By: Greg Bowers
It was 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday. I was talking to my wife on the telephone and trying to figure out how the next morning’s sports section at my paper should look. By all accounts, it had been a big sports day.
Barry Bonds had hit home run No. 714, tying him with Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time list. Even though Major League Baseball had chosen not to commemorate the achievement, it was a big story — possibly made even bigger because of the steroid allegations swirling around Bonds. Love him or hate him, people paid attention when he came to the plate. And, truthfully, it was hard not to, with sports television networks breaking into scheduled coverage for every Bonds at bat.
If that wasn’t enough, there was the heart-breaking story of the Preakness. Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner, came up lame in the opening dash of the second race of the Triple Crown. Not only, did the racing industry take a loss instead of what could’ve been the bonanza of the first Triple Crown winner in years, there was the drama that took place right in front of the grandstand in Baltimore.
“A lot going on today,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
“You know?” I said.
“Yeah, Bonds hit No. 714 and Barbaro broke down in the Preakness. It was terrible,” she said.
“You know?” I said.
The realization came just seconds later. If my wife, who is not a huge sports fan, already knew the big sports news of the day, then real sports readers, I could assume, knew that and more.
And we wonder why nobody wants to buy newspapers anymore? And if sports readers out there knew that and more, what should I put in the Sunday morning sports section, scheduled to hit their driveways 12 hours from now?
It’s like this: In one dream, I am a magician with dove feathers dropping out of his tuxedo sleeve. The audience is laughing, the trick ruined. In another dream, I am a sports editor breathlessly telling readers what they already know.
They are the same dream.
Sports journalism, actually journalism in general, is in a state of paralysis. Two things that have been constant companions in journalism through the years, have split apart.
The first thing is reporting, getting out the news. The second is telling good stories, interpreting the news. They once went hand in hand — news and writing. Now the first one is out and about before the second one can get its coat off.
Getting information to consumers has become a race. And it’s a race that newspapers, by definition, are losing. Newspapers need production time. Newspapers have to be written, sometimes crafted, and designed. They have to be printed and delivered. Tomorrow morning, once so close, now seems so far away.
And newspapers, once essential, are now low on the information food chain. In sports, this has become particularly problematic. Sports on the Internet, it seems, is second only to pornography. Scores scroll across the bottom of the TV screens on a handful of channels on my cable. I live in Columbia, Missouri , and if there is a night that I go to bed without knowing exactly how my hometown Baltimore Orioles did, it’s because I didn’t try at all.
Gamecasts and MLB-TV are things that students watch while they’re laying out pages here at the Missouri School of Journalism. There is no such thing as not knowing. There’s just not caring.
Even local news, local sports, is covered by local television and radio. The University of Missouri scores are readily available in any number of places on the web.
So again, what do you put in the newspaper?
“So what do you want to know?” I asked my wife.
“I have a lot of questions about Barbaro.”
She wanted to know how often this type of injury happened. What could have caused it? Could it have been prevented? What was the horse’s full prognosis? How many places in the country could deal with an injury of this kind?
So I went back into the newsroom and starting searching for stories. The “news” was already out there. Now I needed “stories.” I needed not only narratives, good storytelling. I also needed depth. Perception. Interpretation. It was the only way to go.
The truth is, newspapers are in a particularly good position to play this new game. They just haven’t realized it yet.
Newspaper staffs continue to be the largest newsgathering organizations in their communities. But they also have another unique feature: They have real writers, writers who can tell the stories, interpret the stories and put the stories into context. They have the columnists who can cajole and entertain.
Sports departments have to do both. Instead of waiting until the next day and dumping all content to the web, sports staffs have to re-purpose.
In other words, now we’ll tell you the news. Tomorrow morning, we’ll tell you the stories.
This will take re-structuring. Perhaps sports departments have to be split in two. One group of tech-savvy reporters whose job it is to get the news out, win the race with cell phone text-casting, webpage shorts, even blogs. Then another group of writers and columnists who will use their extra time wisely, providing the depth and entertainment that bring readers to the next day’s paper.
The same people doing both would split the focus that is required to do either one very well.
Promote the print product with the on-line, immediate product. And, even more importantly, provide exclusive print product: the next-morning stories.
Two products. Each approached in radically different ways. And both valuable to readers. The on-line product is for news. The print product is for stories, depth, interpretation, and narrative.
The problem is larger than sports. A similar scenario played out in entertainment a few days after that Bonds/Barbaro day, when the “American Idol” television show held its finale. An estimate 36.4 million people watched Taylor Hicks become the fifth American Idol.
Some newspapers led the next day’s editions with Hicks. But why? Everyone who wanted to know, and even most who didn’t, already knew. The news was out. Where were the stories?
The reality? Telling people news they already know is not a good business model.