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March 16, 2020, 1:51 p.m.
Reporting & Production

What do sports journalists do when there are no sports to cover?

From high school to the pros, the games that filled sports sections have nearly all been called off. “We don’t have a guidebook on how to cover sports when sports aren’t being played.”

When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert touched all the reporters’ microphones at a press conference two days before he tested positive for COVID-19, he probably wasn’t thinking about Ryan G. Reynolds.

Reynolds is the sports editor at the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana. He and his team of four reporters cover mostly high school and college sports. Gobert’s diagnosis and the rapid shutdown of most organized sports in North America that followed have created a situation with few precedents for Reynolds and other sports editors.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and the only thing that compares to this is 9/11, and that doesn’t even come close” in the level of disruption, Reynolds said. (You can read about the effect 9/11 had on sports here.)

In Evansville and across much of Indiana, high school basketball is king. So when it was announced that the state tournament would be played without any fans this past weekend, the impact would be felt far beyond the players and their families. “People coming into town would be spending money at the local restaurants, on concessions, or even on gas tank fill ups,” Reynolds told me late last week. “A lot of these small towns and smaller schools might lose a part of their annual revenue from whatever happens this weekend.”

In the end, what happened this weekend was nothing — because soon after we spoke, the entire tournament was postponed amid the shutdown of hundreds of Indiana schools.

The novel coronavirus has been found in at least 131 countries since its initial discovery in Wuhan, China three months ago. As we’ve been writing, an already fragile news industry has been tilted on its axis, as journalists around the world try to cover the unprecedented pandemic while protecting themselves from infection. News organizations big and small have asked journalists to work from home.

For Shemar Woods, the director of digital for sports at The Philadelphia Inquirer, no “how to work from home effectively” articles could have prepared him for working remotely while three of his reporters covered the Sixers game the night the NBA announced its postponement. The Sixers had played Gobert’s Jazz five days earlier.

“I don’t think anybody could [have been] prepared,” Woods said. “We don’t have a guidebook on how to cover sports when sports aren’t being played.”

Now that nearly every sports league has either canceled or indefinitely postponed its upcoming schedule, sports journalists will need to get creative. That’s true from a giant like ESPN — which suddenly has a lot of empty slots on its broadcast schedule — down to a place like Evansville.

There are certainly still stories to be produced about all these cancellations and their effects on communities. But the de-scheduling of a highly scheduled beat can also open up new possibilities. In Philadelphia, for instance, Woods said that without his reporters traveling for games, they have more time to explore the idea of starting a podcast. They have more time now to dive into stories they can’t find time for during a regular season.

“The biggest story for me is the guy who was dependent on the Sixers game tonight who won’t be able to work — how does that affect him, and how does that impact his family?” he said. “So we’re going to be on the ground. We’re going to go to the bowling alley. We’re going to go check out sports bars as well.”

Of course, there are plenty of other stories that need covering in a time of unprecedented shutdowns across American cities. Woods said one of his sports reporters has been loaned to the news team to help cover the pandemic; Reynolds said his reporters will likely do the same in his newsroom in the coming weeks.

Across the Atlantic, Damian Dowd has a particular challenge. He’s the editor of a weekly hyperlocal newspaper called the Inishowen Independent in the northwestern corner of Northern Ireland. The paper focuses heavily on local sports and the Gaelic Games, all of which have been suspended.

Dowd’s 64-page weekly is usually about 20 percent sports coverage, so now he has a dozen or more pages to fill. He said some of them will now have stories on helpful alternatives that families can take up to be outdoors and exercise while practicing social distance.

Other outlets, like USA Today’s fan-centered sports website For the Win, will lean more aggressively into covering what’s left in professional sports — most obviously the NFL’s free agency period that kicks into gear this week, editor Nate Scott said. Of his staff of nine full-time writers, he met with his NFL reporters on Friday and told them they’d have “more resources than usual” this time of year to explore story ideas they might have been sitting on.

Michael Giarrusso is global sports editor for the Associated Press, which provides journalism to a wide range of outlets — from small newspapers to ESPN, from print to broadcast and around the world. The spree of cancellations last week was an editing challenge at times: “We had several occasions where I had to say that we have to stop filing so many separate stories and find a way to wrap this up for readers and customers in a way that’s digestible because there’s almost too much,” he said.

Giarrusso noted that newspapers used to printing box scores and other agate will likely just have to do without with no results to report. AP sports reporters will be expected to work on evergreen or longform stories — but AP customers will still rely on them for some stories.

“The uncertainty around this event and how the league and the teams will come back from the leagues and the teams will come back does create a lot of question and a lot of demand from readers,” he said. “If we find smart ways to be able to answer them, despite not having the regular access that we’re used to, then sports journalism will be doing a great service to those readers.”

The sportspocalypse hasn’t just put news organizations and their full-time staffers into a tailspin. Among the most vulnerable are freelancers, who depend more squarely on the stories individual games produce. Multimedia producer Anthoney Stephens produces content for some of the major sports leagues, meaning coronavirus killed off his entire salary.

“If your timing is absolutely awful, like mine, the next contract that was going to pay for the rent for the next eight months was starting next month,” he said. “With leagues shutting down, potentially until next year, this will probably be one of those years where there’s an asterisk in sports history.”

Sports will eventually come back (one hopes!). But whenever they do, some editors and publishers will have gotten used to a less sports-heavy mix of content, in particular one that puts less emphasis on game stories. That could have longer-term impacts on strategy and coverage.

“I’m worried about freelancers,” For The Win’s Scott said. “Journalists can get used to the status quo and see how they survive without weekly or game-to-game coverage.”

When I asked editors what coronavirus might mean for sports journalism in the longer term, they all expressed concern about its impact on access to teams and athletes. As reports of the virus began to spread, many teams began to reduce reporters’ ability to enter locker rooms. They worry that when sports resume, that might become normal.

“We’re not going to have the very regular access that we’re used to,” Giarrusso said. “That access, I hope, is only temporarily being taken away. Reporters are going to need to be more thoughtful and aggressive and smart about using other ways to get information. And the best reporters have been doing that for decades. They don’t rely on the podium to get their questions answered.”

Photo of an elbow bump replacing a handshake after the first leg of Rangers vs. Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Europa League, March 12, 2020, by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire via AP.

POSTED     March 16, 2020, 1:51 p.m.
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