Sports journalism will thrive in digital age

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Photo by Mariah Wilson, The Gauntlet

Photo by Mariah Wilson, The Gauntlet

This article was originally published in the Gauntlet, the University of Calgary’s student newspaper, on April 6, 2017.

CALGARY—Next year, the Gauntlet will transition from a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine. With a new digital format and daily reporting on our website, this will have a largely positive outcome in the sports section.

Our move reflects the increased digital demands from our readership and news reporting as a whole. In September 2015, the Toronto Star launched Star Touch, a tablet app boasting a more immersive reading experience. In September 2016, a coalition of 146 newspapers in Quebec petitioned the provincial government for short-term financial assistance to help them transition to digital media.

The shift away from print and towards digital media in Canada is coupled with the buyout of local newspapers by Postmedia in recent years. In January 2016, the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun newsrooms merged. A wave of similar merges also resulted in extensive layoffs in newsrooms across the country.

Journalism is feeling the pressure to transition successfully to a digital format. But the transition has faced a significant learning curve in both Canada and the United States.

While many mourn the death of print media and express concerns over authenticity and accountability in online news, sports journalism has charged ahead in ways that outcompete much of the industry.

Sports reporting has always been open to experimentation with cutting-edge technology. The presence of augmented reality is already widespread — puck tracking in hockey and projected timing are an integral part of sports broadcasting. The introduction of new technologies like virtual reality to sports will continue to have a positive effect on the viewers’ experience of the game.

Despite this, there is still a lot of hesitation — even fear — associated with a digital transition. Newspaper purists express fears that online news is updated too rapidly to be checked for accuracy. They worry that forms of self-publication like social media interfere with the transfer of information across online platforms.

The fact that print media has never been an ideal form for sports reporting is often forgotten by readers. Print was simply the easiest and most accessible way to disseminate information in past years. But journalism does not start and end with print.

In the 1960s, television was introduced to the media consumer. Suddenly, the kinetic and dynamic nature of sport was made accessible to Canadians in a way that it had never been before. Print journalism did its best to outline the excitement and tact of sports in game recaps and photography, but the introduction of video footage changed the way we watch the game. Hockey Night in Canada became a cultural icon — the image of the Canadian family sitting around a television screen cheering on Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky was integral to Canadian identity. Canadians were moved by moments of greatness in our sport history.

We are experiencing another shift in the way an audience can understand sports. The introduction of Twitter to sports journalism has altered our need for game recaps — we can now relive our favourite moments of the game in 140 characters or less. GIFs of important plays are replacing Sportsnet’s “Top Plays of the Week”. Digital moving images are easy to embed in articles alongside text and analysis.

Athletes are also gaining more autonomy as they grow their brand and voice concerns in accessible spaces online. Forums for athletes like the Players’ Tribune are erasing the gap that exists between reporters and athletes. The need for sports reporters to translate the jargon of the game and be the spokesperson for athletes is slowly disappearing. Athletes are no longer content to sit back and wait for managers, coaches and reporters to speak for them.

The way to approach these changes is not through fear or ignorance. Digital media offers the potential for sports journalism to adapt to the needs of its audience. Taking the focus away from print journalism allows the industry the time and space it needs to develop new digital methods of communication.

The potential for digital and online media is largely untapped by journalism — and the fact that other industries are at the cutting edge of innovation in virtual reality technologies is a major threat to the relevancy of journalism.

While readership might be changing, sports journalism is becoming increasingly relevant in a digital age. Sports media must adapt to the needs and desires of readers, rather than ignore them.

So far, it seems up to the task.

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