Reinventing the Newsroom

This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on November 16, 2009

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?

Absolutely not.

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.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ken, Jason Fry. Jason Fry said: Game stories, Wikipedia and the question newspapers can't seem to ask. http://bit.ly/xdM6i [...]

  2. jSarek said, on November 16, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    While the added context Wikipedia provides is of course of primary importance, Wikipedia is also surprisingly quick at responding to developing news. For instance, as news was first breaking about the hospitalization of Michael Jackson, Wikipedia was edited with the information before it broke just about anywhere else in traditional OR new media (as mentioned here: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/a-bad-day-for-search-engines-how-news-of-michael-jacksons-death-traveled-across-the-web ). While they were slower to report on his death (understandably wanting reliable sources to cite), they weren’t at all uncompetitive, following MSNBC by seven minutes and CNN by two, and beating Google News outright. So not only are they far and away the winners at the game of context, they’re also legitimately competing with traditional news sources at their own game.

  3. uberVU - social comments said, on November 17, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jasoncfry: Game stories, Wikipedia and the question newspapers can’t seem to ask. http://bit.ly/xdM6i

  4. RickWaghorn said, on November 17, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Very interesting stuff… after 13 years being the ‘beat’ soccer reporter on the Evening News, Norwich, I re-invented the way that I delivered my day-late stories via the launch of http://www.myfootballwriter.com/norwichcity

    … and it’s been a voyage of discovery ever since.

    And if I was starting again – or rather as we continue to work out what does and doesn’t work – so a hash tag would be top of my list of tools… means I can be part of their conversation and break my news in an instant to them…

    http://outwithabang.rickwaghorn.co.uk/?p=188

    best, etc

  5. Rewriting the Game Story said, on November 17, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    [...] Game Story is broken, there’s no doubt about that. As Jason Fry argues quite convincingly on Reinventing the Newsroom, the standard newspaper-style report on sporting [...]

  6. Paul said, on November 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Great post Jason. I’ve been asking myself the same question for the past year and a half. I’ve experimented with hyperlocal news sites with social media at their core, but the game keeps changing. It’s fascinating – there’s an answer there, but it’s not quite resolved itself yet.

  7. Twitted by nickdemartino said, on November 17, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    [...] This post was Twitted by nickdemartino [...]

  8. David Gerard said, on November 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    That said – as a Wikipedia editor, I should point out that a certain amount of inverted pyramid is how to write a good Wikipedia article too! The first sentence should be good standalone, the first paragraph should be good standalone, the lead section should be good standalone. Then you can get into a structured article. That way you’ve got something useful for everyone who comes by.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on November 17, 2009 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks David, that’s a fair point — in rethinking narrative we shouldn’t lose the parts of “old” forms that work perfectly well, including structuring stories so we can tell at a glance what we’ll be getting.

  9. Twitted by SonicFoundation said, on November 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    [...] This post was Twitted by SonicFoundation [...]

  10. Katherine Warman Kern said, on November 17, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    See the video player on http://www.ebeisbol.com for how we told the baseball game story in nearly real time. Line score, interrupted by video highlights, updated on the half inning. Afterwards, you have a pretty good digest of the entire game.

    We’re working on adding fan comments.

    Finally, the plan was to make this available for syndication on other sites as well as for member cell phones.

    Questions, drop me a line at katherine (at) comradity.com

  11. reinventingthenewsroom said, on November 17, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Hi Katherine, can you direct me more closely? Would love to check it out but getting a bit lost…. Thanks!

  12. Twitted by pmjim said, on November 17, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    [...] This post was Twitted by pmjim [...]

  13. Adster said, on November 17, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Yes, it’s broken, but don’t hurry to fix it.
    It took 150 years for the first newspaper to be published after Gutenburg invented his ‘press’, and another 100 years before the first successful english daily newspaper.
    Good writing will survive; something new will evolve.

  14. Another case for the news wiki said, on November 17, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    [...] Fry adds further analysis today in a piece about rethinking sports reporting: It’s a quietly devastating indictment of journalism. And Wales is absolutely right, for [...]

  15. [...] Go here to read the rest: This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything « Reinventing the Newsroom [...]

  16. [...] This Is Broken: From Game Stories  to, Well, Everything [...]

  17. [...] Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on November 18, 2009 In discussing why Wikipedia was beating newspapers as an information source when news breaks, I used the example of health care in illustrating how [...]

  18. [...] argued that this model is outdated and needs to give way to a new system where context is king, Jason Fry argues that this “upside-down storytelling” is broken and while his piece primarily deals with [...]

  19. [...] here: This Is Broken: From Game Stories to, Well, Everything … By admin | category: game wiki, wikipedia | tags: empire-craft, fantastic-online, [...]

  20. [...] lately, has this week’s best pithy one-sentence summary of a key future-of-journalism idea: “If we were starting today, would we do this?” Fry, who used to write for The Wall Street Journal Online, looked at a couple of journalism [...]

  21. [...] The inverted pyramid style of reportage is broken, believes Jason Fry, and it is time to reinvent contextless reporting into a more reader-friendly style. [...]

  22. [...] today, would we do this? A perfect question to ask for business model innovation from journalist Jason Fry in a recent post (hat tip to Mark Coddington). Fry looks at some of the issues facing newspapers these days, and [...]

  23. [...] they say. I do agree. And while the argue continues, many interested on the issue are now debating what really is the reason. The question is…, there is no reason at all, there are many. Intricate ones. Do ponder on [...]

  24. [...] analysis and debate is good — particularly if it began with that magical starting question of “If we were starting today, would we do this?” Understanding where you’re going is good too — you fire the arrow at where the [...]

  25. [...] to find out at least something about nearly everything. Apparently, when a big news story breaks, people really do converge on Wikipedia, looking for context; we are a generation empowered, as no generation before us, to find stuff [...]

  26. [...] back up. Let’s go back to the question that should always be asked when adapting to the Web: If we were starting today, would we do this? This time, though, let’s not think about it from a newspaper-revenue point of view. Rather, [...]


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