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AP’s new curveball: Wire service will tell baseball stories two ways to help cost-cutting clients for road games

As the old saying goes in newsrooms, every night is election night on the sports desk. The late-night deadline stress is enormous — especially when you’re trying to cover 162 baseball games in a six-month season. That’s one reason the Associated Press is adding a new dimension to its baseball coverage this year. After filing the traditional “game-over” story on the national wire, AP reporters will also file “hometown leads” — a.k.a. stories about the losing team — for the local paper that can’t staff an away game.

Terry Taylor, the AP’s sports editor, said editors have been asking for this for at least 15 years. “This is not new,” she told me. What is new: smaller newsrooms and earlier deadlines. “Deadlines have been creeping up and up and up,” Taylor said. “We said, would you be satisfied if you just had a quote from a player or a quote from a manager?” The answer from members was a resounding yes, she said. “They were more concerned with just getting it fast.” Taylor said the hometown story will still be balanced, just framed differently. Readers can expect more clubhouse quotes from their own team, not the other guys.

Say the Red Sox beat the Royals at Fenway. The lede of a traditional AP game story would focus on the Sox. But the hometown version for Kansas City AP clients would put the emphasis on the other dugout: “The Kansas City Royals continued a six-game losing streak last night, falling to the Boston Red Sox 6-2…”

The new offering is aimed directly at newspapers like The Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria, Ohio, with a newsroom of 30, including part-timers, and a sports staff of five. “When the [Cleveland] Indians or the Cavs play on the road and they lose, or they’re not the story that night, we’re scrambling on deadline — either to rewrite the lead or move quotes up,” Scott Petrak, assistant sports editor and Cleveland Browns beat reporter, told me. “It’s a big hassle.”

A good editor can handle a basic rewrite in 10 minutes, Petrak said — but those minutes are precious when it’s 12:20 a.m. and the paper has to be on the lawn at 6. Sometimes, if there isn’t time, an AP story is printed without editing, “and the readers aren’t getting what they want,” he said.

Petrak has worked at the paper since 1995. In the old days, when the Indians were good and the newspaper had money, the Chronicle-Telegram assigned a staff writer to most road games, he said. Then the coverage dwindled to just the opening road series, the Detroit and Cincinnati games, the Yankees games. (“We probably staffed 30 road games during the regular season, maybe, on a good year,” Petrak estimates.) Now the paper relies on AP coverage for all 81 away games.

Game stories are a commodity. A reader needs scores and stats, but any reporter can provide that. As Dave Kindred wrote for our sister publication, Nieman Reports, most sports reporters today work at an exhausting and competitive pace — writing, rewriting, liveblogging, tweeting — but never really leap out of the daily cycle to do deeper, longer work, the kind of work sports junkies devour. It’s an old kind of sports reporting, when readers had one and only source for sports reporting: the hometown paper. “They [are] chasing after commodity stories at the expense of deeper engagement, and competing according to measures that actual readers no longer notice nor value,” laments Lab contributor Jason Fry. Maybe AP’s new, more appealing source of game-over reporting will free up local beat reporters to do more meaningful or engaging work.

Of course, less work for local reporters and editors means more for AP staffers, who are asked to turn a lot more copy now than a few years ago. When the game ends, the first priority is to file a “NewsNow” lead — a tweet-length summary of the game — then the traditional game story, then the second-day “optional” story, and finally, the hometown story.

The AP’s Taylor said she expects things to be bumpy at first, but none of her writers is unwilling to play ball. (“Not a soul.”) But: “Don’t ask me about basketball and hockey — I haven’t thought that far ahead,” she said. “That would be tough.”

Here’s the message that went out over the wire to AP clients explaining the new setup:

Starting with the new season, AP Sports will add another dimension to our baseball coverage. We will now provide optional-style tops featuring the losing team in addition to the regular optional top that focuses on the winning team.

Called hometown leads, the stories will move after the breaking and optional leads have appeared on the wire. The hometown lead will pick up into the material in the breaking lead and will run about 12-13 inches. It will carry a featurized lead and quotes from at least one player and/or the manager. We hope to have it on the wire within 60-75 minutes after the game ends.

To recap:                               
_  NewsNow game lead.
_  Writethru with game details.
_  Optional lead.
_  Hometown lead (losing team optional), picking up into main game story.
            
Slugs for the main stories and optional leads will be the same: BC-BBN—Phillies-Mets.

The hometown lead will be slugged with that team’s name only: BC-BBN—Mets. In other words, this means the Mets lost the game and the regular optional is focused on the Phillies.
            
AP Sports decided to begin providing this service, after discussions with many U.S.-based sports editors, as a way to meet a need for coverage tailored to their local teams.

Photo of Fenway Park (those are Orioles in the field) by WBUR used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    April 15, 2014
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