It was March 11 when Andy Larsen realized his job at the Salt Lake Tribune was about to change dramatically.
Larsen was at ground zero of COVID-19’s impact on professional sports. As a beat reporter covering the Utah Jazz, Larsen was in the arena during the team’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder when the game was quickly canceled before tipoff after center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus.
Larsen and a handful of other Jazz and Thunder beat reporters from other publications were isolated on the court until the early hours of the next morning, then had to remain in self-quarantine for 14 days. Larsen ultimately tested negative, but he knew that night his role as a journalists was suddenly going to change, and there’s no telling when it will ever return to normal.
“I was on CNN with Don Lemon the night of Oklahoma City. I will never be on CNN ever again. That’s just the reality of it,” Larsen said.
Larsen and hundreds of other sports journalists across the country have suddenly been forced to adapt quickly thanks to an indefinite pause in sports forced by the spread of the coronavirus. Those that haven’t been furloughed have been forced into news coverage, where innovative organizations have quickly come to realize the value in throwing their sports team onto coverage of the fast-moving pandemic.
The Tribune has two full-time Jazz beat writers, so with games paused, Larsen drew on his background as a math major in college and successfully pivoted to become a data reporter. He focuses his energy these days on filing three coronavirus data columns a week, and despite such a drastic and immediate shift in topics, Larsen isn’t lacking for story ideas.
“There a whole bunch of data on this thing,” Larsen said. “You can attack it from the epidemiological point of view or look at all the fancy graphs on whether or not you’re flattening the curve…I’ve basically got a whole list of ideas I check in on every day or so.”
In one column, Larsen examined how the R number—basically the number of people someone with coronavirus is likely to infect—was changing in both Utah and across the country, and how it impacts the decision to open up parts of society again. Thanks to the overwhelming interest of stir-crazy people looking for information about getting back to normal, the column was extremely popular, something that has Larsen considering a dual writing role whenever NBA games return to some version of normal.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that sports journalists have been able to quickly adapt to the changing circumstances created by the coronavirus. The diversity of a typical beat writer’s portfolio includes hard deadline game stories, breaking news transactions, contemplative analysis and full-fledged feature writing. Add to that hosting the occasional podcast and some hardcore data analysis and you’re talking about a wide array of skills that come in handy covering a virus most on Earth have never ever seen or dealt with.
Larsen is far from alone.
At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work, several sports reporters have been repositioned on various news desks. Longtime columnist Frank Fitzpatrick has been using his focus on history to uncover relevant stories about contagions from the city’s past. Columnist Mike Sielski and high school sports reporter Phil Anastasia have filed uplifting coronavirus stories in the UpSide, the Inquirer’s “good news” section. Sports editor Gary Miles has the grim task overseeing the mounting number of obituaries resulting from the deadly pandemic.
At the Washington Post, sports features writer Kent Babb has churned out several engaging features, including a former Texas nurse who left his family in Texas to volunteer in New York City, which was overwhelmed by the coronavirus. New York Times sports editor Ben Hoffman now works on At Home, a section aiming to help readers adapt to the new confines of their sheltered lives. Across the Hudson River at NJ.com, 11 sports reporters came together to create a coronavirus resource desk that creates stories, listings and resource guides on everything from where to get tested for COVID-19 to how to get beer and wine delivered in New Jersey.
“It’s a reminder that sportswriters aren’t lesser journalists. They’re specialists,” King Kaufman, the senior audio producer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote on Twitter. “Any sportswriter could trade jobs with a general assignment news reporter. The reverse isn’t true.”
While many sports journalists have been turned into full-time coronavirus reporters, countless others are something in-between—still covering their coronavirus-impacted beats while offering news stories on a variety of local developments.
Amie Just still covers the New Orleans Saints for the Advocate, but she’s also broadened her beat to report on just about every sport in the city and how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19. That means digital-only pieces on a smorgasbord of topics, everything from how coronavirus is impacting the largest 10K race in Louisiana to when and how Saints games will be played this season.
“Right now I’m drawing a lot from my experience at my first job (at the Missoulian in Montana) because I had to be creative not just with my story ideas, but all of the different story angles to one idea or concept,” Just said.
She also creates six daily visualizations of coronavirus statistics for NOLA.com’s popular numbers page, which among other things features the death toll in Louisiana and the number of patients on ventilators. Just’s favorite feature is a bar chart race she created with Google Flourish that shows the growth of COVID-19 cases in the city’s top 15 parishes.
“We’ve seen a lot of success with this. People come to it every day, and I think it goes to show that not everybody learns by reading,” Just said. “We need to be cognizant of how people consume information. Because sometimes, pictures are better than words.”
Most sports reporters are used to working remotely, so that part isn’t new to Just. But she typically works out of coffee shops and restaurants (and the occasional wine garden), and admitted finding it difficult to work from home day in and day out, despite the company of her cactus, Herman.
“I like working around town, and getting out and seeing people and just being a part of community. So that’s been the biggest change for me,” Just said. “I do feel like my life has been less disrupted than a lot of people because my job is mostly remote, at least in the offseason.”
But she added, “Now, ask me the same question if football gets canceled, and then we may have a different conversation.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.