This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything
Update: You might be interested in the follow-up to this post: An Example of Searching for the News Decoder Ring.
Maybe I’m just getting cranky, but over the weekend and into today I’ve found myself thinking about some building blocks of journalism and thinking, “You know, this is broken.” Not broken as in “this really needs to be recast for the Web” or “some kind of digital adjunct would help here,” but broken as in “this no longer works, and we need to stop doing it.”
My latest sportswriting column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center looks at ways to reinvent game stories — the day-after accounts of sporting events that tell you who won, how they won and (hopefully) why they won. In discussing how the game story could be re-prioritized, reimagined or reinvigorated, I talked with four very smart sportswriters (Buster Olney, Joe Posnanski, Chico Harlan and Jason McIntyre), and kept in mind the opinion of a fifth, my co-columnist Dave Kindred, whose plea for game stories can be found here.
I hope I surveyed the potential alternatives fairly, but re-reading my own column this morning, I realized I’d made up my own mind on the question: The game story is broken. Its time has passed, and it is an anachronism in a world of Web-first journalism. We should stop writing them. Now. (I wish I’d come to this realization a day earlier, but sometimes you’ve got to take the journey to figure out where you’ve ended up.)
The sportswriters I talked to discussed the terrible deadline pressures of game stories — pressures that can result in the familiar, tired game-story formula of lots of play-by-play and some paint-by-numbers quotes. They discussed how game stories get in the way of old-fashioned reporting — building relationships with players and coaches and other sources, allowing for more interesting reactions and sharper analysis. Their love for the form came through loud and clear, yes — but so did their enumeration of its flaws.
The question to ask about game stories is the same question to ask about everything we do in journalism: If we were starting today, would we do this? That’s the question. Not whether we’ve spent a lot of money on the infrastructure of producing something a certain way, or whether a journalistic form is a cherished tradition, or whether it still works for a niche audience, or whether it can still be done very well by the best practitioners of the craft. All of those questions are distractions from the real business at hand.
If we were starting today, would we do this?
So: If I were starting a sports site (or a sports section on a general-news Web site), would I pay a reporter or some third-party source for a summary of yesterday’s game, knowing that today my audience is much more likely to have watched the game, can get a recap on SportsCenter once an hour during the morning, can see the highlights on demand from a team or league site, and can watch a condensed game on the iPhone?
Depending what budget you gave me, I would pay for the best box score I could get, get a graph of win probability or some other interesting visual metric, and try to offer a slideshow of key photos and/or video highlights. But I wouldn’t run game stories. Instead, I would tell my reporters to write something that a reader who knows what happened would still want to read the next morning. I would work with my reporters to find a new starting point. Maybe that starting point is this idea from Chico Harlan, a quote that wound up on the cutting-room floor of my column: “Maybe there’s a way to interpret [game stories] not as the story about the game, but as being about the most interesting thing to happen to the team that day.”
Maybe this wouldn’t be an enormous epiphany, but this morning I read Steve Myers’ interview with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, which Jay Rosen described aptly as “a lesson in how the Web works, disguised as a Q & A about topic pages and such.”
Asked if he sees Wikipedia as a news destination, Wales replied that “people do often come to Wikipedia when major news is breaking. This is not our primary intention, but of course it happens. The reason that it happens is that the traditional news organizations are not doing a good job of filling people in on background information. People come to us because we do a better job at meeting their informational needs.”
It’s a quietly devastating indictment of journalism. And Wales is absolutely right, for reasons explored very capably a couple of months back by Matt Thompson. Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you’ll be told what’s new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you’re supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you’ve been following the story (though in that case you’ll know the background and stop reading), but if you’re new you’ll be utterly lost — you’ll need, to quote Thompson, “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns”. On Wikipedia, breaking news gets put into context — and not in some upside-down format that tells you the very latest development that may or may not affect the larger narrative before it gives you the basics of that narrative so you can understand what that news means.
There are historical reasons for this upside-down storytelling in print, but it makes no sense online. The form is broken. Yet our Web newspapers have largely kept shoveling it into pixels — if you’re lucky there will be a link (if you can find it) to a topic page that’s built along Wikipedia’s lines. But odds are you already went off to Wikipedia before you saw that page.
Why didn’t we change? Journalists are masters at filtering, synthesizing and presenting information, yet we’ve spent more than a decade repurposing a 19th-century form of specialized storytelling instead of starting fresh with the possibilities of a new medium. Newspapers could have been Wikipedia, instead of being left to try and learn from it. And what are we learning? The news article is in some fundamental ways just as broken as the game story — if it weren’t, Jimmy Wales wouldn’t see a surge of traffic to Wikipedia in the wake of any big news event. We need to rethink the basics: If we were starting today, would we do this? But when will we unshackle ourselves from print and really ask the question? And at what point will the answer come too late to matter?
A follow-up to this post is here.