With No Sports To Cover, Newspapers Either Retrench Or Get Creative

    • Washington Post redeploying some sports reporters to Coronavirus coverage, while Boston Globe goes to the well for story ideas.
    • Online-only outlets like The Athletic have lowered subscription paywalls to attract and retain readers.

When Boston Globe sports editor Matt Pepin first heard that NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, he sensed in his gut the sports business was headed for a long, painful shutdown.

Pepin immediately asked his staff for “creative” ways to cover a sports world with virtually no live sports. His team responded with ten pages of story ideas, ranging from personal recollections of covering Boston’s biggest events to in-depth features on the inner workings of teams and leagues they cover.

He noticed baseball writer Pete Abraham wrote a personal Facebook post on the best players he’d ever covered by position. He asked him to do a bigger, better version for the newspaper.

Meanwhile, Pepin is currently matching up reporters with editors to turn those ten pages of story ideas into actual coverage.

“At the Globe, the desire is to continue to give readers a sports section. We see it as a distraction. It’s something we know that they’re interested in,” Pepin said. “We want to produce a unique and compelling point for our subscribers. Our staff totally answered the bell.”

With virtually no live sports, newspapers and media companies are being challenged with how to cover the industry. There are some, like the Boston Globe’s sports section that, for now, are operating with the same size staff, footprint, and mission. Others, like the Washington Post, have chosen to cut back on sports coverage, reassigning those reporters to general news.

The Washington Post announced internally on March 18 that it will redeploy a large group of Sports staffers to other sections to help with coronavirus coverage.

Among them, Staff editors Alexa Steele, Dave Larimer, Dan Hargett, and Karl Hente, for example, will shift over to the paper’s 24/7 virus coverage. Sportswriters Kent Babb, Roman Stubbs, and Robert Klemko are joining the National staff. 

 “All of these moves are temporary but necessary as the Post reports on a story of such unprecedented magnitude,” Sports editor Matthew Vita and deputy editor Matt Rennie wrote in the memo. 

The editors also revealed the section’s footprint would likely be cut in half. What’s left will be folded inside the Style section. Only the Sunday sports section will continue to be published as a standalone section.

The reality, wrote Vita and Rennie, “is that without basketball, hockey, baseball, golf, soccer, tennis and a host of other sports – along with the pages of results, standings, and roundups that go with them – it is going to be impossible to fill even a 6-page daily Sports section for a while.” 

The Denver Post also announced March 18 it is suspending its regular Sports section until things return to “normal.” The paper will continue to offer sports sections on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday – but they will be smaller than normal. Sports will be folded into other sections from Wednesday through Saturday.

“There have been so many cancellations due to the coronavirus, trying to fill an entire sports section is virtually impossible,” editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said in a statement.

Similarly, Paul Tash, chairman and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Times, told the Wall Street Journal his paper is changing gears to cover virus news: “Everyone is a coronavirus reporter now.”

At the Toronto Star, longtime sports columnist Bruce Arthur is now a “coronavirus” columnist. “Will listen and learn,” he tweeted, “let’s all do our best.”

It’s not just large, metro newspapers. The sports shutdown is affecting smaller local and community papers too.

The Richmond Register announced it was dropping its sports section on March 16. 

“There will be no sports section in the daily print edition, as all high school, college and pro sports have been suspended until further notice,” wrote editor Jonathan Greene. “Occasionally, the sports section will return with a one-page front section. However, until competition resumes, we will continue to publish relevant sports news as it occurs, but it will appear on other pages of the newspapers.”

For the subscription-only digital media outlet The Athletic, the focus is now to continue to bring in new customers while keeping current subscribers happy.

The Athletic is offering new users a free 90-day trial and a one-year subscription of $59.99. “While games are suspended, you can count on us to continue telling incredible stories,” The Athletic tweeted on March 19. “Join us as we find comfort and entertainment in the nostalgia, culture, and people behind the games we love.

On the editorial side, chief content officer Paul Fichtenbaum promised The Athletic would be as “creative as possible” in finding interesting story angles.  

“Internally, we ’ve started a #lets-get-weird Slack channel for our 500-plus employees to contribute inventive ideas to keep you engaged, amused, informed, and, of course, part of the daily conversation on our site,” wrote Fichtenbaum in a letter to subscribers. “We will also continue to tell stories via audio through our vast local and national network, which has more than 150 ongoing podcasts.”

The Athletic is also temporarily pausing the contributions of freelancers whose work depends on their coverage of live gamers, according to The Big Lead.

Jack Myers, the founder of MediaVillage, said cutting back on sports could prove to be a “brand disaster” for media outlets large and small.  

“Sports is, at its core, our most human of stories. From the local Little League team to high school athletes to college, pro and all levels of amateur sports, there are human stories to be told,” warned Myers. 

“These are the stories to tell, across all platforms. This is a time to reallocate journalists’ priorities from reporting the news of sports to sharing the human side of sports, entertainment, food, and local businesses. The local media who immerse themselves in their communities will emerge stronger after the worst passes. Those who scale back and cut back will fail the humanity test, which I hope is having a revival in our society.”

READ MORE: Suspended Seasons Leave Networks Scrambling To Fill Programming Hours

The silver lining, if there is one, is the shutdown that has reaffirmed the media’s bond with readers.

When the Boston Globe reached out to readers for their feedback, Pepin was pleased to see multiple requests for question and answer sessions with current staff – along with calls for old columns by the late Will McDonough, Bob Ryan, and Leigh Montville.

Still, he knows his section is facing a daunting task during the slow sports news days ahead.

The Boston Globe was able to ride out the first week of the shutdown with non-stop coverage about Tom Brady, the Patriots, and NFL free agency. But Brady’s signing with the Buccaneers means a reliable source for content is coming to an end after 20 years.

As of now, the Boston Globe’s 33 full-time sports staffers, and 12-15 part-timers are still at work. The paper will continue to produce 3-4 pages of sports coverage a day throughout the week, then 6-8 pages on Sunday. But Pepin says some of the part-timers are already moving to other sections to help cover the coronavirus. 

READ MORE: Classic Games On Tap As Networks Dig Deep Into Sports Archives

The state of Massachusetts suffered its first coronavirus-related death on March 20. While no decisions have been made, sports could transfer some staffers over to coronavirus coverage

“It may be that some of our staff gets reassigned — but I don’t think a lot. There’s going to be major news with the five big leagues shut down,” Pepin said. “Between ongoing news, and keeping up with the developments as they pertain to the resumption of seasons and the playoffs as they happen, that’s going to keep us busy. Then coming up with a healthy diet of feature content is part of our plan.”