The year sports journalism changes for good

“When you talk to sports reporters today, there’s a real fear that their limited access to players and coaches in 2020 will continue in the post-COVID world.”

So the sports journalism apocalypse didn’t happen in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and sports shut down across the United States, there was genuine concern about the state of the beat. How would it work when there were no games? My own research has shown that, historically, no area of journalism is as tied to its subject matter as sports journalism is to game coverage.

But as it turned out, sports journalism survived just fine. Reporters took the opportunity to get creative finding stories. There was, in fact, plenty of sports news to report on even without games.

But as we move forward into 2021, there is one element of sports journalism that threatens the profession as we know it. The Zoom interview.

As sports have returned, the usual in-person press conferences and interviews have been replaced by Zoom sessions. Instead of getting access to team locker rooms and conducting interviews there, reporters are now forced to request players from the team’s PR staff and do streaming interviews. These are, of course, necessary and understandable restrictions, given the pandemic.

But if these restrictions persist in the post-COVID world, they will fundamentally change sports journalism.

Two generations of media sociology research have demonstrated that access to sources is a fundamental aspect of journalism, and this is certainly true of sports journalism. Over the past decade, there’s been a growing cold war on this front between sports journalists and teams. Reporters’ access to players has become more limited as teams seek to exert more power and control over their messages. Players have their own social media platforms and don’t need to talk to reporters to communicate with their fans.

There’s a long and valuable discussion to be had about whether journalists should care so much about access to sources, and whether it truly serves their readers. But the fact is it does matter. In their eyes, access allows them to build relationships with the players and coaches. That’s fundamental to the way they conceptualize their jobs, whether they’re breaking news like Adrian Wojnarowski or writing features like Tyler Dunne. Access also matters as a point of professional accountability — one of the golden rules of sports journalism is that if you crush a player or coach in a column in the morning, you better show your face at the stadium that evening.

When you talk to sports reporters today, there’s a real fear that their limited access to players and coaches in 2020 will continue in the post-COVID world. That teams see a reason to keep reporters out of the locker room and away from players and coaches — and that they’ll take advantage of it. You saw this fear early in the pandemic, before leagues were shut down, when locker rooms were closed to the media. There’s a real fear among journalists that the COVID restrictions will be made permanent.

If that’s the case, it will fundamentally change sports journalism. But that’s not to say this will be a sports journalism apocalypse.

If access remains limited, it will open the door for sports journalists to find new ways to do their jobs. Maybe it will mean moving farther away from the commodified content of daily sports journalism (game story, sidebar, column) and toward telling different types of stories that don’t necessarily require access to sources. Maybe it will mean greater use of data and analytics as reporting tools. Maybe it will mean rethinking the whole notion of access as a journalistic value.

2021 will be the year sports journalism changes for good. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those changes will be bad.

Brian Moritz is associate professor of digital media production and online journalism at SUNY Oswego and author of Sports Media Guy.

So the sports journalism apocalypse didn’t happen in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and sports shut down across the United States, there was genuine concern about the state of the beat. How would it work when there were no games? My own research has shown that, historically, no area of journalism is as tied to its subject matter as sports journalism is to game coverage.

But as it turned out, sports journalism survived just fine. Reporters took the opportunity to get creative finding stories. There was, in fact, plenty of sports news to report on even without games.

But as we move forward into 2021, there is one element of sports journalism that threatens the profession as we know it. The Zoom interview.

As sports have returned, the usual in-person press conferences and interviews have been replaced by Zoom sessions. Instead of getting access to team locker rooms and conducting interviews there, reporters are now forced to request players from the team’s PR staff and do streaming interviews. These are, of course, necessary and understandable restrictions, given the pandemic.

But if these restrictions persist in the post-COVID world, they will fundamentally change sports journalism.

Two generations of media sociology research have demonstrated that access to sources is a fundamental aspect of journalism, and this is certainly true of sports journalism. Over the past decade, there’s been a growing cold war on this front between sports journalists and teams. Reporters’ access to players has become more limited as teams seek to exert more power and control over their messages. Players have their own social media platforms and don’t need to talk to reporters to communicate with their fans.

There’s a long and valuable discussion to be had about whether journalists should care so much about access to sources, and whether it truly serves their readers. But the fact is it does matter. In their eyes, access allows them to build relationships with the players and coaches. That’s fundamental to the way they conceptualize their jobs, whether they’re breaking news like Adrian Wojnarowski or writing features like Tyler Dunne. Access also matters as a point of professional accountability — one of the golden rules of sports journalism is that if you crush a player or coach in a column in the morning, you better show your face at the stadium that evening.

When you talk to sports reporters today, there’s a real fear that their limited access to players and coaches in 2020 will continue in the post-COVID world. That teams see a reason to keep reporters out of the locker room and away from players and coaches — and that they’ll take advantage of it. You saw this fear early in the pandemic, before leagues were shut down, when locker rooms were closed to the media. There’s a real fear among journalists that the COVID restrictions will be made permanent.

If that’s the case, it will fundamentally change sports journalism. But that’s not to say this will be a sports journalism apocalypse.

If access remains limited, it will open the door for sports journalists to find new ways to do their jobs. Maybe it will mean moving farther away from the commodified content of daily sports journalism (game story, sidebar, column) and toward telling different types of stories that don’t necessarily require access to sources. Maybe it will mean greater use of data and analytics as reporting tools. Maybe it will mean rethinking the whole notion of access as a journalistic value.

2021 will be the year sports journalism changes for good. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those changes will be bad.

Brian Moritz is associate professor of digital media production and online journalism at SUNY Oswego and author of Sports Media Guy.

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

J. Siguru Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Cory Haik   Be essential

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Richard Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

Joshua P. Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Juleyka Lantigua   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)