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As sports have returned, the usual in-person press conferences and interviews have been replaced by Zoom sessions.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.

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