What does it take to cover big-time sports?

March 13, 2014
Category: Uncategorized

Lou Ferrara, Associated Press vice president and managing editor, prepared the following remarks for delivery Thursday at the College Media Association spring national convention in New York.

Good afternoon. Thanks for joining me today.

I’m Lou Ferrara, and I’m a managing editor at The Associated Press. I oversee sports, entertainment and business news, among other things, and I recently helped oversee AP’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

My topic today is to address what it takes to cover big-time sports. The BIG GAMES. Exciting stuff, for sure. After all, who doesn’t want to go to some of these events and see history unfold? The Super Bowl, the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Series.

Yet, the reality of what is needed is likely different from the perception many have about modern sports journalism. It isn’t about getting tickets or attending games.

The day of being just a sports journalist is, in many ways, long gone. As a sports colleague recently put it to me: Sports reporters need to be journalists, first and foremost, with a hunger for news. Many people can write a game report. Only a few can root out the story behind the game.

Let me explain a bit more.

In the modern 24-7, hyper social media, televised world, covering the game is becoming – more and more — the easy part. In some corners, it is fully automated.

And I often wonder, as I’ve discussed with many of the AP staff, how coverage of games and game stories will need to change in the months and years ahead to adapt to the media landscape. I’m not ready to predict their death just yet – they remain in high demand and are widely read – but I think everyone would agree they will need to be different than what they were five or 10 years ago. And one day game stories could vanish as essential to coverage of sports.

So if the very fabric and foundation of big-game sports coverage is changing, if not disappearing, then the next logical step is this: How we cover sports is going to change even more than it has in the past few years. And we are seeing it all around us. Audiences are demanding it.

Let me give you some examples.

When I look in the very near past at the Sochi games, the sports and events themselves were almost a backdrop to the bigger story. Russia. Vladimir Putin. Security. Pussy Riot. Gay rights. Construction problems. Ukraine. And then there were other threads that got more attention than the game stories we wrote: Accessibility for the disabled. A worker hit by a bobsled. A malfunctioning Olympic ring that the world saw but Russians did not. How the IOC restricts athlete endorsements during the games. Or, how social media is part of the fabric of an Olympian’s celebrity.

The same is true for so many other events or sports coverage. What are the top stories in the NFL right now? Michael Sam announcing he is gay and the bullying problems in Miami. How about MLB? Derek Jeter retiring and instant replay. What about college? The Penn State saga continues to play out and there is more money going into college sports right now than most industries on the planet.

That’s not to say that the sports and the games aren’t important. I need people who know how to write well to cover those events and develop sources at them.

But I also need really smart journalists at those events. Reporters who know how to dig and who can think on their feet, those who can identify a news story when they see it happening around the sport they are covering. Those who see there is more to sports than just the big games.

I’ll give you some examples.

Jim Vertuno is AP’s statehouse reporter in Austin, Texas. Most of the time he’s dealing with government. But what is one of his niche beats? Lance Armstrong. Jim has never been to the Tour de France, but he’s broken more news off the Armstrong story than pretty much any reporter.

How about Genaro Armas? He now covers sports in Wisconsin, but a few years ago he was in State College, Pennsylvania. It was Genaro’s beat reporting and source development, albeit often related to attending games and working the beat, that kept AP ahead on so many fronts. And he allowed AP to be the first agency to accurately report when Joe Paterno died when other outlets got it wrong.

Or, Steve Wilson. He’s an AP sports writer in London. He covers some matches, but most importantly he smartly covers the International Olympic Committee and all of its moves. He’s the reason AP is first with so much Olympic news, which tends to set the tone and theme for many sports events around the world.

And this week, Gerald Imray, AP’s sports writer in South Africa, is covering the incredible trial of Oscar Pistorius. Gerald’s knowledge of Pistorius extends well beyond the track and continues to help in beat reporting a case that is being watched worldwide.

I can go on and on. AP has some of the greatest sports staff around and I’m fortunate to work with all of them.

My point is all of these great reporters are not just covering the games. The big games are just part of the story. These are smart reporters and they know how to see a story and dig. And I need more of them. If AP is to remain competitive in the world, I need to provide news and information that can’t be obtained elsewhere and that comes from reporting. It is especially needed in sports, where there is big money at stake, huge audiences and growing markets.

There’s no question we need journalism in sports. We just need to get past the idea that it is only about the big games.

So my takeaways for all of you aspiring to be the next great sports writer are this:

* Learn how to cover news. That means dealing with public records, cops, courts and government. Think of the Tiger Woods story. Biggest story at the time, and the reporting involved dealing with police and records. It never ventured onto a golf course.

* When you are at games, develop sources. Don’t just sit there and write a story. The game is important, but get there early, linger, talk to people. If you aren’t outgoing, become an extrovert and make yourself talk to lots of people. Lots, all the time.

* Realize that the great future sports reporters will know how to do much more than cover games. They will be masters of their beats and will know everything about the teams they cover and the leagues. And they will also know that everything that matters in sports extends well beyond the field of play. They will be ahead of the pack.

I’m happy to talk further, but I wanted to leave enough time for questions and discussion.

I should mention that I didn’t come up in sports. My first job was covering business news, then education, then cops and courts and ultimately doing it in all formats. I got to know news first.