Darren Rovell and metrics in sports journalism

Three years ago, Darren Rovell wrote on Medium about the need for journalists to be data driven. He tweeted it this week, framing it as how the annual July 4 hot dog eating contest at Coney Island changed his view of journalism.

The simple fact is that we live in a dialogue world, not a monologue. We, as journalists and editors, can’t devote 100 percent of our time to what we think we should do. We have to devote a good amount of our time to what the masses want us to do. And if we don’t, we become irrelevant.

First off — there's nothing wrong with covering the hot dog eating contest. Or mascot races. Sports journalism would be infinitely better if we took the world at least 37 percent less seriously and had a little more fun.

But Rovell, of course, made this all about himself and about his redefinition of journalism. When, in fact, it's always been like this.

This always been the central tension within journalism. Doing the stories we want to do vs. what the audience wants. Doing the stories we feel we should do vs. the stories we have to do to pay the bills. There's a great scene in Good Night, and Good Luck, in which Edward R. Murrow interviews Liberace in a total puff piece. The context, of course, is that in order to pay for and do the important work that made Murrow Morrow, he had to do the 1950s equivalent of covering the hot dog eating contest. To paint this idea as something new and revolutionary is new-media gasbaggery at its finest.

What is new, is metrics.

Now we have cold hard numbers telling us what people are reading, what they're sharing, when they're reading, how they're reading and for how long they're reading it. It's gone from an ineffable sixth sense to something far more scientific.

For better or worse, the metric has become the defining news value of the digital age. It, more than almost anything else, shapes news judgement and editorial decisions. In some ways, it's the reason why The Athletic exists — because the subscription model stands in contrast to the metric-driven model of daily journalism.

The lie in this is that a story only has value if people read it or share it. That there is no value in the incremental, steady, drip-by-drip daily coverage. That a story today, even if not popular, can lead to a bigger story three months from now. The lie in this is that the audience is the be-all, end-all, that the metric is the only thing we should listen to.

The big lie, of course, is that stories we want and stories the audience wants are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Tim Layden leaves Sports Illustrated

On Twitter on Monday, Tim Layden announced he was leaving Sports Illustrated after 25 years.

Here are some of Layden’s most memorable pieces from Sports Illustrated. This is by no means comprehensive, so if you have a favorite Layden piece, please share it in the comments on on our Facebook page:

THE HUSTLE Selected for the 1998 Best in American Sportswriting

But it is the ticket guys who own the Super Bowl. Who own the Masters. Who owned the Final Four last weekend in Indianapolis, when seat-starved Kentucky fans came north and bought their tickets off street corners; late last Thursday morning, the mingling of ticket-rich coaches and hungry ticket guys turned a downtown hotel atrium into a freewheeling marketplace. It is the ticket guys who stand astride the outsized, overpriced, see-and-be-seen world of spectator sports. It is the ticket guys who have changed the way America gets through the turnstiles.

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A Force Unleashed

The ride ended here, in a musty room adjacent to the second-floor boxing gym over the police station on Main Street. There were high ceilings and dark walls, dust gathered along the baseboards and prehistoric cobwebs stretched across the corners. A small, sand-filled balloon no bigger than a ping pong ball hung on a string from the exposed plumbing; fighters would swing it like a pendulum and dodge it with head movement to improve defensive skills. It was a primitive space, as if created for a 1930s boxing movie, which, in a sense, it was. Mike Tyson, the 21-year-old heavyweight champion of the world, sat naked on a metal folding chair, fuming, desperate and angry, choking back tears. There were three of us in the room: Tyson, trainer Kevin Rooney and me. “Everything in my life was too good to be true, wasn’t it?” said Tyson. You would recognize the voice, the same one that comically menaced Zach Galifianakis in the first Hangover movie, only with fewer miles on it. You can hear it. “It was just too good,” he said. “Now my life is so screwed up.”

Remembering Chic Anderson’s Legendary Call of Secretariat’s Record Run at 1973 Belmont Stakes Winner of the 2018 Eclipse Award

“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.” This is the killer line, delivered with rising enthusiasm. Anderson took time to separate He from is, rather than smushing them into a conjunction. He punched the middle syllable of tre-MEN-dous and the last syllable of ma-CHINE. This was a bold line.

The Forgotten Hero: Mike Reily's legacy at Williams College Selected for the 2012 Best in American Sportswriting

On the last day of his short life Mike Reily awoke in a hospital bed at Touro Infirmary in his native New Orleans, barely a mile from the house in which he was raised. It was Saturday, July 25, 1964, and the temperature outside would climb to a sticky 91°. A single intravenous fluid line was connected to Reily's body, which had been a sinewy 6'3" and 215 pounds before being withered by Hodgkin's disease and by the primitive treatments that couldn't slow its progress. Mike's mother, Lee, had been in the spartan room with him almost every minute of the four days since he had been brought in to die.

