Invigorate your campus sports section

Philly.com offers its rabid fans game stories, live chats, features, columns, and other content that engages readers. Look to professional websites like this to borrow and steal ideas to improve your own coverage.

Philly.com offers its rabid fans game stories, live chats, features, columns, and other content that engages readers. Look to professional websites like this to borrow and steal ideas to improve your own coverage.

Here’s information I presented at the College Media Association’s national convention in Philadelphia last week.

Establish beats. There is no logic in not having a sports beat system, only excuses and poor management. All beats have equally good stories. Assign one person as the primary coverage reporter for each sports team on campus. Other reporters can jump in and help by writing sidebars, compiling notebooks and filling in to write the mainbar when the main reporter is unavailable. Without a beat system, sportswriters are unfamiliar w/teams, can’t discern trends, and don’t earn players’ and coaches’ trust. Without a beat system, reporters are far less informed & don’t have established relationship with players/coach. As a result, stories = bland. So stop this nonsense of allowing multiple people to cover a single beat.

Hit social media hard. Break all news on Twitter, which has become the first level of reporting. Whether someone gets named the starting quarterback, or gets hurt in practice, post the initial information on Twitter. You can then develop these stories on your websites and blogs as you get them, updating them through the day. In addition, promote features, columns and other sports news on both Twitter and Facebook pages devoted to either the newspaper or, ideally, to sports news from your newspaper, radio or TV station. You’ll have to post regularly, though, or people won’t join, or like or register for your sports feeds.

File game stories immediately. Post a few graphs to the website as soon as the game concludes. After filing these stories, speak with coaches and athletes from both teams in order to gan a larger perspective on the game. Later, you can revise this online story by revising the lede elements and inserting quotes and additional details. f you do not have access to the college website, shame on that publication. In the meantime, create a WordPress sports blog, a task that takes about five minutes once you know what to name it – such as ‘CourierSports’ or ‘AlligatorSports.’

Develop a sports blog devoted to breaking news, along with notes about weekly award winners, observations from practice, illuminating stats, and interesting quotes not used in published stories from all sports beats. Read notes packages like this and this to learn more on how to develop these packages. You can also post short takes on games on the blog.

Write folo game stories for deadline events. For late-night basketball games, deadlines might force you to file a brief story that does not include any quotes. That’s OK. You can offer context and explain the game’s significance in a story the following day. Speak with coaches and players before the next day’s practice, analyze game stats and review your notes to write a story that is essentially a feature on the game. Sports Illustrated does this every week, as do numerous print and digital publications.

Balance coverage. Don’t allow reporters to write columns about their own beats. That’s schizophrenic. Beat reporters cannot claim to be objective in their coverage, when they are then blasting their opinions on a team’s performance. After a while, coaches and players won’t know whom their speaking with – the fair reporter or the biased columnist.

Improve columns. The best columnists are storytellers, not frustrated fans screeching about the slightest mistake. And the best columns are those that are thoroughly reported and detailed. (They are not a place for you to vent.)  Columns are a place where you can explain why something happened – such as a player missing a potential game-winning layup, or striking out with the decisive run on third base. Learn what caused these events to happen by speaking with players and coaches on both sides. Then, tell those stories. Be empathetic when players make mistakes. After all, these are not professionals. Even if they were, they’d feel horrible about any error. That’s not to say you can’t be strident at times, but reserve that for moments that merit this tone – such as a coach hiding illegal activities or an athletic department failing to reveal public information.

Don’t write columns about  local professional teams. Unless you are covering these teams, you really have nothing to say. Instead, write columns about your school’s teams – cross country, soccer, football, volleyball. Future employers will be far more impressed by informed columns such as this than by a third-hand piece about the Bears or Cubs. And your local readers will be equally appreciative because they’ll gain insights they cannot get elsewhere.

Introduce yourself to coaches before you start covering their teams, either in their offices or before a practice. Let the coach know your background, if he asks, and certainly ask this coach whether he/she would be willing to offer insights into the game during the season. In many ways, these coaches could serve as mentors to new sports reporters. Perhaps, this coach will enable you to sit in when they watch and evaluate tape. If this coach prefer this info be off the record, so be it. This is an amazing education experience. In addition, these conversations with coaches might yield better story ideas and reveal more lucid insights into the games you’re covering.

Meet regularly with coaches. Coaches, by and large, enjoy speaking with reporters – but not when they are preparing to board a bus for a road trip, are walking out to practice, or are spending time at home with the family. Sure, many coaches will still offer a few comments, but these quotes probably won’t reveal much. Instead, schedule a time each week where you two can meet for 20-30 minutes (or more) in a more relaxed setting away from the field. Don’t worry about trying to get a story from these meetings; instead, use this time to learn about concerns and exultations about the team, the coach, and the players. You’ll probably get some off-the-record information that offers important perspectives, even if you cannot (and should not) use the material explicitly. You can also use this time to ask questions about pending features or preview stories. Ultimately, you’ll develop more stories from these meetings than you’ll have time to report.

Introduce yourself to sports information directors, who will be a major resource during the year.

Hang out. Sit back and watch practices, when possible. Have informal, off-the-record meetings with coaches, asking them to offer how they feel about coaching, players, and life in general. You might ask them if they’d be willing to share their expertise about their respective sports, teaching you how to see the game better. Get to know players, assistants, managers and athletic trainers. By learning more about the people involved, you’ll find far better stories and be able to tell them more expertly.

