It was Final Four weekend and chances were good that either the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville men’s basketball team would have been on the court in Atlanta competing for the national championship.
But instead of covering an NCAA Tournament run, UK basketball beat writer Jon Hale was writing the coronavirus roundup coverage for the website and front page of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.
Louisville Cardinals basketball beat writer Lucas Aulbach is working on the breaking news desk.
And sports editor Rana L. Cash is leading the editing of COVID-19 topics in Southern Indiana, where high school sports reporter David J. Kim has been redirected to cover news in the two-county area bordering Louisville.
The novel coronavirus struck the United States hard and fast. But when the balls stopped bouncing in the NBA and the NCAA Tournament busted every anticipated bracket by canceling all its games, the nation at last fixed its attention on the deadly outbreak that has since sickened thousands and led to a horrifying loss of life.
March is indeed mad. Souls are scarred, the economy is in shambles and the journalism industry is in peril.
In balance, the stoppage of sports amid global calamity is inconsequential. But it’s that same lost footing, that confusion and restlessness with the world around us, that makes many sports fans long for something familiar — games, with winners and losers and a race to the finish line.
The coronavirus, however, sounded the final buzzer on all live sporting events. The financial, emotional and social pain of that is felt everywhere. Here in the Commonwealth, the Kentucky Derby is postponed until September. The Louisville baseball team had entered the season ranked first in the country and was among the favorites to win the College World Series. Along with the men’s basketball teams, the Louisville women’s team had its sights set on the Final Four as a tournament favorite. Most high school senior athletes will never play on a team again.
The reality of that is not unique to our coverage area, of course. Still, we recognized that going cold turkey on sports coverage would not only deepen the bitterness, but it would mean abandoning some of our most loyal and devoted readers. Sports drives a significant portion of traffic to our website and more importantly, often leads the way in generating subscriptions.
Daily news coverage, now more than ever, is heavy, hard and vital. It also makes craving for the distraction of sports even greater.
Whether through the prism of the pandemic or through the purity of sheer competition, The Courier-Journal has maintained a steady offering of enterprising and interesting local sports coverage — even while every member of its sports staff is also taking on news responsibilities.
In its three-part series entitled “Futures on Hold,” The Courier-Journal explored the many ways the cancellation of sports has impacted elite summer basketball recruiting for UK and Louisville, disrupted preparations for NFL and MLB drafts for local college players and forced high school athletes with college aspirations but few scholarship offers to find ways to attract the attention of coaches.
We featured a junior college basketball player who signed to play for Louisville but could go straight to the NBA. The writer, Hayes Gardner, earlier that same week wrote about the way funerals have sadly changed in the age of social distancing.
The Louisville women’s basketball team was expected to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Cameron Teague Robinson, while also working on the breaking news desk, wrote about the economic impact of lost revenue for the city, and completed a deep profile on a potential NFL first-round draft pick from Louisville.
Sports investigative reporter Tim Sullivan talked with the Louisville City FC president for a longform Q&A, then wrote about a local church that refused to cease holding in-person Sunday morning services.
Dominique Yates, our multimedia reporter, used Zoom to record interviews with beat writers about multiple local players entering the NBA draft — while also producing a daily lifestyles video blog called “Coping in the Pandemic.”
High school sports reporter Jason Frakes pored through dozens of ballots to produce the basketball all-state teams. But before he got started on that project, he wrote the obituary of one of the area’s first known victims of the coronavirus.
Back and forth they’ve gone, helping The Courier-Journal both navigate a crisis and provide an outlet for those overwhelmed by the daily barrage of anxiety-inducing coronavirus news — news we must have to combat the disease and flatten the curve.
“The pandemic has changed the world as we know it — in the newsroom and in our own personal lives,” said Richard A. Green, editor of The Courier-Journal. “And in this great season of change, it’s been an all-hands approach to covering the coronavirus for our readers, while also being sensitive to the other significant stories about local teams, sports and the lives of student-athletes. I’m proud that our Sports Team has responded with urgency and creativity, applying their skills as breaking news writers, storytellers and analysts to bring greater depth to our coverage of this health crisis.”
Breaking local sports news — players declaring for the draft, committing to programs, etc. — continues to unfold. Local perspectives on national issues, such as a first-person account from an Olympic hopeful after the games’ postponement, or a college football coach bracing for the potential delay of the season, are also important.
So is enterprise reporting, storytelling and commentary. From a retrospective on an unforgettable story to a feature on an athlete whose entire life has been shaped by adversity, the stories are rich and plentiful.
Local sports information departments have been helpful in arranging phone interviews with athletes and coaches. And, as one of 261 daily newspapers in the Gannett network, which also includes Sports Media Group and its many sites, we have the added advantage of being able to use content from around the country that is relevant to our readers. It could be a story by Golfweek on a professional player from Louisville who turned to a career in medical sales when the coronavirus ended the golf season, or a piece by Rookie Wire on the mock NBA Draft. All help to make up our daily report, online and in print.
While the story is positive, it is not easy. The burden on reporters and editors is significant. Planning editor Kelly Ward is responsible for providing a daily print budget and with helping to edit coronavirus news at night. As sports editor, I am managing and planning sports and news writers through distress and furloughs.
However, I believe sports writers and editors are uniquely suited for this undertaking. On all levels of sports, these journalists are accustomed to producing high volumes of content, working long hours, writing under extreme deadline pressure, filing “at the buzzer,” and synthesizing breaking news and press conferences in rapid and clear fashion.
The stakes are higher these days with coronavirus coverage. They are, in fact, about life and death.
The NFL season may not kick off in September. There may not be any NBA Finals. The Olympics in Tokyo won’t happen until 2021. The Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Labor Day weekend, but there are no assurances.
What is certain is that in arguably the most trying times of our lives, journalists who cover sports are primed for the moment, ready to step in and provide newsrooms with the skills and talents needed in this crisis.
And when the crashing waves make life hard, journalists who cover sports are there, too, keeping readers in the game.
Rana L. Cash is the sports editor at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. Reach her at RCash@courierjournal.com.