By Derek Harper
Sports Capital Journalism Program, IUPUI
Game stories have changed in a digital world, based upon how quickly you can gain access to real-time statistics with box scores. Oscar Dixon, the Assistant Sports Editor for the Associated Press managing the South Region, remembered something he was told years ago: Somebody told him he wouldn’t go cover a game if there’s not at least one thing you can’t find in the box score or see on television.
“One of the things we’ve talked about is how people consume our content has changed and it’s evolved over the years,” Dixon said. “But the journalism hasn’t.”
The workshop titled “Game Face,” offered twice on Thursday at the APSE summer conference, emphasized that sometimes the game might be the news, but other times the story might be something else. Reporters have to look for news in places they might not expect. Jake Adams, the Assistant Sports Editor at the Louisville Courier Journal, said you have to be ready to pivot. Sometimes the news happens in the stands or outside the stadium. Look for the moments you don’t see on television.
It’s about finding the game within a game and knowing your beat. If there’s a tough situation a team is going through, focus on that rather than play by play. Sometimes you have to find the individual story, focus on a player more than the game itself. Adding hyperlinks to previous stories about the teams in the first two or three paragraphs can provide more context.
“Get out there with the news, but then hyperlink two or three stories early on in the first two or three grafs of what you’ve done previously that has this context you were talking about,” Dixon said. “So now all of a sudden my game story and the context of that game story matters and people will be more engaged with that.”
Dixon emphasized how reporters sometimes have to leave the press box to find the story, and you cover a beat to report that beat rather than the games themselves. Dixon said it’s a business decision what news organizations decide to cover. Additionally, with some teams creating recaps on their website after a game, you have to question if it’d be worth doing a recap. Adams posed the question: How much time do you want to put into a certain story?
One topic that Adams, who used to cover prep sports in Carlisle, Pa., dove into with his high school coverage is how his news organizations choose where to go to cover games. While some schools or parents might complain about their school not being covered, Adams explained that he went where he had the most subscribers, specifically noting the zip code of the subscriber base. He said you shouldn’t be afraid to lose some of those other schools because you’re not covering areas with a low subscriber base. Adams emphasized this point, saying you go to where people are buying and care about what you’re giving them.
There are exceptions to the rule of focusing on your core coverage base, he said. That comes into play when certain athletes continue to make the news with their success. When people keep reading about a certain athlete, Adams said, keep going with that beat.
It should be noted that game stories are different at the high school level compared to the collegiate and professional level. With high school coverage, it’s more hyper-local compared to regional or national at the collegiate and professional level. With covering high school sports it’s important to take time with the parents of student athletes and get their phone numbers.
Kyle Neddenriep, who covers high school sports for the Indianapolis Star, said you might go to a game and only take a few videos that end up being posted by an outlet. This allows the reporter to have the opportunity to work ahead on a feature. They might also be able to just do nothing the rest of the game, especially if it’s a blowout.
Reporters can also embed videos on a site, and editors will help you learn how to do that. Adams said sometimes editors need to make sure they tell their reporters they did a good job, because it can mean a lot to them. People like to see pictures, so the more the better, because with more pictures, more people will read your story, the panelists said.
Reporters covering games should focus on quality over quantity. Game stories clearly aren’t what they used to be, but finding those topics somebody might not see otherwise is key.
“Two things that make you valuable to me, access and credibility, those are the two pillars that your writers have to have to break news,” Dixon said.
(Photo by Kelly Zehnder. From left, Oscar Dixon, Kyle Neddenriep, Jake Adams and John Bednarowski.)