SMG: What’s changed about sports journalism: Fan interaction

One thing that was worth noting in interviews was that reporters seemed to view “the fans” as sort of a monolith.

There was little to no differentiation to levels of fandom, whether or not a reader was a die-hard or casual fan. In fact, the interviews seemed to indicate that the journalists assumed fans were die-hard, that they were all watching the game or already knew the final score of the game. That attitude seems to shape sports journalists’ beliefs in how the job should evolve. The evolution of game stories toward the more analytical has its roots in the belief that fans can get the basic information about a game elsewhere, that the best service a newspaper can provide is analysis, opinion, and information not available anywhere else. Granted, the way sports journalists interact with fans could perhaps be a result of the reporters and editors catering to the loudest and most devoted fans. The fans who care the most will demand a level of coverage that goes beyond the final score. But it’s worth noting that the sports journalists’ default attitude assumes a fan has watched the game. An analysis piece about the Yankees’ hitting woes is of little value to someone who doesn’t know if the team won or lost.

On the whole, the journalists I’ve interviewed — particularly reporters — seemed to view fan interaction in a bit of a negative light. At best, it was seen as a necessary evil, the price of doing business in this digital age. At least two reporters viewed fans with an attitude that fell just short of contempt. Others viewed fan interaction as more of a nuisance, or just another task they had to do. Digital and social media platforms have empowered fans. They are now able to connect directly with reporters, express their own opinions, and question reporters’ assertions and decisions. There was a sense in at least some of the interviews that journalists felt their professional expertise was threatened by the level of reader interaction they had to tolerate.

There are two potential reasons for this attitude toward fans. One is that sports journalists and fans are coming at sports from different perspectives. Fans—especially die-hard fans, the ones who are willing to follow and engage sports journalists on Twitter—can heavily identify with their favorite teams. Their teams’ successes are their successes. Their teams’ failures are their failures. They are highly invested in the teams’ successes. Sports journalists come at this from a different perspective, one of professional objectivity and neutrality. The journalists interviewed pointed out that they didn’t care who won or lost the games they covered. They were rooting for the story, for something compelling to happen that would make for a good story (or, at the very least, they were rooting for a fast game and talkative players, to make their jobs easier). Several reporters expressed frustration with fans, because they (the reporters) felt that fans expected them to be cheerleaders for the team, or to not write negative stories.

The second reason is a simpler one: time. As stated earlier in this chapter, and throughout the results chapters, sports journalists are simply busier now than they ever have been before. Between writing stories, posting to blogs, breaking news online, using Twitter and Facebook, interviewing sources, coming up with story ideas, covering games, going to practices, meeting with colleagues, laying out pages, budgeting stories, assigning photos, and all the other tasks reporters and editors have to do in their work day, communicating with the public is simply one more task in an already packed work day. And because fan interaction is not institutionalized to the degree that other aspects of their job are — because sports journalists rarely had to do it before the digital age —it’s sometimes seen as extra work or work they are doing instead of doing their “real jobs.”

(This is the part of a series of blog posts about sports journalism that comes from my 2014 dissertation, “Rooting for the Story.” Since it’s been a few years, and what’s been peer-reviewed and published from this is already out there, I’d rather post some of my findings here rather than let them linger in some library forever.)