More than anything else, digital media’s effect on sports journalism has been as an accelerant.
Digital media have accelerated sports journalism the same way they have news-side journalism (Schmitz Weiss & Higgins Joyce, 2009). Reporters are doing more work than before, and they are being required to work faster. Digital media have made it possible for sports journalists to publish news updates around the clock, and are changing the basic model for reporting news.
In the print era, that model could be described as “gather-sort-report.” Publishing a story came at the end of the cycle. The day’s work built to a story that was reported. Interviews I’ve conducted suggest that in the digital media age, that model is changing to “gather- report-sort.” Publication is now a part of the process, not the result of it. The presence of digital journalism outlets like ESPN.com and Yahoo! Sports has increased this pressure exponentially, primarily (it appears) among reporters covering professional and major college sports.
The competition from digital outlets is incredibly strong, and many of the reporters I’ve interviewed said they struggled to keep up with the national digital reporters. Several reporters indicated that, as a result of digital and social media, their routine in breaking news was “tweet-blog-story” —where news is first posted to their own Twitter feeds, then posted to the newspaper’s website (either on a blog or on the website itself, something that varies from newspaper to newspaper) and then a story is written that runs both in print and online.
This new routine has brought sports journalism, at least in part, out of its night-shift cocoon and has integrated sports journalists into the rest of the newsroom. Their daily work, the things they are actually expected to do, is beginning to revolve more around the stream than the story. The story is something they are expected to do, but it is now only one thing they are expected to do. It is no longer the focal point of their day.
This evolution from story to stream marks a drastic change from the work of sports journalists that Lowes, Boyle and others have found in their research, and a drastic change from the work patterns described by Vecsey, Walsh, Wilstien and others in their popular accounts of how they do their job as sports journalists. It also marks a change in how Fishman, Gans, Tuchman and others described the work of newspaper journalists. The interview I’ve conducted paint the picture of journalists who are constantly working, constantly reporting and publishing information. “On deadline” used to refer to the hour after the game ended and before a reporter’s story was due to the copy desk. Now, reporters are always on deadline.
If, as an example, a player is missing a game due to injury, that used to become part of a reporter’s game story or notebook. Now, it is tweeted out immediately, and a brief story is posted online before the game even starts. This is the journalism-as-process model in action, in which sports journalism is centered on the ongoing exchange of information throughout the day rather than the story that will appear in the next morning’s paper. The extent to which these changes affect reporters or editors appears to be influenced by the organization they work for.
The interviews also suggest that sports journalists are simply doing more in this digital age than they were previously. Reporters are producing different kinds of content — stories, blog posts, tweets, videos, podcasts, photos — and editors are editing copy, designing print pages, posting stories online, monitoring and updating social media. Reporters are also asked to cover more beats. Of the 12 full-time reporters interviewed, 10 of them considered themselves beat reporters (two were full-time columnists). Of the 10 beat reporters, five of them officially had more than one beat. Three of the 12 full-time editors also covered beats as reporters, and one person was the editor and lone full-time reporter for his department. These workloads are due to the constriction of sports departments, brought about by the economic collapse of the newspaper industry in the first decade of the 2000s.
These factors — more work to do and smaller departments with which to do them — lead to and exacerbate the time crunch sports journalists feel they are facing. They feel they’re producing more content faster, but they wonder if the quality of that content is better, or even comparable, to what was produced in the pre-digital age. They’re also doing so in an environment in which they have less access to the official sources (coaches, players, team officials), all of whom are able to take to digital and social media and act as their own publishers. The shrinking access is considered a huge problem for sports journalists, reflecting the importance of official sources for sports journalism that previous research found, as well as the historically symbiotic relationship between the media and sports.
(This is the first in a series of blog posts about sports journalism that comes from my 2014 dissertation, “Rooting for the Story.” Since it’s been a few years, and what’s been peer-reviewed and published from this is already out there, I’d rather post some of my findings here rather than let them linger in some library forever.)