The other half of sports reporting

November 8, 2019

Sports pageCommunity college has long been the oft-ignored child when it comes to sports coverage. Caught between rabid high school fan bases and national alumni bases for four-year college and university sports teams, “professional” newspapers often ignore most community college sports.

Community college teams even seem to get short shrift from their local campus publications. As I review California community college student publications for my Online Elsewhere initiative I see a lot of half coverage of even the most popular sports –football, basketball, and baseball– much less coverage of other campus sports. And when it comes to sports columns, college journalists are more likely to comment on professional sports than programs that they should give a damn about more than those elsewhere.

Shrinking space in print publications and staff shortages make it difficult to cover campus sports in the detail sports reporters should be cutting their teeth on. But even with major sports I see far too much past game coverage than perspective coverage.

I get it. I started my journalism career off as a sports reporter, both for my high school newspaper and for the local weekly paper. I was hired by the weekly Reedley Exponent while I was in high school to write “as much sports as I wanted for $10 a week.” One story, $10. Two stories, $10. Three stories, …. I was thrilled. But even then most of my efforts were to cover sports as if all that mattered was what happened last week.

(One excellent piece of advice the local editor game me, though, was to read stories elsewhere on sports other than football, basketball, and baseball so that I learned more about them. I mean, what are you going to do when you are suddenly asked to cover a field hockey game and you have no understanding of the sport. As a newspaper adviser one of the most-often heard complaints I got from campus coaches was that the reporter assigned to cover his or her team was that the reporter had no understanding of the sport.)

There certainly is a role for game coverage for beginning reporters. You develop the ability to take notes, evaluate game statistics, interview coaches (and players), and create a running narrative. Defining pivotal moments in a contest in any sport is important to critical thinking development.

But even back in my early days of sports reporting my reporting was always past tense.

When I teach mass media survey courses, one of my lectures talks about the roles of the media. Ask someone, for instance, what is the role of a newspaper and the answer in invariably is “to report the news.” Ask the respondent to then define “news” and most often you will get a definition of reporting on something that has already happened. I call that the Record Keeping role.

But my lecture points out that the role of the news media goes beyond simply reporting what has happened. I talk, for instance, about the Watchdog role, where media serve as a watchdog over government, and the Marketplace and Opinion Leader roles, where the media serve as conduit for community discussion. (Other important roles include an Economic role, a Social role, and an Entertainment role.)

Similar to the Watchdog role is the Sentry role, where the media serve to tell us what is happening or likely to happen BEFORE it happens. Community college sports reporters do little to inform their readers on what is coming up. If they do, it is likely a paragraph tossed in at the end of a game story or in the form of a sports calendar; there is little detail beyond time and place.

This was a problem I fought unsuccessfully for most of my four-decade student publication advising career. I could not get sports reporters to seriously cover pre-game stories.

Rabid high school sports fans will gladly read a game story for several days after the game as they re-live the experience. And they will show up for the upcoming game as readily as they will watch their favorite show on TV. And they already know when they are facing a perennial rival.

University-level fans will read a game story the next day, but by mid-week, when most weekly print publications are printed, they are ready to know more about this week’s opponent. How good is the team? What is its record? What should we expect about the team and how does our team stack up? Are there any common opponents results that should give us a clue? How are we doing in our conference and what is the importance of this game?

Community college readers will read last week’s game story mid-week because that’s usually all they get. And because they likely were not at that week’s game or match.

Game stories have a place in community college publications, but that should be just the beginning. Since most community college publications have an online presence now, that coverage should come within one or two days online. If the publication has a mid-week print publication, then in addition to recording history it should start to play sentry and emphasize the upcoming opponents both in print and online.

(And I still have not even addressed the importance of covering the non-major sports.)

The sooner community college sports reporters take that next-level step, the sooner they will evolve into the sports reporter they desire to be at a university or professionally. One day they will be covering professional sports with credibility. Note: They should even be developing their podcasting skills by covering local sports, where their opinions are likely to make more of a difference; there is already too much noise about professional sports for them to stand out at this level of their careers.

Developing upcoming stories requires a student reporter to reach out beyond the silo of his or her campus. It requires researching and understanding of other teams and talking to sources with whom you are unfamiliar. And out helps you better understand the game in front of you.

– – – – –

Now, should we talk about covering those minor sports? After all, if you add up all your school’s athletes, you’d probably find that the number of minor sports athletes nearly equals or exceeds the number of major sports athletes. They deserve coverage, too.

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