Newsroom Innovation Leaders: The Sports Department


Groves presenting research at AEJMC in Denver



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.



Filed under Real Live Changing Newsrooms

17 responses to “Newsroom Innovation Leaders: The Sports Department

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  2. Christopher

    Thanks for your insights into an interesting research in changing the newsroom. The leading role of the sports department in “bottom-up”-change is new to me – but it makes sense. You call the sports reporters “separated beasts“ – yes, IMO they‘re separated: at least in Germany they often get fewer resources for their work, other journalists don’t see them as “real colleagues”, there’re also approaches by management towards Computer-generated sports journalism or other Outsourcing strategies. So the department might be under high pressure. Perhaps these are some more reasons why sports journalists adopte and develope innovations in their daily business. What are your explanations?

    From a point of view of management research, I would like to know what management says about the journalists approaches towards entrepreneurial journalism. Do they support it or ask the question of “(how) does it pay” permanently?

    And: What was the reason for analyzing the sports department — is it part of a bigger research project, examining the ‘whole newsroom’? Is there an article already ‘in press’?

    Best regards, Christopher

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  7. Very interesting insight. I am also researching innovation in journalism, so please keep me posted about your research! Do you publish any results yet?

  8. Jesse Nahan

    The Ocean City Sentinel (NJ) sports department,, has found new revenue in selling local high school sports photos online. In addition to their sports and news stories, the Sentinel has a separate part of the site where they can present many photos from each game. (Disclosure: I built this system for the Sentinel.)

  9. changingnewsroom

    Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry to be so slow to respond, was out of town for the weekend.

    Interesting points on sports departments being especially subject to outsourcing/computer-generated posts and therefore, pressure. In my study, that wasn’t a major factor, in part because sports coverage was just so popular in sports-crazed Wisconsin that I think that while it is subject to some of the staff cuts that other departments also had to deal with, outsourcing wasn’t something people were talking about as much. There was some talk though of having sports department copy editors and other non-reporting staff take on additional responsibilities during their downtime before the games finish up and the scores and stories start rolling in.

    We actually did not set out to study the sports department at all – we studied the whole newsroom – all departments, all levels of the newsroom hierarchy, everything. But we were immediately struck by this result and the similarity in both of our findings. Certainly, we could, and perhaps will, go back and really look at this issue in particular in greater depth than we did.

    Your second question is a very good one about how leaders view entrepreneurship, and we may actually write a second full post answering that one. I would say in a nutshell that they verbally support it but do not always do so through their actions when these activities challenge traditional power structures and processes. My sense is that leaders understand the role sports plays in selling subscriptions and pumping pageviews so they are supportive to a point, but at the same time, sports is still taken less seriously and allowed to operate with less oversight and control from the top (which as we note, can be a good thing).

  10. changingnewsroom

    Oh, and – we are in the process of working on a book proposal covering the full findings of our study.

    We did just get a different, but somewhat similar in nature (though not on sports) published in Electronic News:

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  13. Hi,

    I found very interesting this topic.
    In my opinion, sport departments has two adventages: their public is youngest and their news are less serious. This makes possible that sport departaments work with flexible edition (in radio, television or web).
    Even so the journalists and editors who work in politics or economy must be serious. Their publics are people who aren’t usually young and like traditions. And, how do you write in the first sentence: “Nothing threatens innovation like tradition”.
    So, I think, it’s public issue.

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