10 Content Tips From Sports Journalists

March Madness. The NFL Draft. NBA playoffs. NHL playoffs. Opening Day. As the sports world approaches arguably its craziest time of year, a panel of journalists and editors gathered last week in New York City to talk about sports reporting in the digital age. Hosted by the Online News Association of New York City and moderated by Daniel Victor, social media staff editor for The New York Times, the panel featured Jenny Vrentas, NFL writer for Sports Illustrated and The MMQB; Carla Correa, general editor and social media coordinator for FiveThirtyEight; Dan Rubenstein, video host and producer for SB Nation; and Joe Ward, sports graphics editor for The New York Times.

Though the night focused on sports, the speakers dished tips about universal issues in multimedia journalism: social media practices, longform features, and business models. Here are 10 tips that writers, editors, and designers need to heed if they want to stay ahead of the game.

1. Round up your assets

Ward, who assembled the multimedia elements of the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times story “Snow Fall,” started with a substantial amount of content at his disposal: 911 calls, video, photographs, interviews.

Publications may aspire to grab the publicity that comes with interactive longform journalism like “Snow Fall,” but do they have the assets to take on such a project? As Ward echoed, make sure you have enough multimedia to make it worthwhile before you begin.

2. Curate the elements of your story

It’s easy to overdo the bells and whistles of parallax scrolling and stunning visuals. But you don’t have to include everything—edit down to the essentials.

“The idea was, what are we going to leave out, rather than what are we going to put in?” Ward said. “We made sure we kept the slideshows to maybe four or five [photos] though we had 15 pictures of a certain subject.”

3. Gather inspiration from the past

To structure the piece, Ward said his team learned from their mistakes assembling an earlier article,”Punched Out,” written by “Snow Fall” author John Branch. The overabundance of links were “too distracting to the article itself,” so they looked to other immersive models such as ESPN’s “The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis.” Pivot from, borrow from, and build upon past work in order to create something that seems brand new.

4. Serve the community

SB Nation started as a place for separate online communities of college sports fans who felt underserved by traditional media. With over 300 communities and a national hub, SB Nation now gets 21.2 million unique visitors and 158 million page views per month, making it “the fastest-growing online sports media brand” according to parent company Vox Media.

5. Be open to user-generated content

Avid readers of SB Nation flock to the platform to share their voices. Rather than speaking down to your readers, be a place where readers speak with each other.

As Rubenstein explained: “That could be super angry fans who want to fire their athletic director or want to make gifs of their mascots jumping into crowds or want to write highly detailed statistical analyses of their teams.”

6. Add something new to the conversation

What insights can you add, or what new angle can you offer in 140 characters?

“Do I tweet play-by-plays? Is there value in that?” Vrentas asked, realizing she had to offer more than what other reporters relayed. “Maybe you know something about the player that other people don’t know. If someone’s injured, you’re going to tweet that. But maybe you’re looking on the sidelines to see which knee the trainer is looking at.”

7. Listen to your commenters

Correa, editor of Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight site, said, “Sometimes I think it’s easy for people to dismiss the noise on Twitter and on Facebook.” However, she found that “in our [first] week at FiveThirtyEight, we have gotten really insightful comments that have led to discussions [about new content].”

8. Editors: Pay attention to web traffic. Writers: Don’t.

At The MMQB, Vrentas said her editors keep track of the most clicked stories and the most popular writers. That way, web traffic and subsequent ad sales have a minimal impact on what the writers report on and what they pitch. “You don’t want to think about [clicks] as a writer, but it’s such a big part of it,” she said. “We have to generate revenue [through advertising].”

9. Don’t copy what everyone else is doing

“I got my start because I thought of an idea that I didn’t see anybody else doing,” Rubenstein said. Rather than trying to seek out a well-worn path, he advises new writers to take calculated risks. At SB Nation, many of their top writers started their own blogs and built their own audiences before becoming featured contributors or staffers. “The people that I see succeeding across various platforms are the people that are figuring out how to do something new,” he added. “Figuring out what isn’t served, figuring out how to do things on their own instead of relying on more traditional structures.”

10. Read your edits

“If you have a story that’s edited, read the story once it goes up on the website!” said Correa. “So many young reporters—I didn’t see a lot changing in their writing, but I knew if they had read the final piece, they would have seen [where they needed to improve].”

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