Don’t print rumors. Verify everything. Always.

Dress professionally. If you dress like a college kid, you’ll be treated that way. So dress like a pro at practices and, especially, at games. Avoid tattered shorts, t-shirts with stupid slogans, and baseball caps turned sideways.

You are a reporter. Act like one. Don’t just blithely record quotes, absently accept stats sheets from SIDs, and write superficial stories. Dig deeper, investigate more thoroughly, and learn the ‘truth,’ if I can be so bold as to use that word.

Schedule weekly and daily planning meetings with your sports staff. Otherwise, you’ll be left scrambling to find sources and unable to get photos for stories, meaning your coverage will be mediocre, at best.

Record, post video. Video is no longer an option for sports media. Fans demand it in all media, form Vine to Facebook to websites. Videotape press conferences, fan reaction in crowds during games, and events. After games, ask coaches or players three questions about the previous game that, ideally, would run 60 to 90 seconds. Make sure you let these people know what you plan to do before taping. This should be a regular game coverage component.

Always push yourself to do more, whether that means making an extra phone call, reading extra stories, interviewing another player, or writing a sidebar along with your game story. Like a cross country runner who puts in the extra miles, these extra efforts will make you a more-honed, improved sportswriter.

Don’t just write game stories and previews. Focus on issues faced by coaches and athletes, write profiles that reveal challenges in people’s lives, reveal aspects of the game by analyzing team or league stats, and review athletic budgets. Tell stories about fans and about students who play intramurals. Game stories are essential, of course, but expand your coverage (and your readers’ perspectives) by looking outside the lines.

Try something different. Don’t just write preview and game stories for sports events. In addition, find different ways to tell stories (relying on graphics, for instance). Write stories on trends (analyzing team and individual stats, for example, in order to determine shooting percentages in the second halves of games or the number of 3-point shots taken during the past month. You can expand by looking at stats for teams in your conference) . Develop weekly sports packages, where you offer notes, conference standings, and league and team leaders for each sport. (You can rotate these so the reader has something new each day – men’s basketball on Mondays, women’s basketball on Tuesdays, wrestling on Wednesdays, etc.) Create new regular features, take different approaches to reporting and writing stories, and offer unusual designs. And do so with gusto. If you’re going to fail, fail really LARGE. You’ll learn as much by these failures as you can by your successes. Sometimes, these wild chances yield equally crazy-good results.

Research teams. Before you interview coaches about their teams, read the press guide to check on rosters, the coach’s biography and brief stats and bio summaries of all athletes. Some colleges post this all online.

Don’t rip into coaches and players. That’s how fans react. Sports journalists investigate by analyzing decisions from numerous perspectives and by speaking with coaches and athletes to learn why decisions were made. Sometimes, teams are just not good enough or good plays fail. If a team runs the ball poorly, ask the offensive lineman what challenges they face, ask the offensive line coach and coordinator what is not working as effectively as they would like, and talk with players on opposing teams to see how the running game has been defended. Learn all the facts before you opine. If a team is doing poorly, you can show it in columns and analysis pieces after diligently reporting on the topic first.

Respectfully fight for access. If a coach or administrator prevents you from gaining access to a practice, press conference or player, ask the reason. If this explanation is not valid, respond in writing by offering a logical, reasonable explanation why you need access. Enlist journalist professors, legal experts, professional journalists, the Student Press Law Center and other coaches in order to develop this rational argument. Whenever possible, keep this disputes private because issues are more easily resolved in that manner. Only when all else fails should you start writing columns or editorials about this issue – and, even then, do so respectfully and rationally, if you expect to win the debate.

Take thorough, descriptive notes at all games. You can download the scorecards on the right side of this page to help keep score.

Create a sports section that’s fun to read. People need distractions, especially when times are tough. You can have far more fun covering an athlete and sports event than you can profiling the student government president or covering the faculty senate. On the other hand, maybe those news reporters should follow the lead set by sports coverage and infuse some fun into those stories as well. Sports are entertaining. Your sports section should be as well – in everything from content to presentation. Check out Sports Illustrated’s witty (and sometimes hilarious) photo captions for its ‘Leading Off’ section.

To read links to sports media stories and more information about sports coverage, follow me on Twitter at @joegisondi

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About jgisondi

I covered sports and worked as a sports copy editor for more than 20 years at several newspapers in Florida, including the Fort Myers News-Press, Clearwater Sun, Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. I started writing for a weekly sports publication in Coral Springs, Fla., at age 15. I have been hooked on sports journalism ever since. I was fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors along the way, journalists who took the time to help me even when my copy was not top-notch. Now, I teach journalism at Eastern Illinois University and work as an editor for Landof10.com, a vertical that focuses on Big Ten athletics. A second edition of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports" will be available sometime in February 2017. The book is a practical guide to preparing, observing, interviewing and writing about 20 different sports, from auto racing to wrestling. Chapters also address ways to cover high school sports, fantasy sports, to develop sports blogs. You can also learn how to cover games, to write features and to interview better. Fans can also learn basic rules of these sports, along with ways to better observe the action. New chapters in the second edition will address social media, advanced analytics, fantasy sports coverage and revised, expanded chapters address game coverage, features and columns, among other new sections.
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