Why many coaches do not report their team’s results, and why sports sections struggle to maintain readership

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The number of times I shared the same sideline or press table with Rob Centorani, Kevin Stevens, Mike Mangan, Dean Russin, and many other sports writers in the Binghamton/Oneonta areas over my 20-year tenure working for The Evening Sun are too many to count. At big games – or just games their papers wanted hands-on coverage – we crossed paths. Although those gentlemen worked for papers in which we were competing for subscribers and readership, I never saw it as a competitive situation.

We had jobs to do, and I found every one of those gentleman generous in the supplying of information for which I was unaware. And I returned the favor.

Yesterday (Friday, Oct. 7), I read Rob’s recent column published in the Binghamton Press earlier this month (see link – http://www.pressconnects.com/story/sports/high-school/2016/10/06/centorani-give-us-another-shot-report-games/91689122/) in which he made his plea for coaches in his coverage area to give his publication another shot at covering local game results.

Rob made the analysis that on many evenings, only 60 to 70 percent of the games on the nightly schedule were actually reported by coaches. He also bemoaned the woeful lack of information that often accompanied the game reports that did come in – particularly by email or fax. When you do not have full names – first and last – or any details whatsoever about a game, it adds difficulty to writing a story.  That’s why you often see just a box score of the game with no game story.

The emergence of the email submission of a game result has proven a blessing and a curse to the newspaper sports-writing business. It’s great in terms of getting your statistics for the small-print box score; horrible in most cases in terms of actually writing an interesting story.

In truth, the good ol’ phone conversation with the coach is the tried-and-true method of getting the scoop.

I can only speak for the coaches with which I worked during my 20 years at The Evening Sun, and their particular dissatisfaction in reporting game results to “other” publications.

The most common complaint is that they spent several minutes on the phone – often on hold – would speak to a reporter for several minutes about a game, and then the next day’s paper had a simple box score with no accompanying game story. Or, the game story was barely a sentence, and occupied 0.3 inches of newspaper print space.

Full disclosure to those outside the newspaper business: Most newspapers  (not The Evening Sun) plan their sections and coverage in advance.  All of the space in the paper is dedicated to certain news items. Photographer A has his photo in one spot; reporter B has his football story in another spot (and the editor probably stated something to the effect, I need 550 words for your piece). And so on for each sports nugget.

When it comes down to publishing local sports roundups, the reporters have “X” amount of words that will fit into the section’s allotted space.  Even though a coach may spend 15 minutes on the phone with a reporter, there is a chance his team’s story will not make the local roundup.

The stories that make the sports roundup are arbitrarily edited by the sports editor or copy editor, and in inevitably, several game reports never see the light of day.

That equates to a number of kids’ names will not make it into the newspaper (unless you count that small print in the box score that we call agate). For some kids, it could be the first – or last time – their names would appear in the newspaper.

As Rob stated in his opening sentence, “there’s something cool about seeing one’s name in the sports section.”  The thing is, in today’s world, it is more likely than not that the young man or lady mentioned in a newspaper article is oblivious to that fact.

I’ve come to realize over the last 10 years that most high school kids do not read the newspaper. I’m talking about the actual, physical newspaper. Sure, some might look at the online versions of newspapers,  but there aren’t any defined numbers to prove that occurrence.

What happens is that a parent, a coach or maybe a teacher or adult acquaintance will mention a newspaper article. “Hey, I saw your name in the paper, nice game.”

Light bulb comes on for said kid, who then scours the Internet – likely on a smart phone – for the online story.  Maybe the school library has a copy of the paper, and the young lad or lady greedily reads the sports write-up.

Yeah, even the decade of the 2010s, it’s still pretty cool to see your name in print, but often it takes a third party to clue-in the athlete. Will that young person become a newspaper reader for life at mention of his or her name in the paper?  That depends.

Rob Centorani’s article did not speculate on why there is such a large gap between total games played versus those actually reported by coaches.  When you have 30 to 40 percent of coaches not reporting results, something is amiss.

I firmly believe that most coaches want to talk about their teams’ accomplishments. What they count on from the reporter – and newspaper – is consistency.  The game reporting requirements for a coach vary, but most are calling at least two newspapers to report the same result. Sometimes that list of calls includes television and radio stations.

Coaches often told me – before they called me – that they had spent the last half hour on the phone talking to this paper and then that paper.  Eventually, most of the coaches I spoke to called me – at The Evening Sun – first.

Coaches want to know that you’re interested in their team and their players. More importantly, if they are going to spend 15 minutes of their life – after a 12-hour day of working and coaching a game – that someone will show interest in their team, and actually write an accurate account of the game.

Not only does the coach expect an article in the paper, but  that it will appear the next day. And not a mere box score, not a sentence, and not several days later when it’s old news and everyone has moved on.

Consistency is also the key to converting the teenager from a first-time reader to a regular, and getting that reliable repeat-business from coaches who report. Yes, not only do kids like reading about themselves, but they also like reading about their school and their friends who also read the paper.  I also know that coaches often get a kick out of seeing their words in print.

Last winter, I put together a small website featuring Chenango County sports. It was free to the public, but you had to register your name as a reader to view the content.  Hundreds of people signed up to read about local sports, and you know what, dozens of those free subscribers were teenagers.

Yes, in an age when kids are more distracted than ever by their cell phones, video games, and social media, dozens upon dozens of kids signed up to read about local sports.

So how do media outlets retain and gain readers, and how do you ensure more coaches report game results?

What is it that we all want? Many things in our lives are beyond our control, but what balances that uncertainty and unpredictability are the things we can count on – the sure thing.

When reporting a result, coaches want to know that someone will answer their phone calls or at least respond to their voice messages in a timely fashion.  If they’re going to spend the precious remaining time left in their day talking on the phone about their game, they want to know that something will publish the result the next day.

As for the readers, it’s the same thing. If they know with absolute certainty that Johnny’s game will have a write-up in the paper the next day, you’re more apt to have a dedicated reader.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager or a senior citizen, everyone likes a sure thing, and it’s incumbent upon newspapers – especially with dwindling subscribers at most daily papers – that we give people that sure thing.

Each night at The Evening Sun, I had the daily schedule of games written on my calendar. As each one was reported, I crossed them off the list. Toward the end of the evening, if games were not reported, I typically reached out to the coach by phone or by text message.  It was the dogged pursuit of getting the game result in the paper the next day.

I’m sure I was a pain in the ass for some coaches, but it was critical that I upheld my responsibilities to the readers. It was an implicit, yet simple promise I made that is now broken all-too-often:  To report the games that readers were expecting to see in the next day’s paper.

It’s really an obvious tenet that all newspapers and writers should subscribe to (pun intended) :  Earn the trust of your readers, and do your damnedest to retain that trust.

About the author:  Patrick Newell has worked as a sports writer and sports editor for more than two decades. He wrote for The Evening Sun for 20 years, and is currently a freelance writer for The Albuquerque Journal.

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