The importance of high school sports coverage is local newspaper gospel. For decades, circulation directors and publishers have talked about how much parents and grandparents want to see those names in the paper, and how communities rally around the local football team.
We never knew exactly how much the sports department contributed to overall readership, but if canceling the bridge column or Funky Winkerbean generates 100 angry phone calls, it was assumed that cutting back on local sports would be nuclear war.
Three things are changing that: the decline of print, the need for extreme newsroom expense cuts across the industry, and access to detailed, story-by-story online readership metrics.
Maybe the cachet of youth sports for newspapers was rooted in the medium of print. Just as the photo reprint business has declined with the popularity of photo albums that reside on phones and Facebook, maybe clipping out the box score of your daughter’s basketball game is a thing of the past.
But anecdotally, anyway, it seems like sports has been less severely impacted by staff cuts than other newsroom departments. That’s going to change in 2016, if it hasn’t already, because there’s not much else left to cut.
Which brings us to number three. If publishers are cutting sports reporters at a lesser rate than news, why? Is it a sacred cow based on that old conventional wisdom? Are we looking at easily available metrics on what kind of stories generate how much audience, the staff time that goes into those stories, and how that’s being monetized?
What would local newspaper sports coverage look like on its very own profit and loss statement?
In this light, the idea of having a reporter spend four hours covering a high school lacrosse game that is of potential interest to about 200 people max seems ludicrous.
Game stories, at all, seem impossibly inefficient, especially considering the biggest fans are at the game anyway, or following along with some other parent’s livestream or in-game tweets.
And even at peak staffing, what local sports department whose coverage area included 10 local high schools, with both boys’ and girls’ teams for three or four major sports in a season, was ever able to provide anything but cherry picking game coverage anyway?
The same issues apply to coverage of college sports, with the exception of bigtime Division 1 football and basketball programs that have regional, statewide or even national audiences. In fact, there’s probably less local interest in a Division 3 college baseball team than the local high school football team, because parents and grandparents aren’t as likely to live in the market.
Consider how important photography is to game coverage, and how big a hit photography staffing has taken at newspapers. And factor in competition from small online sites run by fans or hobbyists, schools producing their own media around sports coverage, and fans following the action on social media.
None of this means local sports is any less popular in your community, however, which still seems to whisper, if not shout, “opportunity.” There are still those local auto dealers who want to sponsor high school sports coverage.
The answer isn’t as simple as “more feature stories.” Sure, there are exceptions, but really, how interesting are 16-year-old high school athletes who’ve barely had life experiences or athletic careers to talk about?
“More enterprise” reporting in high school sports coverage is great, and should be exhausted, but after you do the concussion series, the metal bat issue and artificial turf, it can feel like a stretch.
In adjusting to this shift in local sports audience habits, and a significant present and/or future reduction in resources, we should focus on adding value and context to the ecosystem of information that has emerged without us.
The mantra for modern coverage of local sports should be “technology, curation and analysis.” There are more and more platforms being launched to facilitate the crowdsourcing of game scores, photos and commentary. There is much to be gained in acting as the facilitator of a community of readers who are passionate about a team or league and surfacing the best of their contributions and conversations. And there’s an unlimited appetite for team power rankings, playoff previews, league leaders and plays of the week.
In some respects, sports has been disrupted from an audience and business perspective more than any other aspect of local news, and that’s why you see, in pockets, some of the industry’s most innovative thinking. The antiquity elsewhere is becoming harder to ignore.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.