How Technology Has Changed Sports Writing
ABSTRACT: Very much as with other aspects of publishing, data and digital technology has fundamentally transformed how we publish about professional sports. Over the past ten years technology has affected how fans watch professional sports, how fans interact with professional sports and professional athletes, and how people publish about sports. This paper explores how the technological changes around how we consume sports has affected the ways which we publish content about sports— in social media, journalistically, and digitally.
To no one’s surprise, in the 1990s sports fans had to look to their local newspaper to get the latest game scores. Since the commercialisation of the internet, the amount of sports critics and news updates published digitally has exploded. Of course newspapers still have sports sections — which are now online as well as in print. Ronald B Woods reports that the changes that have happened over the past ten years because of the presence of the commercial internet are reminiscent of how our interactions with sports changed in the 1950s when televisions started to be found in most homes. Woods states that the business model for sports broadcasting on tv was
“to schedule programs and events at certain times and expect a mass audience to view them. However, the advances in technology in the last 10 years allow people to record any program and replay it at their convenience using TiVo or similar technology. Of course, people can also skip the advertisements if they wish, fracturing the business model that has been in place for over 50 years.”
If we inject the internet into this model, people can watch highlights whenever and wherever they want and keep up with their favourite teams on the go. The TSN app shows you the live scores, highlight videos, and after-game interviews. All on one app!
So this thing, the internet, has taken something a journalist would have to write up and publish in a newspaper, and made it obsolete. These sports apps, and their websites, give fans the content quicker, more concise, and curated to just the sports (or teams) that they want to pay attention to. If you watch TSN SportsCentre on television, you will receive information about all the professional sports going on in North America at that time. If you are a hockey fan, you will have to sit through the basketball highlights, the golf highlights, and the tennis highlights until the sports analysts on the show get around to showing you the hockey highlights. However, on the TSN website or on their app, fans can click on only the content that they wish to read or watch.
Considerable Changes in How We Watch Live Sports
Woods’ research informs that during the 2010 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball tournament (commonly known as March Madness), CBS sports and the NCAA teamed up to offer an online streaming website. Games were happening during the work day and in the interest of turning the most profit, these companies wanted to offer fans a way to watch the games while they were at work. This website had 3 million unique website visitors combining for 3.4 millions hours of live video watched during the tournament. This website even featured something called a “boss button” that aided people getting away with watching the tournament at work. The idea was that if you were watching at work and your boss walked by your desk, you simply hit the boss button and the website hides the streaming video and mutes the audio, replacing both with a ‘business-like’ work-flow map which is actually all about the tournament brackets (even though it looks like a boring business document). This boss button was hit 1.7 million times during March Madness in 2010.
This innovative idea to watch sports during your regular work day took off as a new trend that today, fans have come to expect. Many professional sports apps (TSN, ESPN, theScore, individual sports teams apps like the Calgary Flames app) keep fans up to date with how many shots the team has, individual shift lengths, and even the ability to listen to the live commentary of the games, while you are at work (or at the gym, or watching your son’s dance recital). This kind of always-connected technology has allowed sports to be followed everywhere, which highly affects what can then be published about these sports, if everyone is up to date all the time.
One of the most thrilling aspects about being an avid sports fan is the thrill of spontaneous action and the tension of uncertainty in which anything could happen. This is why people pay huge amounts of money to attend live sporting events; if you could not see it live, you had to rely on secondary sports reporting the next day to find out what happened (we are considering the time before the streaming and televising of live sports). Now, you don’t have to. With the new technology that has advanced hand-in-hand with the internet, sports fans have never before been so hooked up at all hours of the day, which lead to the change of pace in sports publishing.
Social Media and the Change of Pace
Contributing to the numerous sports reporters is an alloy of sports bloggers, fans, and professional athletes on social media platforms. Sports journalists now need to sift through the media and try to distinguish between the new news and the old news. On social media and professional team apps, fans can get instantaneous updates when a player scores or if the game goes into overtime. Sports reporters can no longer hold the score of the game in their arsenal— fans already know it. Reporters, both online, in print, and on television, now have the challenge of providing more than Twitter can offer: an analysis over 140 characters long. They have to look at the individual plays and create more things to report on. Of course reporters did report more than just the end score and who took the penalties ten years ago, but now there is not much instantaneous competition that they must try to curate more engaging content to keep fans reading and / or watching.
Additionally, these social media platforms have greatly changed accessibility to your favourite athletes. If you think that Connor McDavid must be healed from his injury by now and the Edmonton Oilers are keeping him out of the line up for an ulterior motive, you can tweet at them at @EdmontonOilers . If you think that Shannon Szabados had an amazing game last night that you will never forget, you can tweet your thanks to @ShannonSzabados .
