This post is co-authored with Dr. Jonathan Groves, an assistant professor of journalism at Drury University. Both of us have spent several months in newspaper newsrooms, interviewing journalists and observing changes in processes and routines.
Nothing threatens innovation like tradition.
And no one bucks tradition like the sports department.
In the newspapers we’ve studied, the sports department is typically the home of the Web innovators, the place where the podcasts are being created and the Tweets are flowing furiously.
This pocket of innovation makes sense. Business researchers have regularly found that innovation and risk-taking occurs in the separate, autonomous divisions — think GM’s Saturn division in its early years — and at most news organizations, the sports departments are separate beasts, often working different schedules and feeling relatively less shackled by tradition.
A sports staffer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel told Brown: “Sports is in the lead in terms of online…Every night in sports is election night. We are used to that kind of workload. We are used to doing it late and doing it quick,” he said, noting that the immediacy and increased metabolism required to file not only stories but also blog posts, live game updates and Tweets comes a little more naturally to his department than the rest of the newsroom.
At the Journal Sentinel, Packer Insider, which charges avid fans a subscription fee for access to additional in-depth content not available on the main site, is one of the few examples around of a successful paid-content site, and according to the staffer, its successful launch in 2001 really helped “plant the bug” that sports could lead the way online.
At one newspaper Groves studied, the sports department had been more innovative than the rest of the newsroom about reaching out to the Web audience in providing “good enough” content. Inspired by a writing seminar, reporters soon began producing podcasts using a $40 digital recorder purchased by the sports editor. Despite the low fidelity, the first episode had about 1,000 listens, and it soon became one of the most popular items on the website.
It’s the type of “good enough” content desired by the audience. Instead of obsessing about the fidelity of the audio, the reporters focused on the content and delivered their expertise in the format desired by the audience.
A glance at the prolific comments on any sports story or the response beat reporters like the Journal Sentinel’s Greg Bedard get on Twitter shows that the sports department has also taken a strong lead in developing the vaunted community engagement news organizations desire online to increase credibility and keep readers coming back. Certainly sports staffers also have an advantage: By definition, their readers are committed fans. But their willingness to, in many cases, engage those fans in ways other beat reporters have not has really helped develop these online communities.
The challenge is spreading that learning to other parts of the organization. The sports departments developed new routines and figured out how to develop Web content in addition to stories for the print edition. But the separation that made the innovation possible also prevented that learning from spreading to the rest of the organization.
This post naturally only represents a small slice of our research, but we’d be happy to discuss further in the comments.