Is sports coverage devolving?

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Sports fans love to tell stories. At spring training games, I love to hear stories told by fans who saw Sandy Koufax pitch the year he broke in with the Dodgers. At basketball games, I feel the pain of those recounting how their favorite team blew a shot at a title. At high school games, somebody’s likely to regale me with a tale about the player that ‘should’ve made it’ to the pro level were it not for some injury or personal tragedy. I love to listen to these stories. Conversely, I love to tell them. Stories make sports (or anything in life, really) more interesting. More exciting. More fun.

So why are writers offering bare-bones coverage for sports events, offering the score, the winner, and, perhaps a description of several key plays? I can get that from a box score or a TV highlight. Tell me a story.

Of course, telling stories requires a reporter to spend time cultivating sources by hanging out at practices where they can watch the team run through plays, talk with players, kibitz with trainers, and converse with coaches. Research is also essential to writing a great game story. Too many reporters rush to a game, cite a few key points, toss in several quotes and send it to editors. And it’s getting worse.

Gary Andrew Poole analyzes – and laments – the devolution of sports journalism in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Poole blames TV coverage, the Internet, and narrow-minded sports editors for reducing the length, and quality, of sports gamers. Coverage focuses more on being first than being thorough.

Beat writers covering a baseball game see a player strain a hamstring. Immediately they are all on their BlackBerries posting an item about the injury and how the batting order was just changed. Something must be posted! Any writer who misses the tidbit will be called on it by his or her editor. But everyone has the same information; no one “scoops” anyone. So why not wait and weave that tidbit into the game story? The reporter would have the chance to go to the locker room and ask questions, talk to the manager about the change in strategy after the injury—to add context and nuance and narrative. These days, that sort of insight is too often lost. “If I were the editor,” says ESPN’s Buster Olney, who also blogs, “I would say, ‘Don’t worry about beating the seven other papers on the hamstring story; focus on developing your thousand-word game story. Remember the great writing you loved as a kid? Write it up like that.’

Can’t say it much better than Olney, one of the best sportswriters in a talented field too numerous to note. Tell stories. Don’t just recite facts. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read the rest of my Sports Illustrated.

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