Is the offseason more important for sports journalists?

The interview that C.W. Anderson gave to Nieman Lab earlier this week has me thinking about ethnography in sports journalism.

The academic research of sports journalism is calling out for an ethnography of professional practices. There hasn’t been a large scale one, that I’m aware of anyway, since Inside the Sports Pages, Mark Douglas Lowes’ seminal work in 1999 (a book I’m revisiting and hoping to write more about in the co ming months). Good ethnography takes time, which is the challenge. I’ve wanted to do an ethnography of journalists covering the Buffalo Bills since I finished grad school. My first faculty grant application was to fund a season-long ethnography of Bills coverage, but that was unsuccessful and time and funding have made it impossible since.

It’s interesting, because when I think of an ethnography of sports journalism, I tend to think of in-season coverage. I bet a lot of you do, too.

But the more I read and think about the state of sports journalism in 2019, the more I wonder if off-season coverage might be more important to study. Michael Mirer and I are starting a series of research projects looking at this area of sports journalism. Think of NBA free agency, the baseball hot-stove league, the NFL combine and all the signings last week. The transaction has become such a focal point of so much pro and college sports journalism, that this feels more important to study than game coverage.

I mentioned this on Twitter this week, and got responses from Joshua Benton from the Nieman Lab:

And from my friend, the incomparable Matt Traub.

What’s fascinating about this is that this idea of off-season coverage being more important runs counter to how we’ve traditionally conceptualized sports journalism. From my dissertation:

Game coverage is central to sports journalism. A reporter’s work schedule, story selection, and sourcing decisions are almost always centered around the games of the team(s) he or she covers. An editor's planning of his or her section—both in print and online—almost universally centers around game coverage. Sports themselves revolve around games—from the NFL to high school football—so it’s natural that sports journalism has its roots in games. In fact, it can be argued that no area of journalism is so intrinsically tied to a part of their coverage as sports journalism is to games.

Despite the evolving nature of game stories, covering games remains the core of sports journalism. Games are still the focal point of sports and of sports journalism.

But the data, anecdotally, are telling us that off-season coverage may be more vital. It certainly feels more interesting.

A few years ago, I wrote about off-season coverage and said this.

Maybe the day is coming when a sports reporters' job is focused on the off-season rather than the season itself.

At the very least, that’s where our research should be focused.

The culture of the click, 10 years later

C.W. Anderson has been one of the most influential scholars in my career. His ethnography of digital news in Philadelphia is the dissertation I wish I had written. His thinking on digital news is must-read for anyone interested in this field.

Over at Nieman Lab, he spoke with Livia Vieria about ethonography, business models and more. This passage, about metrics in journalism, stands out:

Any journalist who would claim that they don’t need to know what their audience wants to read is deluding themselves.

But I do think that journalism as a professional category needs to make decisions for itself about what it thinks is important. That’s what makes a professional community: It’s a group of people who have a certain amount of expertise and then can decide for themselves what the important thing is. Journalism as a professional community is highly threatened — and that’s a problem, because it’s important for journalists to be professionals.

So I don’t think clicks and metrics alone are terrible for journalism. But I do think that insofar as they contribute to a larger deprofessionalization of this very important occupation, they can be part of a bad trend. The short answer would be: Journalists need to know what their audience thinks, but they shouldn’t become slaves to what their audience thinks. And they need to continue thinking for themselves about what their audience needs.

Subscribe to the Sports Media Guy newsletter

In my Sports Writing and Reporting class at SUNY-Oswego, my students have started their own newsletters. Over the next three weeks or so, they are acting as beat writers and aggregating newsletters on a team of their choice. (You can find their work on the JLM312 tag on Twitter)

And since one of the precepts I live by in teaching is that I never want to ask my students to do something I’m not willing to do myself, it’s time to restart this newsletter.

So welcome back to the Sports Media Guy newsletter.