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SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR: DREW BREES

It is a word that in modern times can polarize—or politicize—an audience, ingratiating some listeners and repelling others. (Not this audience, the adult portion of which gasps in approval.) It's a word that the children have been taught but can't yet fully understand. For Brees the word is more than religion and spirituality, although it has been both of those, increasingly, through the years. Faith is more than Brees's empowering word. It is the central force in his life, slicing across family, football and community, carrying him to the top of his profession and to an iconic status in a still-wounded city that he has helped lift from despair.

Access in Sports Journalism (Part 4): Sports journalism *without* access?

This is Part 4 in a series about access in sports journalism. Most of this series is being taken from the previously unpublished parts of my 2014 dissertation. Rather than let it sit on a library shelf in Syracuse, I’m sharing parts of it here. Parts 1, 2 and 3 are here:

One note: The journalists I interviewed for my dissertation were promised confidentiality in exchange for their participation. To make the manuscript readable, pseudonyms were used for each journalist.

Another lifetime ago, when I was a reporter in Binghamton, N.Y., there were a handful of times when I did not travel to cover a Binghamton University men’s basketball game. Sometimes, this was for financial reasons. Sometimes, I needed to be home to cover something local or be in the office.

There’s one time that sticks in my head - a BU-UMBC game in 2009. Because of bad weather, I didn’t make the drive to Maryland. Instead, I sat in my attic office in my house on Binghamton’s South side and watched the livestream of the game. I took notes like I would have at the game. After the final buzzer, I spoke with the coach and players over the phone, and wrote a traditional game story for the next day’s paper.

It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.

There was no reason to cover the game as if I were there, or at least put up the facade that I was there. I wasn’t bringing anything unique or useful to my readers by doing so. There were any number of stories I could have written off that game that didn’t replicate me being there. I could have used my expertise and ability in any number of ways, rather than pretend that I was there.

Why did I do it? Because it was the way I always covered games. At the time, I felt like the only way I could cover games was to have access to the game and to my sources.

In response to the growing lack of access to sources described last week, news organizations with a digital focus are looking at new ways to cover games—sports without access is what Kenny, the sports editor, calls it. This includes finding new ways to cover a game that doesn’t rely on the traditional notion of access, of being at a game or being able to interview the coach or players. The growth of digital and social media has allowed national sports networks, pro teams and colleges to give fans access to content that, in the pre-digital age, was not available. Live coverage of the game, in-depth statistics, and streaming audio and video of post-game press conferences are available to fans online.

The availability of content from teams themselves means fans are less reliant upon newspapers, and teams have less incentive to provide local newspapers with exclusive access. Teams and schools no longer need journalists to provide the players and coaches access to the fans, but reporters’ norms and values still require access to the players and coaches to do their jobs. Coverage without access includes using statistics and analytics to tell the game story, or by covering the TV broadcast itself.

“If you think of it as useful to the reader, then you’re open to doing all of that stuff,” Kenny said. But he admitted that his efforts to do this have been hampered because reporters feel they have to cover games in the traditional sense.

Jan had similar roadblocks at his paper. “I need to go to these games,” he said reporters tell him. “Why do you need to go to these games? Because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

The idea of sports coverage without access suggests a potential new role and new value for sports journalists. With the basic game information available in so many places online, sports journalism's primary value to readers may not be in reporting facts that are available elsewhere. The data suggest two potentially distinct kinds of sports journalism — aggregation and reporting, which are the types of news work Anderson discovered in his newsroom ethnography. Aggregation is the collection of information that's already published and sharing links to that information — an example of this would be the Winter Olympic schedule that Jan's paper published daily and was the most clicked-on story.

Reporting is traditional news work. The data suggest that with teams publishing so much online, sports journalists could take new approaches to their coverage — be it more analytical, investigative, or fan-centered -- rather than simply reporting information that could be conveniently aggregated.

Access in sports journalism, part 2: What it looks like

This is Part 2 in a series about access in sports journalism. Most of this series is being taken from the previously unpublished parts of my 2014 dissertation. Rather than let it sit on a library shelf in Syracuse, I’m sharing parts of it here. You can read part 1 here.

One note: The journalists I interviewed for my dissertation were promised confidentiality in exchange for their participation. To make the manuscript readable, pseudonyms were used for each journalist.

In order to understand access in sports journalism, it’s important to see when and how the interactions between reporters and sources take place. Since sports journalism remains centered around game coverage (although it’s working hypothesis of mine and Dr. Michael Mirer that this is changing), most of issues of access and interactions happen around games.

