Why sports has taken the lead in newsroom innovation

Journalism professors Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis and Jonathan Groves of Drury University have been doing some research in newspaper newsrooms, observing and talking to journalists to find out more about how they’re changing their processes and routines to innovate for the web. They posted a little teaser on their research yesterday, reporting that the area of the newsroom that has done the most to adapt to a new media environment is the sports department.

For people who have been both avid observers of the news media and avid consumers of sports media (like myself), this isn’t a particularly surprising finding. As former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff noted on Twitter, sports content on the web served as the blueprint for the early development of ABC News’ and Disney’s online presences in the mid-’90s, and for AOL and Yahoo’s emergence as media companies in the past few years.

There are plenty of exceptions — I’ve seen as many curmudgeonly rants by sportswriters as any other type of journalists — but the products speak for themselves: Go to any metro daily website, and you’ll almost undoubtedly find that the most active communities and innovative ideas are on display under the “Sports” tab.

So why is that? Brown-Smith, Groves and several others on Twitter this morning tossed some answers out, and I thought they might be helpful for people thinking about newsroom innovation in other areas, too. Here’s a rundown:

Sports departments operate outside the rest of the traditional newsroom structure.

This is the first reason Brown-Smith and Groves give: Innovation and risk-taking usually take place in autonomous divisions within an organization, “and at most news organizations, the sports departments are separate beasts, often working different schedules and feeling relatively less shackled by [tradition].”

Sports have long been thought of as the newspaper’s “toy department,” the place where journalists can try out new styles and strategies, and since it’s not “real news,” no one will get too worked up about it. Most sportswriters still bristle at the term “toy department,” but as Jeff Jarvis and John Zhu suggested, it’s easier to experiment when you’ve been cordoned off from the sections of the paper that take their mission too seriously to try anything out of the ordinary.

Sports journalists’ frenetic pace and round-the-clock deadlines are more conducive to the web than to print.

This is Brown-Smith and Groves’ second point, voiced well by a staffer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “Every night in sports is election night. We are used to that kind of workload. We are used to doing it late and doing it quick.”

Jim Brady, general manager of TBD and former washingtonpost.com executive editor, spelled this idea out in a series of tweets: Even in print, sportswriters were used to filing fast and in chunks because of the deadline push caused by night games, and their stories often didn’t make early editions. Consequently, they saw the web, with its inclination toward 24/7 news and bite-size pieces of information, as more of an opportunity.

This makes a lot of sense to me: Sportswriters have had to do less to adapt their routines to the web, because their reporting processes are a more natural fit there anyway. That level of comfort leads to a lot more experimentation and innovation.

Sports journalists have tended to value their readers more highly — a key attitude in adapting to the two-way nature of online news.

This idea, too, was expressed by Brady via Twitter, though he wasn’t exactly sure why. NYU professor Jay Rosen offered a possible explanation: “In sports, the difference between what users know and reporters know isn’t as wide; therefore it’s harder to be princely.”

Rosen comes at this observation from a background studying the political press, but I think it rings true. Generally speaking, since televised sports became ubiquitous in the 1980s and early ’90s, dedicated sports fans have been able to ascertain for themselves quite a bit of what reporters know about their favorite teams. They’re watching the same games, and many fans have been studying those games just as intently and for as much of their lives as the sportswriters they read. All they’re missing are the locker-room and press-conference quotes, which are often laughably devoid of insight anyway.

The web was practically tailor-made for the way fans want to consume information about sports.

This reason was only hinted at by Brown-Smith and Groves, but I think it’s key to determining why sports departments’ online innovations are so much more substantive and successful. There is no other type of news that is as social as sports, and none for which the audience’s appetite is as ravenous. No other area even comes close; politics is a pretty distant second.

Sports are inherently social; in fact, they may be the only televised content that’s more commonly watched in groups than alone. And in between those televised events, the biggest element of fandom is talking about sports with others — friends, co-workers, strangers at bars, radio call-in show hosts. It’s easy to see how ideally this translates to the web: Check out, for example, the enormously popular game threads that are the bread and butter of many of the blogs of the quickly growing SB Nation network. There’s little newsy information being conveyed there; they’re purely social, a way to create the normative group-viewing experience in a virtual space.

Likewise, there’s no other area of news in which audiences hang on each and every tidbit of news and analysis that a journalist can provide. This attitude is a perfect fit for the rapid-fire, bite-size, analytically based formats of blogging and Twitter.