Here’s what you can find here:

A brief essay

I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing regularly. This will give me both the chance and the deadline to do so.

The top five pieces about sports journalism from this week.

The idea of this newsletter is to be a central place for news about sports journalism. Not necessarily sports media (there will rarely be any talk of TV ratings here), but sports journalism. If sports journalism is my scholarly beat, then this is the place to aggregate news on this.

To paraphrase Will Leitch, if you’re subscribing to my newsletter, I figure there’s a decent chance you’d be interested in my other work I do. So I’ll include links to posts on Sports Media Guy and to episodes of The Other 51 and The Flip Side. If you enjoy them, I’d be honored if you considered subscribing at the links provided.

You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

powered by TinyLetter

Mark Thompson on the subscription models and being indispensable

At Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor had a fascinating interview with New York Times’ CEO Mark Thompson. Some highlights that I didn’t see making the Twitter rounds:

I think there were good reasons to believe the benefits of advertising typically accrue at the platform level. They used to accrue to newspapers, where newspapers — because they control printing and distribution — were essentially platforms, with near monopolistic reach and therefore colossal pricing power. Once you take those advantages away, the model collapses, and instead it’s the major digital platforms who have the same kind of quasi-monopolistic advantages of distribution.

This is a really eloquent description of the situation facing newspapers, and I haven’t heard it put like this before. In the pre-digital era, newspapers were platforms. But today, Facebook and Google are platforms. Advertising works at their level, which explains in part why the digital ad market for newspapers has cratered.

More from Thompson:

But overall it’s the indispensability of The New York Times, and The New York Times being the center of lots of conversations. I think that’s very good for the indispensability of the brand in many people’s lives.

...

I think, firstly, I’m definitely an optimist on the level of consumer demand for quality content. In other words, I believe that if you’re producing journalism of value, there is no reason to expect that consumers wouldn’t be prepared, in some way, to support that — potentially to pay for it.

This fits with my theory of subscriptions. The key, as I’ll say again and again, is to provide readers with something they can’t live without.

Not something you think they can’t live without, or something you think they shouldn’t live without. Something that is truly indispensable to them.

Game stories and the important question

Leading up to the Super Bowl, Jacob Bogage wrote an excellent piece in the Washington Post about the state of the game story in sports journalism.

It in inspired a Twitter thread from me about what we mean by “game story” and how I get the feeling that very few news outlets are using what we think of when we say “game story.”

In a way, this feels like a very important discussion. As I’ve said in many places the past few months, the kind of content that daily news organizations produce is critical in this age of subscriptions. If we accept the premise that you’ve got to give people something they can’t live without so that they will give you money every month, then the type of stories your writers write is really important to talk about.

On the other hand … man, this feels like a tired discussion. The future of the game story feels like something we’ve been talking about in this industry since I was in college in the late 1990s. Because of that, it’s starting to feel like the wrong debate to be having — or, at the very least, a less interesting one.

The unanswered question behind all of these debates is this: What do readers want from us?

Really, what do they want? Because so many of these debates are fueled by assumptions. Assumptions I have, assumptions you have, assumptions writers and editors have about the audience and assumptions the audience has about writers and editors. Assumptions fueled by metrics, and assumptions fueled by our traditional ideals.

“Nobody cares about a game story anymore … everybody knows who won the game already … everybody’s seen the highlights … people want analysis … the audience wants strong opinions … give people a good story well told and they will read it.”

All of these things could very well be true.

The point is, they are assumptions. We don’t know them to be 100 percent true.

That seems to be the next logical step in this debate.

If the key to our survival is giving people what they can’t live without, it’s important for us to really know what that is.

Subscriptions, business models and local news

My friend Jeremy Littau wrote a Twitter thread last week that literally went viral and is worth your time. The thread came in the wake of last week's layoffs at Gannett, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and other media outlets.

Jeremy's thread is worth your time, because it lays out the 20-plus years of struggles the news industry has had. It makes the case that fixing it is not just as easy as telling people they need to subscribe to their local paper.

