Interviews with sports journalists paint the picture of a profession at a crossroads.
Digital and social media and the journalism-as-process model are becoming more prevalent in the profession. Sports journalism is online now, starting on Twitter and ending with a story on a news organization’s website. Print, if not incidental, is just one part of the job now, rather than the focus. Sports journalists’ work routines appear to reflect this.
However, their norms and values remain rooted in print. Their loyalty to the idea of “the story” and their frustration at having to feed “the stream” of online information, is indicative of this split.
That split gets at the heart of the future of sports journalism, and it raises a number of issues. The stream could potentially best serve the readers by presenting them with real-time information — or it could be a disservice because it assumes that readers are as connected to the Internet as journalists, or that the information may not be properly fact-checked. Journalists could live in the stream and provide real-time news updates, but if that information already exists in the stream from other sources, it’s possible journalists could be more valuable focusing on stories, rather than being one more voice in the stream. Everyone knows who won the game, they don’t need sports journalists to tell them that.
Perhaps the future of sports journalism lies in differentiating between information that can be aggregated from other sources (scores, stats, etc.) and news that can be reported by the paper’s staffers. The real value in sports journalists could be in their ability to contextualize and analyze results, either through traditional reporting (interviewing sources) or new methods (statistical analysis). The job of a journalist could evolve from being an observer and reporter into more of an interpreter and analyzer (the Nate Silver model for The New York Times and 538.com).
It is, of course, far too early to tell where sports journalism will end up, what the new norms, values and routines will be in the future. However, the data do suggest some possibilities about the future of sports journalism.
It’s unlikely print will stage a complete renaissance. The trends over the past two decades clearly show that print is in decline, and digital is on the rise. It’s hard to imagine a future, say, 30 years from now, when newspapers have any significant print presence. That would simply go against all the trends in circulation.
The work routines of sports journalists are already beginning to reflect this. In time, the norms and values should begin to reflect this as well. This includes moving away from the idea that a newspaper is the one and only source of news and information in a community but is instead part of a larger network that includes other media outlets as well as fans using social media. The assertion from ae mid-sized paper’s sports editor, to his reporters that tweeting a game’s final score is the most important thing they’ll do tonight, reflects this old value. The final score of a game is important, but fans can get that from the school or team itself. Sports journalists should focus on what one editor called “unique local content,” whether this is analysis, feature stories or in-depth coverage of local sports.
Also, the reliance on access to official sources of information is a norm that could evolve in the digital age. If fans can get press releases emailed to them from their favorite teams and follow their favorite players on Twitter and Instagram, then access to those sources is no longer “unique local content.” The practices of Bleacher Report and Deadspin are potentially instructive here. They do not rely on access. In fact, they thrive by producing content that doesn’t rely at all on having to interview sources or even be at games. They are analyzing games statistically or producing screen captures and GIFs of memorable plays in real time. In the short term, these practices may be instructive to sports journalists. Finding new ways to tell the story of a game or to cover an athlete — using digital sports journalism as a template — are potentially more worthwhile uses of sports journalists' time and energy in the digital age than writing a sidebar or a notebook.
Perhaps the future of sports journalism lies more in mobile technology, with smartphones that continue to become an important way readers get news. Perhaps, looking forward, sports journalism will live on mobile devices. There could be different levels of mobile subscriptions – a fan watching a game on TV has different information needs than someone who is at the game, and both have different needs than somebody who’s not able to watch at all. News organizations could have context-specific mobile notifications. Fans not watching the game get score updates, fans who are watching the game could get more news-driven updates, or invitations to join in fan chats on Twitter or online. Perhaps this future also includes the use of geolocation news, in which mobile phone users are able to receive relevant news and information updates based on their physical location, as detected by their smartphone. This could be accomplished through the news organizations themselves or a third-party. Again, the specific technology or use is less important long-term than the value of thinking outside of the traditional norms and values of newspaper sports journalism.
Regardless of how it happens, the numbers indicate that the trend in digital news is mobile. More than half of Americans own either a smartphone or a tablet, and two-thirds of those users get news on their mobile device (Pew, 2012). To remain relevant in this digital age, newspaper sports journalism as a profession will have to find ways to take advantage of mobile journalism beyond simple breaking news alerts.
Although this study has focused on sports journalism, its implications can help researchers understand and study news journalism, as well. Digital and social media have brought sports journalism out of the night shift and more into the daytime. This means that the practices of sports journalists and news journalists are becoming more intertwined. Also, as stated previously, the work sports journalists do is not very different than the work news reporters do. Sports journalists are covering events, cultivating sources, and using social media to interact with readers and keep up with the news the same way that their colleagues on the news desk are. The specifics of their jobs may be different, but the underlying challenges to institutionalized journalism appear to be the same whether looking at the sports department or the news department.