Industry Insight: Local Sports Coverage Needs to Adapt to the Modern Newsroom

By: Matt DeRienzo
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Make the Shot

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

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.

 

Published: February 19, 2016

10 thoughts on “Industry Insight: Local Sports Coverage Needs to Adapt to the Modern Newsroom

  • February 19, 2016 at 7:00 am
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    This is interesting.

    Once, responding to data that showed local sports was a small audience, I said, “Yes, but I would suggest that the total sports audience subscribes at much higher rate than other audiences. What does the data suggest?” The presenters scrambled, gave a non-committal answer, and the Sports budget was not cut.

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    • February 19, 2016 at 8:27 am
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      And I think that might be right (“might” because I’ve never seen anyone put real numbers to that through research) re: those interested in sports being loyal print subscribers. But if they’re no longer sustaining print (obviously), time to rethink. Although digital subscription/paywall subscribers could be a huge factor. The latter would be easy enough to track, though. Are paid digital subscribers clicking on sports articles and what type?

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  • February 19, 2016 at 7:13 am
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    There is insight in Matt’s piece about what should done as we progress into the future.

    But let’s not forget the value of refrigerator news, when that game article is posted to a family’s frig or even framed in someone’s den/family room.

    It is a constant reminder for longtime and even new residents to the community that the local paper was there and will continue to cover sports at level.

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  • February 19, 2016 at 7:21 am
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    While this is a cogent and thoughtful piece and much of what is said is factually accurate – there are a few things misplaced in this analysis.
    Game stories are still important – as is the print edition of your publication. Abandoning print means abandoning portions of your audience who otherwise would not see or read your coverage – for a variety of reasons.
    Game stories are also important for the same reason people watch re-runs of their favorite television show – it isn’t necessarily for the “fresh” coverage – it is to relive the event once again.
    As for the photographs, offering a wide variety of photographs online are essential in today’s day and age, but never forget how much easier it is to cut out the photograph from the paper and plaster it on your refrigerator. Sometimes that’s just easier – and the tactile experience cannot be forgotten.
    Bottom line, you’re right on a number of issues – but seemingly have forgotten that newspapers are still vital on many fronts and will continue to be for a long time to come. I may be in the minority in this thought, but facts will prove me right.
    Until computers are indistinguishable from the printed word there will be a use for newsprint and a desire for it.
    I can lose my newspaper on the subway and lose just $.50. I lose my computer or phone and it’s much worse.
    Just a thought.

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    • February 19, 2016 at 1:49 pm
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      The d3 baseball example is a really bad choice. We have an entire segment of digital and e-edition subscribers who are the parents of d3 athletes from outside our market.
      I think there some is truth and opportunity here but without actual numbers it’s hard to say for certain where those may be.
      The counter is that the audience is so busy now that the attendance is declining but readership rising for the fans/parents/grandparents who can’t be everywhere anymore. It also carries that metros are already making these cuts which is opening the door to mid-size pubs for new readers outside of the old geographic market, who can no longer count on their prep games being covered regularly and seek out coverage online through reposting of links and social media.

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    • February 21, 2016 at 6:50 pm
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      What I want to know is how are these ideas going to translate to revenue? Because let’s face it, that’s all a publisher cares about. To them, a photo, no matter how good or bad, is something used so the headlines don’t bump. And even then, they don’t care about style. Just $$$

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  • February 19, 2016 at 2:37 pm
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    One thought on this: A single prep game may not garner huge eyeball numbers, but it does establish a newspaper/website as the place to go for that information. For the dozens of box scores and highlights from other games that are played. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have 54,000 people following our paper’s prep sports account on Twitter (757teamz.com). That’s a lot of people being fed scores, highlights, photos, videos, story links. Now, we haven’t been able to figure out how to turn all that interest into dollars — a frustrating situation for us — but it does demonstrate the power of being seen as the primary source for prep sports (or college, depending on your market).

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    • February 19, 2016 at 11:03 pm
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      Wow, that’s awesome reach and engagement. I chose to focus on situations where I think sports departments haven’t adjusted, but could have written a different column saying the same thing by focusing on those who are innovating and connecting with that audience. Monetizing an engaged, passionate audience should be a layup and obviously lots of change needs to happen on the advertising and subscription side of the business as well.

      Reply
  • February 19, 2016 at 11:11 pm
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    WOW! Turns out I’ve been taking the best approach to sports on my website out of pure ignorance and necessity without realizing it. Although I’ve made the same point about those places that run all these photos of kids and people doing lame stuff at Rotary clubs instead of interesting, informative, analytical and other stories that actually interest people.

    Anyway: http://www.escondidograpevine.com for more….We also print a monthly 16-page newspaper at Escondido, San Marcos and Valley Center, California.

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  • February 21, 2016 at 3:32 pm
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    I’m not a big sports fan myself, but I know how important local sports news is to my readership. This kind of thinking is a prime example of the difference between publishers who try to make a profit so they can keep their papers going because they know what they can give their communities, and media corporations that keep newspapers going primarily so they can extract profit from the community.

    Motivations matter, but capital doesn’t care.

    Reply

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