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:
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 New York Times' World Cup coverage — articles, tools, images, interactive — is just miles & miles beyond the competition.
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) June 20, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.