These two aspects combine to make for a ripe environment for success in experimenting with interactive, immediate forms of online news. This, in turn, creates a remarkably effective positive reinforcement loop for those innovations: When sports departments launch beatblogs, or podcasts, or Twitter accounts, or live chats, or mobile updates, they’re often rewarded with enthusiastic readers and eager interaction. That success, of course, only spurs more innovation. Sadly, the reverse often happens in other news coverage: Attempts at innovation are met (at least initially) with apathy, which journalists use to dismiss innovation as a waste of time.

Those are the factors we’ve come up with – if you have any theories of your own, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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08. October 2010 by Mark
Categories: innovation, sports journalism | Tags: , , , , , | 9 comments

  • http://www.john-zhu.com/blog John Zhu

    Nice post, Mark. I think you’ve hit on a lot of the main reasons why sports departments may be ahead of other newspaper departments in adapting to online. And you nailed the paradox that the sports department may be a place where some hardcore curmudgeons dwell, but on the whole, the product is often more innovative than other parts of the newspaper.

    A few thoughts:

    – Aside from the “toy department” reputation, I think another important factor is simply that most top honchos are home by the time the bulk of the sports content rolls in. Just on that alone, it’s often easier to avoid the gauntlet of upper management before getting something done. That breeds a much stronger “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” attitude in sports departments, which might in turn attract people who like to experiment to the sports department.

    – While the “toy department” rep helps make it easier for sports departments to experiment, I fear it also makes it harder to reproduce that level of experimentation in other areas of the news organization. It’s much harder to convince management to remain as hands off for “serious” news, and when you say, “Well, this worked for sports,” it’s always shot down with, “Yeah, but that’s just sports.”

    – One small quibble with Jay’s statement about the knowledge gap between the sports reporter and the sports fan not being as wide: I think it’s definitely an accurate assessment when it comes to on-the-field action for the local teams. However, I see two areas where the journalist could have significantly more knowledge than the average fan:

    1) Non-local teams. Just from personal experience, I definitely knew a lot more about every field of sports, and more about non-local teams in each sport when I was getting paid to follow sports 8 hours a day than now, when I’m just an average fan. That’s only natural. It really is amazing to compare now and then and realize how much more immersed in sports I was when I worked in a sports department.

    2) Knowledge of off-the-field stuff about the team/program. You’re right that most of the postgame locker room quotes are garbage, but beyond that, the good beat writers I’ve worked with really do learn much more about their team than the average fan would know. Some of that is from being around the team so much (not just for games, but also for daily practice and in the off-season), some of it is from finding and talking to sources, and some of it is just from persistent leg work.

  • Corones

    Tons of data and statistics make for a wide array of database and data visualization opportunities, both during the game and in analysis.

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    The popularity of a sporting event online in social media also works as a feedback loop for its appeal in old media. The NFL is enjoying a resurgence of popularity on the old-fashioned broadcast networks. In broadcasting they call it tent poles…having major events one week apart the act as focal points to stimulate ongoing audience-generated interest in the interim.

    Politics may be far behind sports, generally speaking, but the same tent pole structure worked during Campaign 2008 with the primaries-conventions-debates acting as the tent poles and blogs-Facebook acting as the interim interactive media. The old-fashioned broadcast audiences for the debates and for election night were similarly huge.

    In entertainment TV, American Idol has been distinctive for new media audience interaction sustaining interest between tent pole primetime broadcasts.

    What all these events have in common is that they are contests — sporting, political, or show business. I wonder who is going to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

  • http://www.changingjournalism.org Jonathan Groves

    Mark, great post. I agree with your point about the social nature of sports; I believe that’s one reason it remains a “live” draw for broadcast. People still want to watch those types of events in real-time (a contributing factor to the popularity of “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” as well) because they want to keep up with what everyone’s talking about.

    One of the sports bloggers I talked with noted the psychological nature of his blog. When the college team he covered lost, fans would flock to his site to vent and unload. He said he quickly learned to listen and say little, responding with the online equivalent of a psychological nod.

    The challenge for news organizations is generating that level of enthusiasm and passion for coverage of less sexy topics, such as city ordinances, zoning issues, and the latest sales-tax proposal from the parks department. I’m not sure the long tail of those institutional issues will spark enough interest (and revenue) to create a sustaining model. Perhaps the sports department could become the engine that subsidizes the smaller but no less important news niches.

  • http://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com Carrie Brown

    Thanks for the post, Mark, and for collecting some of the online conversation here – I left town on Friday and was actually off-the-grid most of the weekend so I would have missed some of it otherwise.

    Definitely agree with you about the social nature of sports and I’m particularly intrigued by Andrew Tyndall’s comment about the tent poles, a concept I wasn’t familiar with but makes a lot of sense. Is there any way to harness that concept to make “more serious” news more compelling and social?

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