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.
- Why fan-driven sports media don’t have their own Talking Points Memo (yet)
- This Week in Review: Institutions and news innovation, and papers’ paywall experiments roll on
- This Week in Review: Rupert’s online reader purge, election-night innovation, and ideas at ONA10
- This Week in Review: Navigating the Times’ pay-plan loopholes, +1 for social search, and innovation ideas