Thursday, February 28, 2008

Immerse yourself in the new world of sports journalism

Don’t despair when you read that newspapers are losing readers or that news organizations are laying off workers. Seriously.

That people are losing jobs is sad news, to be sure, but this is no reason to abandon hope in journalism. Newspaper websites are gaining readers online, specifically younger readers who are engaged in today's news and issues, according to several surveys. And online advertising is solidly growing, accounting for about $2.3 billion of total newspaper revenue last year -- more than twice the total from 2003.

These changes have also created more opportunities, says Chicago Tribune sports editor Dan McGrath. "We know the audience is out there," McGrath said during a panel at the Illinois College Press Association last week. "We just need to find a way to reach them."

Phil Hersh, who has covered international sports since 1987, says he can now reach a much wider audience at all times of the day. No longer do newspapers rely upon a 24-hour cycle. News is breaking? Put it online. Readers are on all sorts of time schedules, something that is clear to Hersh, who files stories and gamers at all hours of the day at the Tour de France, World Cup Soccer, and the Olympics. "There's no paradigm shift like we've had with the Internet," he told the students in Chicago. "When we had the goalie controversy with the U.S. women's team last year, I sent five paragraphs on my Blackberry at four a.m. (CST). By five a.m., we already had five comments."

McGrath said game coverage is changing quickly, especially at events that are completed early in the day, like the U.S. Soccer World Cup and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In these instances, the traditional news cycle implodes. By noon, the paper will probably file the traditional game story online for events that had concluded earlier that morning (in U.S. time). Then, the writer may revise this gamer with updated information and the featurized leads typically reserved for second-day folos. By the next morning, this story is already old news to many readers, meaning newspapers may opt to either published a condensed version or instead use a featurized story long on storytelling

As newspapers shift coverage, they'll offer more features and columns in printed sports sections. That means storytelling (and deeper reporting) will take on an even larger role in presenting sports. (Fiction writing should be a required class for all sports reporters wanting to learn structure, character, plot and conflict. Just don't make anything up when you return to journalism work.)

Blogs are also playing a bigger part in news rooms. College newspapers should include at least one sports blog for breaking news, notes, observations at practices and commentary. Higher profile programs may merit an additional, separate blog where several writers can contribute from the field, filing on laptops or cell phones. To some degree, blogs are often abbreviated columns, where writers test ideas and offer snippets that may evolve into longer pieces. "My blogs tend to be columns in blog form," Hersh said. "I may put out five snarky little paragraphs (like some other blogs), but not that often." Unlike most fan bloggers, journalists offer more significant and relevant information, said McGrath. "Everybody has an opinion," he said. "We just have to have an informed opinion. A columnist who does little reporting will not be very helpful."

Make sure you learn the basics of reporting. But also seek to learn other presentation methods like podcasts, slideshows, and v-casts. News will regularly be read on iPhones, Facebook and other media before you know it. Some news organizations are also producing videos for YouTube. It's a whole new world for journalism - and one that is not nearly as scary as it seems if you prepare yourself well.

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