Game Over

As sports fans go online for instant news, traditional newspaper sports stories are being shoved offside

Tyler Harper
February 9, 2010 | Comments (0) - Report an Error
Players on Team Canada’s 1985 world junior hockey team celebrate after scoring a goal
credit: HOCKEYCANADA.ca

Twenty-five years ago, Steve Milton crossed the Atlantic to cover the world junior hockey championship in Helsinki, Finland. The tournament wasn’t yet the media circus it is today—Canada hadn’t won gold since 1982—and he was the lone Canadian reporter there. The federal government’s Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, now known as Hockey Canada, subsidized Milton’s trip because media interest was so low. Suddenly, he found himself a stringer writing about a winning team: Wendel Clark scored a game-tying goal against Czechoslovakia that won Canada the championship.

Milton wrote the game story, then returned to his hotel to find a glut of messages from newspapers back home, begging him for a story readers had no other way of getting. As he recalls fondly, "There were all kinds of messages on my phone to this effect: ’Remember how you called us and wanted to sell us a story, and we said no? Well, now we want the story.’ And my answer was almost always the same: ’Remember how it was $25? Now it’s $200 or $300.’ And I made enough to put a down payment on my cottage. I wouldn’t have my cottage without Wendel’s goal."

Game stories such as Milton’s piece—those play-by-play chronicles of sporting events—are fast becoming obsolete. With three 24-hour Canadian sports television channels in Canada and extensive coverage available online, there’s little reason to read such news when, in all likelihood, you know the result before the reporter has finished typing. Still, there’s a market for these stories because people like to read about sports. While the game story used to be a definitive read, now blogs, Twitter and league websites such as MLB.com, give readers the story faster, and in customizable detail. It’s not that people don’t read about games anymore; they just don’t have to.

Reporters often follow a basic procedure when writing sports stories for newspapers or wire services: watch the game, write about it as it happens, ship the copy off to the newspaper or wire service within five to 10 minutes of the game being over, run to the locker room for quotes, then return to the press box to rewrite the first story with the new comments. The process is designed to get results to the public as quickly as the writer can type and help sports sections make their deadlines.

Those deadlines still exist, but the necessity of sending reporters to games is diminishing. Social media sites like Twitter feed live information from journalists (some of whom tweet from the game), bloggers and even readers to an ever-more-impatient audience. Alfred Hermida, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s journalism school, calls this ambient journalism—fragments put together by many different people that, when looked at as a whole, tell a story. Just as occurred during last year’s election protests in Iran, when most news coming out of the country was from Twitter users, pieces of instant information add up to a whole. The analysis may not be there, but the nut of the story is.

Hermida argues today’s abundance of media options means journalists have to change the game-story template. "In a sense, you know that story already. So if you’re going to do that kind of next-day story, there has to be something extra that you bring to the discussion."

That extra something—what the fan can’t find out by watching a game or reading a box score—is exactly what Pierre LeBrun has made a career of digging up. LeBrun, a Toronto-based hockey reporter for ESPN’s webpage and on-air contributor for CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada segment "The Hotstove," rarely covers games. Instead, he taps into the growing pool of readers who are obsessed with contract negotiations, injuries and personal stories. He may be writing blog posts for a website, but his conversational, informed analysis makes the reporting stand out.

LeBrun started out in hockey journalism as a quote runner for The Canadian Press, getting reactions from the losing team after a Maple Leafs or Raptors game. Fifteen years later, he concedes that job is obsolete. "You have to find new ways to make yourself useful," says LeBrun. "I know when I’m at games, why am I here, what’s the extra value of me being here. I try to find a different angle, something that someone wouldn’t have thought of."

It isn’t just reporters who may need a new angle; sports sections might need one too. Hermida suggests sports pages stop trying to cover everything and either focus on one thing that they can do better than anyone else, or on what their readers have the highest demand for. If, for example, the Calgary Sun concentrates its attention on the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, readers will soon think of the paper as the definitive place to go to find out about the team.

Despite the dwindling importance of game stories, for the time being there’s still a place for them. Papers need local coverage to maintain relevance with their readers (who are probably interested in more than one sport or team). And while the print industry may be veering toward e-readers and paywalled websites as a solution to the economic slide, not every reader gets his news from Twitter.

Jason Kay, editor-in-chief of The Hockey News, agrees the market for game stories has shrunk, and observes that reporters are using their access to players to write more feature-like stories that give readers something beyond the score. However, he also believes "the game is still the thing. People want to read about the players who play the game, how they played the game and why they’re good or bad at it. It’s still our bread and butter. I don’t see that changing any time."

Maybe not. But by having reporters focus on coverage beyond game stories, Milton, now a Hamilton Spectator columnist, says newspapers can give readers something unique without wasting journalists’ talent. "You can entertain them, you can make them laugh, you can give deep analysis, you can slam, you can describe, you can just make people weep with your language if you’re very, very good. I mean some people are read just for the beauty of their language."

Tyler Harper is a Canadian Press sports reporter and editor in Toronto.

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