replay on ESPN3, check Twitter, see highlights on television or go online and take a look at the box score.

When my father and grandfather were my age, they probably read a game story to find out what happened the night before. But this is a different time in which information has a much shorter expiration date (“MILK WAS A BAD CHOICE”) and sportswriters have an opportunity to evolve their role, accordingly.

The traditional game story is dead.

Beat writers were –and sometimes still are- charged with following the blueprint of score, quote, statistic, quote, etc., to recap a game.  Well, that’s not going to hold my attention. It’s not going to hold any of my peers’ attention and it’s not going to get your website or paper any new readers.

Instead, there is one question a sportswriter has to ask himself every single time they sit down at a keyboard, take a breath and let their fingertips meet the plastic keys:

“Why should anybody read this?”

Writing a story about the team’s leading scorer from that game? Well, so is the guy sitting two seats down from you on press row.  Not to mention, I can just look at the box score.

Maybe you want to highlight the key runs or eye-popping plays.  Fortunately, the good folks at national and local television have those highlights ready for me on the tube or Internet.

Eureka! You notice that the awful team you’re covering hasn’t made a field goal in five-and-a-half minutes -what a delightful statistic that epitomizes the squad’s offensive struggles this half.  It was going to go into your game story but…in your excitement, you already tweeted it.  And if you didn’t tweet it out, chances are, one of your colleagues already did.  Too bad stories require paid subscriptions and the tweets are free.

As a credentialed sportswriter, you have access that fans and bloggers sitting at home do not; free front-row seats to the action (unless you’re in the Kohl Center where press row is in the nosebleeds) and the ability to attend and participate in press conferences. Use it in your writing.

Again, why should a reader spend the next five –or if you’re a slow reader like me, 10- minutes of their life with your story? What are you going to give them that no one else can?

Humanize the athletes.  Make them more than a field goal percentage or jersey number.  Tell the reader something that they couldn’t already figure out by simply watching the game. Intangibles such as what was said, the atmosphere, emotion and the perspective nobody expects.

Sportswriters have to accept that their content is no longer primary to the general public.  For example, if there’s a big Indiana Hoosiers basketball fan, they’ll likely find a way to watch the game or follow along online and then read your story after having learned what happened during the game.  In this way, the game story has the opportunity to be essential secondary information.  The article is where fans go to learn what they never could from watching the game. It’s not negative, it’s not wrong, it’s just an inevitable change.

Sportswriters, don’t act like you are the smartest guy in the room, because you’re not. If you were, then you’d be the one being interviewed after the game.

It’s not the job of a beat writer to break down strategy and the X’s and O’s.  Leave that to the analysts on television, who are mostly former players.  You haven’t played or coached the game at a high level, so your “expert” opinion is really anything but.

The most valuable contribution beat writers can bring to their readers is new information. That’s really what it all boils down to. That could come in the form of breaking news, in-depth features, recruiting updates or even a blog post.

There is still a place for the sportswriter in the modern world. It’s not the same role they have always held, but I believe it is one that can keep the profession relevant in the age of fan blogging.

Make it accurate.  Make it intriguing. Make it your own.

-AMZ

Shameless plug of instances when I practiced what I just preached:

  • IU trounced NC Central…I didn’t think  that mattered, so I wrote this
  • The Orioles starter got rocked, his story made it all the more depressing
  • Indiana upset Kentucky in Assembly Hall, but the story became the fans
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