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 Most of this series is being taken from the previously unpublished parts of my 2014 dissertation.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.

Apple News+ revealed, adds WSJ

A long-awaited announcement from Apple today, the creating of Apple News+:

There will be over 300 magazines, such as The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Men’s Health, and Vogue, and Apple News Plus will be “the only place” where you’ll be able to get all of them at once.

The Wall Street Journal will be the big new name that Apple adds to Apple News Plus from the newspaper business. An internal memo from Dow Jones, obtained by The Verge, notes that the WSJ will provide only “a specially curated collection of general interest news from The Wall Street Journal” to Apple News Plus subscribers. That leaves out the business reporting and analysis that’s at the core of the full subscription for the financial daily.

This is the closest thing we've seen so far to a "Netflix for News."

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.