by Mark Carter
The news business may be here to stay, but the manner in which it’s delivered and consumed is evolving at a fairly rapid pace.
These days, consumers aren’t met at the door at the end of a work day by Rover delivering a copy of the afternoon paper and slippers. Rover may still be involved, but he’s more likely clutching an iPad in his maw these days. The digital age indeed is changing the way news is consumed. It’s also changing the way it’s practiced, and the evolution of sports journalism is proving a good test case.
As chronicled last month in Arkansas Money & Politics, websites — such as Trey Biddy’s HawgSports.com — devoting exclusive coverage to local college teams are growing in popularity. Though they provide an online forum for fans to interact, many of these sites also are attempting to practice authentic journalism. They wear the colors, but they also tell the story, good or bad, with no spin.
Is it possible to accurately tell a story from a biased viewpoint, even with the best of intentions? The coverage of sports, college athletics in particular, could blaze such a trail.
This media maturation is catnip for Chris Etheridge, assistant professor of multimedia storytelling in the School of Mass Communication at UA Little Rock. With even traditional news coverage increasingly tailored to specific audiences, is sports journalism better suited for such “refinement”?
We asked Etheridge to share his perspective on this evolution. A former daily newspaper reporter (sports and news) in Illinois, he teaches multimedia journalism courses including electronic news gathering, new media writing and production, and radio-TV journalism.
••AMP: What distinguishes sports journalism from traditional news coverage?
CE: This is a tough question to answer. One big difference in how sports and news are covered is that in sports, there’s a clear score that determines a winner and a loser. If the Arkansas Razorbacks, for example, score more points than the team they’re playing, they win, and the reporter can write about that. If they don’t, they lose, and the reporter can write about that. It’s pretty clear cut. Sports journalists can try to fill in some of the blanks about why a team won or lost but in general, the reporting of what happened in the game is enough to get the job done. News reporters don’t always have that luxury. It’s not like, in the case of the Little Rock School District teacher’s strike, a reporter can say, “The teachers scored 10 points, but the board scored 15.” It’s more complicated than that. This often is what results in “one side says this and the other side said that” kinds of stories.
Showing balance and representing as many perspectives as possible is crucial in good news reporting. Sports reporters are often working for a paper where the majority of the audience is rooting for one side over the other, so it’s OK to emphasize the perspective of one over the other.
The challenge for sports reporters is that sometimes the audience expects that you’re rooting for the team you cover to win. Just because a reporter is writing a story from the perspective of a certain team, because that’s what the audience wants to read about, doesn’t mean the reporter is a fan of that team. Few beat reporters for professional news outlets would say they’re fans of the team they cover. Their job is to report what happens, and after 80 or 160 games in a season, most sports reporters are just hoping — win or lose — for something exciting to write about. Whether the team they are covering wins or not is immaterial. There’s no cheering in the press box, but sometimes audiences don’t understand that.
••AMP: What do you think of the rise of team sites and fan sites devoted to one school or team?
CE: Like with many interests and communities, the internet has made it easier for people to find each other. In the past, fans of the Arkansas Razorbacks needed to connect with each other at work, at a bar or through other face-to-face means. Now, people can find each other digitally while sitting at home scrolling through social media on their phones. What this means is that “superfans” who have always had a lot of thoughts about a team now have a place to put those thoughts formally and a potential audience to listen. In the past, if you wanted that, you needed to own a printing press or a giant antenna to share your thoughts broadly and those are expensive. Now, anyone can set up a website in minutes and for nearly no cost.
The biggest question I have about these sites is their commitment to balance, transparency and accountability. Sports journalists are bound by a code of ethics that prevents them from accepting gifts or special treatment from teams. They are expected to be fair to the team and to the players. Are specialty sites following those same ethical principles of journalists who went through years of training? In many cases, they aren’t. There’s certainly a market for more coverage of teams and conversations about sports, as is evidenced by the growth of specialty fan sites, but it’s buyer beware from the audience perspective. It’s my hope that fan sites are challenged by their audiences to be transparent and open and that they hold the sites accountable for fairness and an understanding that athletes and coaches are people, too.
But sports fans are generally pretty smart and will see through phony content or empty rants. If there isn’t substance to the content, audiences won’t stick around long.
••AMP: Modes of delivery have changed dramatically, of course, but have journalism practices changed with them?
CE: There has always been an emphasis in journalism to be first to a story and to break it faster than the competition, but the digitization of content has dramatically accelerated that process. Sports reporters are now expected to be writing constantly and updating stories as more information comes in rather than writing a story once and getting it to the editors for tomorrow’s newspaper. That makes it harder to focus on the big picture kinds of stories. The long-form articles filled with deep analytical thought are what appears to be going by the wayside most in the digital age.
But there’s also less competition between news organizations. It used to be that sports teams could count on a handful of beat reporters following them around the country on road trips. Now, there are some professional teams, and quite a few college teams, that don’t have a single full-time reporter covering them. There aren’t as many reporters covering the visiting team asking questions at press conferences after the game. And sometimes reporters who were laid off from a newspaper or magazine are hired by the team to produce content for the team website. So, their writing is still there, but the loyalties change. No one is going to write on a team’s website that the coach should be fired. Penn State’s website wouldn’t publish investigative reporting about Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. That’s the kind of work you only get from independent journalism. It’s all changing very quickly, putting a lot more pressure on the audiences to really make sure they know where the content is coming from.
••AMP: Has blogging completely erased the line between op-ed and news?
CE: It’s not that blogging has erased those lines, but rather that it’s simply cheaper to produce opinions than it is to produce news. As I mentioned, anyone can watch a sports game on television, set up a blog and write about what they think. It takes real, hard-earned cash and years of training to do the real reporting. You have to build relationships and trust with sources. You have to spend time at the court or rink or field, observing and asking questions. Real reporting is incredibly difficult to do well. My fear is that as fewer and fewer news organizations and audiences are willing to pay for real reporting, there won’t be as much news for opinion writers to opine about.
National sports news organizations have come and gone over the last 50 years, but there are a few that seem to be holding steady right now. The Athletic is hiring really good reporters and growing. It will be interesting to see if they can sustain that growth. ESPN.com faced some pretty serious layoffs a few years ago but could be rebounding as they adjust their business model. The New York Times’ sports desk is doing some amazing work that isn’t the daily grind of games, transactions, hirings and firings.