After games, reporters always interview the head coaches of the two teams, and always players for the team they are covering. The players they pick to interview tend to be the stars of that particular game and the stars of the team (and, often times, those are the same). At the pro level, locker rooms tend to be open (per league rules) and reporters are able to pick players who are in the room to interview.

At the college level, reporters often request the players they want to interview from the school’s sports information staff—although sometimes, the SID picks players to bring to an interview room. “After games, usually, they’ll bring out 15 or so guys and they let us circle a list (of) ‘Oh who do you recommend?’ But it means nothing; they’re gonna bring out who they want anyway,” Audrey said of the college football team she covers. Linda, a veteran columnist, recalled a recent game in which she interviewed a role player for the winning team who had a surprisingly strong game. She did not specifically request to speak to the player, but he was brought to the interview room. “Had they not brought (him) in, I’m sure I would have been able to go get him (in the locker room),” Linda said.

At the high school level, reporters interview the coach and players outside of the locker room or on the field. These interviews are much more informal than the heavily structured, press-conference-style interviews that are prevalent at the college and high school level. Anthony, the reporter/editor at a small paper, recalled a recent high-school hockey game he covered and said that he interviewed both teams' coaches as well as several players from the winning team — with an emphasis on the player who scored the game-winning goal. “I like to do multiple players from the winning team—like a star player or a captain or somebody’s gonna give me something,” he said. “Then I talk to the coach, obviously, of the winning team, cause he’ll be able to provide me with more information.”

Source relationships are generally friendly and congenial. The interviews suggest that confrontational interviews with sources are rare. Anthony, a reporter/editor at a small paper, said that a high-school athletic director he covered once told him after a controversial story that “I’ll never work with you again,” but that “he’s come around since,” suggesting an unspoken cooperative arrangement between sources and journalists. Malcolm, who covers pro soccer in his city, said of an Olympian whom he has covered since high school, “I’ve always joked to people and said I’ll always have a job here as long as (this player is) still playing.”

Simon said he has gotten into high-profile arguments with coaches and team officials, but that they have not affected the nature of the source-journalist relationship. Recalling one argument with a coach, he went to the press conference the next day, and when the coach saw him, the coach said “‘Are we still friendly?’ (Simon) said, ‘We’re always friendly. Sometimes we just happen to disagree. ... We were joking about it the next day.’”

Next: How access is changing.

IACS 2019 Review (in Twitter form)

This past weekend, the 12th Summit on Communication and Sport, sponosred by the International Association of Communication and Sport, took place in Boise, Idaho. 

This is a very special conference to me. I've met many of my best friends in academia at this conference throughout the years. Unfortunatley, I wasn't able to make it there this year. But here is a look back at the weekend, in Twitter form:

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Who will last longer: ESPN+ or The Athletic?

From Awful Announcing today, an interesting roundtable discussion about which sports subscription service has the best chance of long-term success. The consensus among the writers was that ESPN+ has the best bet.

It's an interesting question to ponder, so a few thoughts:

  • Comparing ESPN+, B/RLive, DAZN Live and The Athletic feels a little bit like apples and desk chairs. The Athletic is written sports journalism, the other three are video based. However, subscriptions are subscriptions, and I don't think most people differentiate them in their minds. You look at the cost, you look at what's provided, and make the decision based on what kind of value you get.

  • It's the academic in me, but the article doesn't provide a key thing here — what do we mean by "long-term success"? Are we talking which is the last one in business? Which gets the most subscribers? Which brings in the most money? Which one drives the conversation in sports media? Which has bigger impact with readers? It may seem pedantic, but we can't pick which company is going to be the long-term success unless we know what that means.

Like the writers at Awful Announcing, I lean toward ESPN+ just because it has all the structural advantages. It certainly has the most potential of any of the services of being paradigm shifting. If we still accept the premise that live sports is keeping people subscribed to cable, anything that potentially changes that could have huge implications on the cable industry. But it's been slower growth than I had expected it to be, which leads me to believe that while it may last, it may not have a lasting impact.

On the other hand, The Athletic has surprised me. I was a loud doubter of the site for a long time, and those doubts were in large part my reaction to its bravado and its insanely rapid expansion a few years ago. But the site has settled into its place in the online sports journalism landscape, and while it hasn't shattered daily sports journalism like it promised, the site's writers are producing consistently strong work. To me, it's still the most interesting thing happening in sports media.

On the question at hand, I think I agree most with Matt Clapp

People will pay for good content. The Athletic has big names for every sport in seemingly every city/region now, and in-depth content. They continue to only add here, not subtract.

And building off that point, we already know what we’re getting with The Athletic. There’s certainty that it’s a good service immediately, and there’s no reason to expect that to change too much over the next year and beyond. The other subscription services have promising trends and additions (like B/R Live with The Dan Patrick Show), but just as many question marks, and people want certainty before they commit monthly/annually to a product.