This post is one of a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows describing their experiences, projects and sharing their knowledge with the ONA community. Fellow Lucas Timmons is a data journalist and web producer for The Edmonton Journal in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The Edmonton Journal is hiring a new sports editor. When the posting went up a few weeks ago, it got me wondering exactly what I would change if I were in charge of a sports section. How would I transform our coverage and focus to deal with the new digital reality? Where do I think sports reporting is going?
To be truthful, I always intended to be a sportswriter, not a data journalist or news applications developer. It was a speech given by Jim Brady (of Digital First Media, and ONA Board President) back in 2010 at a Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Toronto that got me excited to be in the digital world.
With that in mind, I’ve put together this plan — a bit of a dream, but this is what I would do if I had the chance.
Sports sections need to give readers a reason to visit the website. The way I see it, anyone who would want the score from last night’s game either already watched the game or the highlights on ESPN, or checked the league’s website. Writing a story for the next day’s newspaper seems like a very poor use of reporters’ time. So what should we do instead?
We need to engage our readers — bring them to our website during the game. The audience we want to grow has more than one screen in their houses — they have laptops, tablets and smartphones along with their television sets. Hosting chats during the games builds community, creates loyal readers and gives those readers a say in the coverage.
Putting a talented sports writer into the chat during the game gives him or her the opportunity to answer questions, but also give fans the chance to go one level deeper into the game. Sports fans often are fanatics; connecting them with a writer who has access to their team will satisfy their craving. This is an opportunity that no one else can offer, and news outlets need to leverage the fans’ access. The result will be a dedicated, engaged community of readers.
It’s also a community that can be identified and marketed to directly. News outlets can charge more for advertisements because they can target an identifiable group directly. The chats also can be sponsored, providing another source of income.
A brief game story still will be helpful, but as they are becoming irrelevant, they can be phased out over time.
So, engagement works on many levels: It utilizes the resources of the news outlet more efficiently. It brings readers to the website, and turns them into community members who will be more likely to return and help the community grow. And engagement can provide new revenue streams and sponsorship opportunities.
Once you’ve developed a sports community, viewers will need a reason to stay — and return. That’s where interactivity comes in. Gameification of comments, a hockey/football/baseball/March madness pool, interactive graphics and basic web-based games can give readers an added incentive to stay on the site or check back daily.
Fantasy sports players will return every day to set their lineups. A message forum with a “gameified” comment section will engage readers and have them checking the site more regularly. Rewarding the readers with tokens or larger prizes will help keep traffic coming in. Involve the most knowledgeable fans by giving them the opportunity to have fun and win prizes.
The focus must be local, however. You aren’t going to beat ESPN. You don’t want a message board for every team in the NFL, but if you have a team in your market, make your site the home of the community.
You can dramatically increase traffic by expanding coverage to include local minor league sports. In Edmonton, minor league hockey and soccer involve tens of thousands of children in the Journal’s coverage area. The type of sport isn’t important; it could be baseball or football, just as long as a lot of children are playing in it. If news outlets cover these sports, they could potentially draw several thousand more readers. Who doesn’t like reading about their kids?
League coverage also could provide outlets with other sponsorship and advertising opportunities, this time from the leagues and clubs.
There is one problem, though: resources. But webscrapers and automated scripts outlets could help by writing software to automatically look at the game summaries and create basic game stories.
There are companies such as Narrative Science that can create applications to provide daily stories for a minor league hockey or club soccer section. Such a section could help create community, expand the reader base and, hopefully, convince new — and younger — readers to get into the habit of checking your website. Some basic curation, coupled with a call-out for parents to send in photos of their children’s games, could provide a lot of low-work local content.
Sports sections need to refocus content. The best sports sites on the Internet now feature a mix of sports and pop culture and long-form journalism. A switch to a blog format for sports news would make it easier for people to comment and allow bloggers to engage more casually. Focus would change, too, from strictly sports and athletes to how athletes fit in pop culture.
Score stories are becoming increasingly less relevant. The sports section of the future needs to provide something more than game coverage. The sports section shouldn’t be where you go for a score; it should be were you go to learn, understand and embrace everything sports is about. Enter long-form journalism, stories with long takeouts and deep-think pieces.
The web offers the perfect opportunity for long-form journalism, which is undergoing a renaissance online. The web allows better leverage of platforms for deeper story telling. No longer constrained by space considerations, writers can focus on what suits the story best. Using video, interactive graphics and games can bring a story to life on the web in ways print never can.
Sports is an area where the industry can experiment and win. It will just take a brave editor to take the first step.
Slide photo is by Rama V via Flickr.