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John Brooks

Planning a set piece: How The New York Times approaches its coverage of the World Cup

Using the Olympics as a template, the Times aims to draw in all types of readers with its coverage, sports editor Jason Stallman says.

Longtime New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey arrived in Barcelona, Spain to cover the 1982 World Cup part way through the tournament and without much understanding of the intricacies of the global game. “I could not follow the ball because skill of the players, the things they could do with their insteps and knees and foreheads was beyond my comprehension,” Vecsey writes in his new book, Eight World Cups.

Vecesy writes that he prepared for that tournament by reading wire reports and days old European newspapers that he could buy in New York. Once he got to Spain, Vecsey sent back dispatches to New York via a primitive computer:

teleram-portabubble-cc

The Times had sent me to Spain with a rudimentary TeleRam Portabubble computer in a thick square case that made me look as if I was carrying a bowling ball. One night the electrician in the press box cut off the power and blew out my computer; I had to find a pioneer computer store in Barcelona to buy new fuses.

Safe to say things have changed a bit. As the 2014 World Cup in Brazil starts its third full week, with the knockout stage of the tournament underway, even some of the most hardened Times-watchers have been impressed with the paper’s coverage of the Cup.

The Times spent months planning its coverage of the World Cup, and it built on the models it used to cover the Olympics and other large international events, Times sports editor Jason Stallman told me. He said the goal of the coverage was to appeal to a wide array of audiences — from fútbol fanatics to the most casual soccer fans, from Times loyalists to those new to the paper.

About 50 percent of visits to the Times’ World Cup coverage on web and mobile are coming from new visitors. There’s also been a 13 percent increase in new visitors to NYTimes.com during the World Cup compared to the month prior, the Times told me.

I spoke with Stallman about the Times’ strategy for planning its coverage of the World Cup; here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Joseph Lichterman: Can you walk me through how you think about coverage strategically for an event like the World Cup? I’d imagine it must be quite an undertaking.

Jason Stallman: It begins far in advance, of course. A lot of the more ambitious projects we do for this type of coverage we do months and months before the actual event. We sort of borrow the blueprint we developed for recent Olympic games in terms of collaboration with other desks.

There are a couple of things that I suppose are notable about it. Our philosophy, or our approach, is to offer as much variety as possible. We don’t want to go into this with a strategy to strictly capture the hardcore soccer fans or, conversely, strictly target more casual or even non-sports fans. We don’t go into it trying to focus on the printed words, stories or photography — but those things as well as graphics and video as well as any other means of storytelling. Sometimes that involves whimsical things like Spot the Ball.

It’s to try and offer as much variety as possible, understanding that for an event like this you have a lot of different people coming at it from a lot of different perspectives, and experiences, and interests — so variety is key. The long established divisons between desks in the newsroom can’t exist for something like this. It can’t be “What is the Sports desk doing for the World Cup?” Or “What is the magazine doing for the World Cup?” Or “What is the graphics desk doing?” Everyone who is working on World Cup coverage has to be working in lockstep.

Once upon a time those divisions did matter because the end result was in a printed newspaper that had very distinct sections. We don’t have that any more. We might break down our website into sections, but that’s not necessarily how our audience comes at us. We know we have a tremendous amount of readers who are coming at us through social media and search. When they’re coming to us that way, the notion of separate sections and separate desks really falls apart, so we have to approach it as it’s all part of the same World Cup coverage.

Lichterman: You mentioned how this builds on your Olympics coverage. When did that mentality for big events start to develop? Was it London 2012? Vancouver 2010? I know you also did a lot of this type of coverage in Sochi earlier this year, too.

Stallman: I can’t speak to the deep history of the Times’ Olympic coverage. I’ve been in charge for the past few Olympic cycles, and from my perspective at least — and that’s all I can speak to — it’s really come into form over the past two or three Olympics. Certainly for Sochi, certainly for London, and probably for Vancouver as well.

Just this idea that for these major sporting events, you have a lot of people who are expert in the sport who are following it closely. You also have a lot of people who are just casual fans who are tuning in. And you have a lot of people who don’t know the first thing about it, but who are swept up in it. We just feel that we need to offer as much variety as possible and force ourselves to experiment with how we tell the stories. It’s not always going to satisfy people how to do storytelling with words or still images, we have to be a lot more imaginative than that.

Lichterman: We’re a couple weeks into the World Cup already — do you have a sense of what the audience is like, and what people have been attracted to?

Stallman: I know it’s quite large. We have pretty staggering numbers before us, which is always neat to see. We know that we’re getting a lot of first-time users, first-time visitors, which also signifies that we’re, I hope, doing something right.

Some of the things that have been most resonant: The folks at The Upshot have created some graphics that have really caught on. The interactive off of the first goal that Brazil scored was a video interactive showing celebrations around the country, that was quite popular. Our liveblogs have been a pretty wild success that we’re having trouble wrapping our head around. We’ve been liveblogging sports for quite a long time, and we’ve never really seen engagement like this. The Spot the Ball feature has been a delicious piece of candy for a lot of people. And then our breaking news coverage, like the Luis Suárez story. And what really set the bar for the whole tournament was an investigative series we did before the World Cup started on match fixing before the last World Cup — that has been one of our most popular contributions so far.

Lichterman: How do you think about creating content that specifically targets first-time readers? One of my favorites was the goooooool audio interactive. Are there specific audiences that you’re trying to reach or various folks that you’re trying to pull in?

Stallman: When we’re conceiving of these story ideas we’re always keeping in mind who might this appeal to. Will it be the hardcore soccer fan or the more casual person? With the goal one for example, anyone who has been immersed in soccer for the past decade probably finds that to be almost cliché — a story about announcers screaming “Goal!” But for people coming into the World Cup for the first time, that may be new to them, or they might not know a whole lot about it, and maybe we can tell the story in a different way. The story that was written by Fernanda Santos went back into the history of that and how it has such roots in Brazil — and then the audio was quite a fun way to letting people hear different calls from around the world. We thought folks who were quite familiar with these calls they might learn something and for folks who are new to the sport they might answer some questions for them as well.

Lichterman: It seems like you have a lot of leeway to do different things and try some neat interactive stuff. Is that a new thing? A lot of these aren’t what you would call traditional reporting.

Stallman: It’s been the case for many years that the senior editors here give us a tremendous amount of latitude in being experimental. It’s something the sports desk prides itself on. We’re allowed to play around and sometimes we screw up and it doesn’t work, and sometimes we do some pretty neat stuff. It’s almost always in collaboration with graphics and interactive news and video and a lot of other desks here. As I said before, it’s very rarely just one desk doing something. Even the goal piece that you referenced probably had people from three or four different desks contributing to it. All the pieces we referenced so far — Spot the Ball, and even just the reported stories — are all collaborations between a lot of different people in the newsroom.

The fun interactives work for the World Cup. It probably wouldn’t work for say, the foreign desk to do it right now with what’s going on in Iraq. You have to be strategic. We don’t want to overdo it, because at the end of the day we think a lot of folks are coming to us and trusting us to deliver deeply reported stories, whether they’re in word form, story form, or video, et cetera. We just need to have deep reporting. Spot the Ball is more of a fun game. It’s not necessarily a feat of reporting. We think it’s a neat offering for people, but by no means are we thinking that this is a core feature of our World Cup report.

Photo of John Brooks celebrating his goal in the U.S.–Ghana match by AP/Hassan Ammar. Photo of TeleRam Portabubble by mk97007 used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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