Drew Hancherick uses his paper “Tweet Talking: How Modern Technology and Social Media Are Changing Sports Communication” to explain how Twitter has changed the pace of sports publishing. Time-sensitive news such as rumours of professional athlete trades can spread over Twitter before any reputable news source, such as ESPN or Fox News, had published any hints of a trade. In 2010, a columnist for ESPN tweeted out (using his personal Twitter handle) that rumours of a trade were going around, before even the newspaper he wrote for had published content pertaining to a possible trade. This is another example of how technology has changed the pace of sports publishing.
“As media technology has evolved over the years, so has the way that information is gathered and published. In the past, newspapers and other print publications were the primary sources of news information; reporters had plenty of time to gather information and verify it through multiple sources before a story was published. Today that model of journalism is nearly obsolete. Now is the time of the rapid-fire news cycle; the rise of the Internet and round-the-clock cable news networks has in many cases channeled the energy of journalists toward pushing out news as fast as possible” (Hancherick 17)
Not only does sports reporting today need to be as fast as possible, it also has been condensed. Jillian Gutstein and Sarah Hampton write, after attending Penn Law Sports Law Symposium in February 2015 in which Adam Schefter, a current ESPN football analyst, spoke, Gutstein and Hampton reported that Schefter is considered by New York Magazine to be “The Most Influential Tweeter in New York”. Schefter is publishing content about sports like a traditional reporter, just in bytes. Before coming to ESPN, Scheftler was an editor at his school newspaper at the University of Michigan and later he was a reporter following the Denver Broncos (NFL). At the Symposium, Scheftler said that newspaper reporting is slowing dying out because news is no longer reported every 24 hours, instead it is reported every 24 seconds (Gutstein and Hampton). He states that Twitter has changed the way people write about sports because journalists now post news by the minute, but if you get it wrong, you cannot take it back.
If a new model of sports publishing takes place on social media and has to be up-to-date-up-to-the-minute, this doesn’t leave time for lengthy fact checking. Reporters and journalists must get the story (tweet) right the first time they write it; it will not be edited later. Hancherick reflects these concerns with saying that the rush to get a story out before another media outlet does leaves journalists in an ethical dilemma— is it better to be the first reporter to publish the story and risk having it disproved later or are you obligated to complete several fact checks in order to maintain your reputation? Hancherick believes that stories of journalists having to apologize later for publishing false information in an effort to get it out fast will become more prevalent as the need for instantaneous information becomes greater. Technology has allowed for quicker publishing, which does not allow much time for proofreading and fact checking. Hancherick however does offer a solution to this problem: a reporter can tweet a short teaser about a story before it is even written, and then follow up on their publications website with a full, edited, and fact checked story later.
Have Sports Columns Changed? Journalistic content on the web
The article content on TSN’s website is not as lengthy as article content on the same subject ten years ago might have been in a newspaper column. However, this does not mean that publishing is diminished or gone — it has just become more concise. Short, concise stories on the happenings in the sports realm accompany the daily scores and different columns analyze different aspects of the game. This quantity explosion of content that is the internet has really expanded the world for sports reporting because they now have so many more things to write about — especially since technology has impacted the games themselves. Tracking chips and overhead tracking cameras now provide player by player statistics on how these athletes (mainly basketball and hockey at this point) are performing on a game by game basis. With this information, sports columnists have a lot more to talk about. They can, and do, go on for columns and columns about how the New York Ranger’s Corsi ratio is down seven percent since last season and that is why they cannot buy a goal right now.
In addition to the length of sports columns becoming shorter, they have also become search engine optimized. Instead of pun-filled or witty headlines/sub-headlines, they must have keywords in them like the team name and the specific player so Google can find the article. Strategies must be put into place such as long-tail keywords for Google searches and using the correct trending terms of the week. The existence of search engine optimization changes the very words being used in online sports publishing, not just the content or amount of content published.
Digitally: Robot or Human?
Perhaps one of the most unexpected and dramatic ways that technology has affected sports publishing came in a New York Times article written by Steve Lohr in 2011. The excerpt
“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ” (Lohr)
was the beginning of a short news brief on College Football in the US…and it was written by a computer. A code mimicking human reasoning was created by a company called Narrative Science. The software they have created takes numbered data, like sports statistics or financial reports, and creates articles. Software is now generating human-like content to be published. Lohr’s article, while it recognizes that technology has already drastically changed the economics of traditional journalism, questions whether robot-journalists will replace human journalists in the newsroom. If much more news content is being pushed out on Twitter these days anyways, is it that hard for this sophisticated of a program to generate comprehensible and enticing 140 character news snippets?
