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 Most of this series is being taken from the previously unpublished parts of my 2014 dissertation.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