Reporting Is Reporting

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Our man Kurt Blumenau, who is a recovering journalist, said something interesting on Twitter this morning: “America is imploding, newsrooms are understaffed, and there’s very little real sports news anyway. Close your sports desk and send the staff to the street. Have them cover protests and racism (beyond interviews with the local black coach). Assign ’em to find out who the military guys are in the town square who have no badges or patches. Send them to ask experts what effective policing looks like.” This is not remotely close to a big ask. Reporting is reporting; while it might require a bit of self-education, it’s no more difficult learning what constitutes effective policing, for example, than it is learning what constitutes an effective cover-two defense.

Any print, online, or broadcast outlet could certainly do this. At the very least, sports people can cover spot news. Here in Madison, a couple of our local TV sports reporters were on the street last weekend covering protests, and they did fine. It turns out that when the job is to tell people what you see, you don’t have to be looking at a game to tell it well. But the next night, I saw one of the same reporters back at the anchor desk talking about sports stuff that was 24 to 48 hours old, because there was nothing else. And that got me thinking that the single most unnecessary job in all of television is that of local sports reporter. And it’s not just because everything has been shut down for the past three months. It’s been true for decades.

Time was, in Wisconsin, if you wanted to see highlights of last night’s Bucks or Brewers game, the 6PM local news was the only place to get ’em. But that hasn’t been true since ESPN Sportscenter became a thing, and it’s even less true now. Sports news has been available on demand 24/7 for 20 years, but you’ll still see local TV sportscasters leading on Tuesday night with highlights of Monday night’s game. It’s one of those things we do in broadcasting because we’ve always done it. We never consider whether there’s a better way, or if we need to keep doing it at all.

So what if you turn all of your sports reporters into street reporters? What about local sports coverage? Well, what about it? You can show the schedule or the scores on the crawl—it’s not necessary for somebody to sit on camera and read them. Highlights of local games? You’re not seeing that now, unless the opening kickoff gets run back for a touchdown. Reporters and photographers go to the games early, but by halftime they’re back at the office editing whatever they shot for the late local news—video that’s essentially a ticket stub proving they were there. The local college is remodeling the stadium? A coach says something inflammatory? A player has some kind of heartwarming family tale to share? You don’t need a sports specialist to cover that. Send a street reporter, because reporting is reporting.

If we survive this cursed year 2020, and if anything good comes out of it, that good will probably involve us learning what matters most in our lives, what we can easily do differently, and what we easily can do without. And not just in local television sports.

Plausibly Related: Bigtime sports seems to be on track for a return in a few weeks, and I am truly curious about what’s going to happen when it does. I think people are underestimating how much they’re going to hate watching games with no fans in the stands, and/or with artificial crowd noise. I think college and pro teams that are planning on holding games with 25 or 50 percent of stadium seats occupied are ignoring how difficult it’s going to be to enforce social distancing in such a setting. Every league that’s announced some absurdly complicated health-and-safety protocol needs to be asked if they really think their players will comply, how they know, and what they’ll do when players inevitably don’t. (Do they really think a bottom-of-the-roster player is going to tell on himself if his temperature is up, and admitting it would make him unavailable to play for two weeks?) And every team or league that’s announcing a restart needs to be asked what the criteria will be for shutting down again—because this plague is not over. Not even close.

Stop back this weekend for a rare Sunday post. 

5 thoughts on “Reporting Is Reporting

  1. Here’s the thing that I should have posted alongside Kurt’s excellent Twitter take, but I will put here with your thoughts: there’s a reason some of those folks are doing sports, and it’s that they don’t care about the other stuff.

    Actually, it’s better that I put it here, since so many of my students follow our exploits on Twitter and may not want to know that I caught on to some of them. Often, I hear “I want to work in sports” as code for “I am not interested in the problems of the world but still want to be on television in some capacity.” I don’t want to broad-brush an excellent group of young reporters, but every barrel has those apples. A few years ago this manifested itself as “I want to be a sideline reporter.” Invariably these were female students who were not unpleasant to look at who saw that job as a way to get paid. When I’d challenge them to “just be a reporter,” they’d look at me sideways. (Once I got them to understand that they’d be competing for something like six jobs they usually got it.)

    I’m afraid of what we might get if we turned the sports desk into the street.

    1. While I’m not opposed to people getting paid, maybe your point is an argument in favor of eliminating those positions. If a TV station has X dollars to spend on talent, perhaps it’s better spent on journalists than dilettantes. Although that presumes a station *wants* to do journalism. It’s easy to understand how some station owners might find comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable to be bad for business.

  2. Tim Morrissey

    I’ll echo the thoughts and comments of the folks above – including your thoughts, JB, and amplify the point you made about sports folks reporting stuff that happened many hours before – sometimes a day or more. It was a constant annoyance, back when we had live pro sports, that you would hear a “sportscast” – particularly on radio – at 10 AM giving the Brewers (insert any team name here) score from a game that ended at 4 PM the day before. Anyone who wants to know how the Brewers did already knows by 10 AM – even if it’s a night game that went extra innings. Yet radio sports people in particular never seem to get that by 9 the next morning, you should be talking about that day’s upcoming game.

    You can say the same during football season – a sports report Monday mid-morning talking about the Packers game from the afternoon before without what the J-folks call a “second-day lead.”

    There’s so much inertia in the biz. We always did it that way is apparently, as you pointed out, the operative mindset.

  3. Dropped this on FB, but I thought I’d drop it here for your readers who may not be on FB. I saw some of Max’s work during the worst of last weekend’s events, and he did very well.

    https://www.startribune.com/how-wcco-sports-anchor-mike-max-became-a-frontline-reporter-during-the-george-floyd-protests/570980032/

    (When I was in college and was headed, I thought, for sportscasting, it was because I loved the games. Being directed to newspapers by a kind sportscaster was one of the best things that ever happened to me – though it hurt like hell at the time. And although I covered sports at several weeklies, the beats I liked most at those weeklies and a couple of dailies were education and city government.)

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