The leaders of Narrative Science state that they believe their product can be used to generate content when publishers budgets are too tight or there is too much of a time constraint to have humans generate the content. The Big Ten Network (a sports coverage network in the United States) began using Narrative Science in 2010 to produce short summary articles of university or high school games that can be published minutes after the games are completed. Significantly, the articles that this software produces has search engine optimization built into it. The Big Ten Network saw a 40% increase in traffic to their website on articles covering football games specifically.
Using Narrative Science to generate short pieces of content is extremely cost effective: around $10 per article of approximately 500 words. This expense is far less (by industry estimates) than than the average cost per article if a human was hired to write it (Lehr).
To investigate the other side of the robotic coin, Christer Clerwall experimented on how consumers interpret algorithmic content in his article “Enter the Robot Journalist” in Journalism Practice. He performed a small-scale study that investigated how readers perceive software-generated content in relation to similar content written by (human) journalists, or if they could even tell the difference. The study conducted involved a small sample being instructed to read a recap of a NFL Football game and guess whether they thought it was written by a journalist or written by software. Additionally, they were asked “to assess the article on the quality of the content, and the credibility of the text” (Clerwall 524); this used a set base of describing words for participants to choose from. Results showed that the content written by a journalist had more votes for ‘coherence’, ‘well written’, ‘clear’, and ‘pleasant to read’ assessment qualities. However, participants rated ‘descriptive’, ‘informative’, ‘trustworthy’, and ‘objective’ at higher rates in for the robot-generated text. While Clerwall recognizes that the differences are small, he states that the descriptive words chosen to describe the software generated text shows that readers found this text more credible and more authoritative in the information that it was conveying. Graphs on the study show that “the text written by a journalist is assessed as being more coherent, well written, clear, less boring, and more pleasant to read. On the other hand, the text generated by software is perceived as more descriptive, more informative, more boring, but also more accurate, trustworthy, and objective” (Clerwall, 525). While differences in votes for each descriptive word exist between both versions of the text, the only significant difference in votes occurred with the boring and pleasant to read descriptors. Clerwall discloses that perhaps a larger scale study would provide enough numbers to see a larger range of significant differences, but also perhaps the only difference between a journalist and a coded-software-content-producer is that journalists’ content is pleasant to read and computer-generated content is boring. There was not a significant number of people who could guess correctly whether the content they were reading was written by a human or a computer. Clerwall comes to the conclusion that “as far as this study is concerned, the readers are not able to discern automated content from content written by a human. Some aspects of quality, such as being clear and being pleasant to read, received a slightly higher score for human-written content, but others, such as trustworthiness, informative, and objective, were higher for the automated content” (Clerwall, 527). After reading this study, I don’t think robots will put journalists out of work anytime soon. Computers might be more suitable to write Tweets stating that an interesting article exists on a certain newspaper’s website, and the interesting article would still be actually written by a human.
Technology has made the consumption of professional sports available at all hours of the day, which has changed our needs for sports reporting. We now want sports reporting to be more insightful than just the box scores and for new content to come out multiple times a day. The invasion of the easily-accessible internet into the public’s lives has transformed sports publishing into being primarily digital and has increased the pace significantly. Advances in sports tracking and statistics technology has given reporters much more to talk about, thus increasing the amount of content. Mobile technology allows for amazing things such as SnapChat giving fans the ‘at the game’ experience that television broadcasting just cannot. We have seen software programs create game-recap summaries that read as if a human wrote them and we have seen reporters publish on Twitter too hastily to properly fact-check their stories. We can safely conclude that sports reporting (and the human journalists who do it) is not going anywhere; although we can expect that robots will write the shorter snippets of game summaries, humans will still needed to write in-depth critical articles about sports, even if they are a bit shorter than they used to be and now are search engine optimized.
Christer Clerwall. “Enter the Robot Journalist.” Journalism Practice (2014): n. pag. Web. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17512786.2014.883116>
Gutstein, Jillian, and Sarah Hampton. “Tech Is Changing Sports Journalism, Says ESPN’s Adam Schefter at Penn Law’s Sports Law Symposium.”• Penn Law. University of Pennsylvania Law School, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. <https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/news/5360-tech-is-changing-sports-journalism-says-espns-adam#.VqlzKlMrKi5>.
Hancherick, Drew. “Tweet Talking: How Modern Technology and Social Media Are Changing Sports Communication.” Strategic Communications(n.d.): n. pag. Elon University. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.<http://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/academics/communications/research/vol2no1/02hancherick.pdf>
Lohr, Steve. “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column.”The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/computer-generated-articles-are-gaining-traction.html?_r=0>
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Woods, Ron. “Technology Has Changed the Way We Experience Sport.”Human-kinetics. Human Kinetics, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. <http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/technology-has-changed-the-way-we-experience-sport>.