Three years ago, I created a sports website (along with ancillary social media) to provide coverage of local athletics after the local daily newspaper decided to stop writing game reports for most local sports events – a decision that still boggles the mind.
Prep sports coverage is one of the best ways to connect to a local audience, even more so against the backdrop of partisan political views and an unfair disdain for journalistic coverage. Anybody who studies the topic knows communities that do not have a strong newspaper presence incur far more problems (and higher costs) from their local governments.
Sports coverage, of course, does not have the same biting impact, but it can bring residents together and enable a news organization to connect more deeply with the community.
We created Coles County Sports primarily to offer coverage of local athletes and to help train student journalists, mostly those attending Eastern Illinois University.
Since our first post three years ago this week, we have published more than 1,500 stories at ColesCountySports.com that have attracted 500,000 views. In addition, we publish game briefs, along with updates on bigger games, short features, photos of teams that have won travel and recreation titles, breaking news, and reminders about local sports events on Facebook, where we have about 3.2K followers. We also have an Instagram feed, where we post photos and video to about 1,300 followers, primarily high school students, recent grads and a few younger parents.
The website is a 501(c)(3). Neither my co-publisher nor I take any financial compensation, even though we have each devoted probably about 5,000 hours apiece. I do pay selected writers and photographers who offer higher-quality journalism a stipend for their efforts.
As I said, we do this for two main reasons – to celebrate student-athletes and to train student-journalists.
This is not a PR website. Nor is it a fan website, although it could be argued that most local sports coverage revolves around the premise that we care for these teams and athletes more than from the opposing teams.
But we also report when teams play poorly, even if we do not critique prep athletes at the same level as professionals, who are paid to play.
We seek to follow journalistic principles and approaches. (re: SPJ Code of Ethics)
Therefore, we seek out the best storylines, relying on our observations, the facts at hand and the insights provided by coaches and athletes afterwards.
We have, though, sometimes offered congrats to teams that have won major events, such as Lake Land College capturing a national women’s basketball championship.
The landscape is far different today, where people seek to have their perspectives validated by partisan media – especially (but not limited to) politics.
That notion has definitely creeped into central Illinois.
Most every time our two local high schools compete against one another, a parent from one of the schools will complain that we favor the other team or community. Some people believe they know as much about journalism as they do politics, epidemiology, global warming, city budgets – you name it.
We have encouraged interaction with our community, who are sometimes part of the reporting process. And we definitely appreciate a head’s up regarding factual errors.
But it is disheartening when parents offer dismissive comments, inaccurate statements and, at times, ignorant assessments. One parent even hacked into our website, sending various angry comments with different names even though we tracked it all to a single ISP address.
Last week, another parent ripped into his own school’s football players, but we deleted it.
Such foolishness comes from a vocal minority, to be sure. Most people in our community appreciate coverage they otherwise would not receive – and which is also free.
Plus, the coaches are fantastic, offering easy access, texting back quick responses and working well with student-journalists without a complaint.
Interestingly, not a single student-athlete has complained about coverage on our platforms.
The two biggest complaints:
- That we are homers.
- That we are too tough on certain teams.
Neither belief is true. My media partner, Jeff, hails from Mattoon on the west end of the county and I have lived in Charleston, on the east side, for 20 years. He and his three sons have played multiple sports for Mattoon High while my two daughters played on teams for Charleston High. Our free-lance writers have almost always grown up outside this community.
But neither Jeff nor I take sides in the cross-county match-ups because we know the coaches and players from both towns, and, as happens in beat coverage, you privately root for them all – even when working to keep the stories neutral.
We instead root for athletes and coaches on both sides to play their very best and to make the best decisions.
We root that a team wins because of good play, not mistakes from the other side.
That nobody gets hurt.
That everybody has a great experience.
We know how hard the athletes play and the coaches train them. We hear the frustration and sadness in all of their voices after a loss as well as the exuberance after a big victory.
We do not rip into local players, as you might hear sports talk hosts do on radio/TV or you might read on social media. We do not cover high schools the same as professional or big-time college sports. Nor should we. These kids play mostly for the love of the game. You can see it, hear it – and, sometimes – even feel it.
While we might soften the approach when covering high school athletes, we still address mistakes if they are essential to understanding the games at hand – such as a fumble, error, errant shot or missed putt.
Afterward, we’re likely to ask athletes what they believe happened, and then try to couch the comments/facts in a contextual manner that does not sensationalize the words nor demean any athletes.
But, like I said, we are not PR either, even though it could be argued we are not always as hardball as we could be – again, because these are young men and women playing for their schools, teammates and communities, not for big dollars.
We need to avoid the confirmation bias problems that are rampant across the country. People too frequently lean into information sources that support their ideas, enabling some people to incorrectly believe they are right on some issues or topics.
It’s a damn shame more people won’t instead be more skeptical about what they believe, instead seeking out information from respected sources outside their small sphere. Such insulation prevents us from experiencing life outside our own points of view. Sometimes, frankly, your home team, your child or your niece did not play so well. We feel ya. Sometimes, some of our stories are not as good as others.
Sports, though, clearly plays with our hearts and our souls, elating us in the best of times and sending us into emotional spirals in the worst. As a result, hard-core fans can get defensive about anything negative regarding their teams, whether we’re talking Cardinals-Cubs or Republicans-Democrats.
But, of course, all the words in the world won’t prevent people from sometime slipping into protective stances. It’s natural to want to protect one’s child, team or community. But know, seriously, we consider all of Coles County our community.
And we strive to be as factual and as neutral as we possibly can.
Thanks for reading.
We look forward to watching, reporting – and, really, celebrating – our local student-athletes for many years to come.