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:
I've heard multiple times from newspaper business-side people that off-season coverage of the local team is one of the best drivers of subscriptions. It's the best differentiator they have vs national sports outlets— Joshua Benton (@jbenton) March 19, 2019
And from my friend, the incomparable Matt Traub.
Late to this thread but I can tell you that metrics in my former office showed offseason news always did better than seasonal coverage, with exception of postseason.— Matt Traub (@matttraub) March 20, 2019
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.