The thread referenced the prediction piece I wrote from the Nieman Lab last year about what I see as the looming subscription-pocalypse.

I think that subscriptions can work for local news outlets. The argument I make in the piece is that they can't rely solely on them, or expect people to subscribe because of habit or obligation or a desire to serve the greater good. When people are already subscribing to national news outlets and various streaming services for music, movies and TV, a news organization needs to make a compelling case to the reader that they (the organization) are providing something that the reader wants or needs.

Jeff Jarvis wrote this years ago and it has stuck with me: No successfull business model is ever predicated on the word "should." Local news is vital to our world. But local news organizations aren't owed anything. In a world of subscriptions, they need to stand out.

"I wanted to be Bob Costas"

Growing up, I wanted to be Bob Costas.

As a sports fan in the 1980s with big dreams of being a sportscaster, Costas was my guy. My professional model. He was the guy I wanted to be when I grew up. He was young, he was funny, he called play by play and talked about sports for a living. He encompassed every dream I had.

Read More

Casey Stengel and access in the 1960s

As someone who’s interested in the history of access in sports journalism, I found this quote from Sean Deveney’s excellent book “Fun City” to be very telling. Deveney, here, is discussing how Casey Stengel’s relationship with the New York City press corps was instrumental in the Mets’ off-field success:

More important was Stengel’s ability to charm fans and the media. Though sometimes cantankerous, he did not treat the local writers as enemies, and he was not the controlling paranoiac that many of his colleagues were. He understood the individual writers and he knew how their papers operated and the ways he could add color to their daily stories. He had an encyclopedia of good-old-day stories always at the ready, and he had a unique ability to peregrinate through the English language as he told them, sprinkled with his favorite phrase, “You can look it up” (which was actually an invitation to not look it up).

2018: A Year in Review

Thank you all for spending another year with me here at Sports Media Guy.

I love lists and countdowns, so here are a few.

First off: The 10 most popular posts of this year (I did not include the home page, the contact page or anything like that). All stats come from Squarespace analytics, which hosts my site.

  1. The history of sports journalism (Part 1 of 3)
  2. What gets left behind with The Athletic
  3. The history of sports journalism (Part 2 of 3)
  4. Where's our damn pizza? Why sports hates election night.
  5. The "problem" with women's sports
  6. The history of sports journalism (part 3 of 3)
  7. Tom Brady and white privilege
  8. What's changed about sports journalism?
  9. Welding and player boycotts: 10 years after my biggest story
  10. Earl Warren's view of the sports page

So the interesting thing here is that only two of the most popular posts were written this year. Heck, one of them was from 2013.

Here are the 10 most popular posts that were written in 2018

  1. What gets left behind with The Athletic
  2. The "problem" with women's sports
  3. What's changed about sports journalism?
  4. Refined thoughts on The Athletic
  5. The Athletic and the importance of diversity in sports journalism
  6. ESPN's new app is a huge disappointment
  7. What's changed about sports journalism: Social media and expectations
  8. What hasn't changed about sports journalism
  9. Leaving Sports Journalism’s never easy
  10. Interview tips and advice for sports journalists

And finally, the 10 most popular episodes of The Other 51 (stats via Podtrac).

  1. Episode 60: That's How Jobs Work with Shea Serrano
  2. Episode 59: What They Don't Know with James Mirtle
  3. Episode 67: Neutral Site with Bryan Curtis
  4. Episode 64: Beyond 24/7 with Jen McCaffrey
  5. Episode 73: Metro Community News with Richard Deitsch
  6. Episode 58: Seven layers with Mike Harrington
  7. Episode 80: Labor of Love with Jeff Pearlman
  8. Episode 71: Podcast Inception with Dr. Galen Clavio
  9. Episode 76: Going With My Gut with Kimberley A. Martin
  10. Episode 68: Watergate Baby with Kevin Blackistone