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COVID-19 News

“It’s a Bleak Time” Sports Journalists Affected by COVID-19

By Dorothy J. Gentry
Sports Editor

In addition to schools, businesses and the government, the global Coronavirus pandemic has also taken a toll on sports worldwide, throwing sports— and the people who cover them—into a tailspin: games and events cancelled and every league from the NBA to MLB now on temporary suspension. 

Even the biggest sporting event in the world, the Olympics have been postponed until 2021.

Given these circumstances, it’s understandable if sports journalists – both full-time  and especially freelancers — feel anxious and unsure. Their livelihood, in some instances – like others — has been pulled out from under them for the unforeseeable future and all they have known is now in limbo. 

“Initially, when the pandemic hit there was obviously the sudden shock. But you quickly realize it’s a business and you don’t have time to panic,” said Michael Lark, owner and CEO of the popular website and blog, Dallas Sports Fanatic. “You have to create steps and put a plan in place to move forward because the world doesn’t wait.”

In these days where terms like “social distancing” and “pandemic” are household words: sports have moved from fun-time events to a large part of the problem – a public space now deemed unsafe. Sports journalists are having to get creative and reinvent their craft to stay relevant.

We reached out to several sports journalists: two beat writers, a freelancer and a sports website owner —  to share how life has changed their profession — and them, in this Coronavirus world. These are their stories.

Clarence Hill, Dallas Cowboys beat writer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

DG: How has the coronavirus pandemic changed your daily life as a sports journalist? 

CH: Not being able to go out, do interviews, cover things live has changed things quite a bit. But I still have been able to write via phone interviews. There is a certain professional anxiety with the newspaper industry and my company McClatchy, which was already having financial issues. The news that Gannett has announced furloughs for the next three months doesn’t help.

And yes, we are all reporters now and everyone at the paper has contributed COVID-19 stories and will continue to do so. 

DG: How has your beat, the NFL, been affected and how has your coverage changed? 

CH: The NFL has largely been business as usual since it is out of season. We have been able to cover free agency as before, via the phone. The draft will be different as it will be done as a tv event only so there will be no live press conferences. There will be conference calls. Things will start to get interesting in May and June when minicamps are canceled and then the next benchmark will be the start of training camp in July. 

DG: What about the future of sports journalism?

In the short term, if and when it comes back, there will be limited access to players and locker rooms, if any, on the latter. Hopefully, this won’t be a permanent change. If and when sports comes back, there will be an even greater thirst for news and information.

Tamryn Sprull, national freelance journalist covering women’s basketball, with issues of gender, race and sexuality central to her reporting. Bylines include The Athletic, Swish Appeal, and the Bleacher Reporter.

DG: How has the coronavirus pandemic changed your daily life as a freelance sports journalist? 

TS: It’s a bleak time. I can’t muster more of a segue than that. Since the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen very quickly the grave effects of a country teetering along for decades without adequate systems and safety nets. In sports and sports journalism, we’ve known that women have been underrepresented historically, especially African American women. As a Black woman in a space that didn’t want me to begin with despite my unmatched skills and education, I was quick to topple over the edge. 

I lost two of three freelance jobs in the span of one week. At one of these places, the longtime friends of the boss, his frat brothers from college, got to stay in their positions; in true testament to the power of the good-old-boy network. There were only two women in this group to begin with, on a team of about 30, with me being the only woman of color. Both of us were let go. 

Games are not being played anywhere in the world, but that doesn’t mean stories are not happening. Stories are there, and people need them more than ever while quarantined at home and searching for ways to stay uplifted during a very scary time in human history. It’s too bad leaders at media companies can’t see the current pandemic as the ripe opportunity for readership that it is. The myopic, in-the-box thinking that has kept sports media a boys’ club now, in times of crisis, leads to all of our misfortune.   

DG: When the sports world shut down what were your immediate thoughts?

TS: Well, I fell ill at the beginning of March, just before I was to travel to cover the SEC Tournament in Greenville, South Carolina, on the Gamecocks beat. It was a tough choice to cancel my trip, but I felt the sickest I’d ever been in my life, with what my healthcare provider believes was the coronavirus (though unconfirmed because I could not get a test in my area). When the NBA announced a suspension of its season, I knew immediately that I’d made the right choice not to travel. As to how quickly the pandemic would throw workers, including me, into the unemployment line and gut the economy, none of that registered right away. I was sick, in a fog of crushing headaches, chills, shortness of breath and other symptoms for about a month. I worked intermittently, deliriously, and slept a ton. The cruel irony, I guess, is that I still worked throughout the illness to the best of my ability, only to get axed while battling a virus that was killing thousands by the day. 

DG: What will be the future of sports journalism? 

I think it’s clear now, however, that the approach will have to change, just as the approach to how we’re living our everyday lives will have to change. The technological tools at our disposal will make that change possible. When WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the league’s virtual approach to the 2020 draft, she modeled the type of creative thinking that will allow the show to go on. 

Brad Townsend, Dallas Mavericks beat writer, The Dallas Morning News

DG: How has this coronavirus pandemic changed your daily life as a sports journalist? 

BT: For the first week-to-10 days after the NBA suspended the season, I continued to write Mavericks-related stories — primarily newsy topics about how long the pause-in-play might be and how the organization and Mark Cuban took a leadership role in community outreach. 

Then I was informed that I was being loaned to our News department, most likely for the duration of the crisis. Similarly, I was loaned to News after 9/11 and Katrina. Some of the stories I’m working on certainly are grim, but I’m glad I’m not writing about sports right now. 

Other than news and potential developments surrounding the business of the NBA and the Mavericks, I’m not particularly interested in reading about sports, and I doubt many of our subscribers are, either.

DG: When the NBA, specifically your beat, shut down first, what were your immediate thoughts?

My instant reaction was ‘Wow’ and within maybe a minute I realized the NBA season was in jeopardy. Sadly, the ensuing weeks have only reinforced my belief. Would it be great if the season is resumed and there are playoffs and the crowning of a champion? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? Unfortunately, no.

BT: What are the long-term effects of coronavirus on the future of sports journalism”

Hopefully a year from now there will be normalcy, but my instincts tell me it will take gradual steps to get there. Limited access and social-distancing measures to begin with, followed by a gradual easing of those measures. But my year-from-now prognosis hinges on there being a vaccine/cure for the virus. 

We can’t assume anything right now. Meanwhile, simply from an economic standpoint, the sports media landscape already shows the effects and will continue to do so. Though I feel extremely fortunate to have a job, I don’t think any sports reporter feels secure. And as concerned as I am for myself and others who work for mainstay media companies, I really wonder how websites that provide fringe coverage of the Mavericks and other NBA teams will weather the next few months. It’s not much different than what is happening for countless other businesses right now. 

Michael Lark, Owner and CEO, Dallas Sports Fanatic

DG: How has this coronavirus pandemic changed your daily life as owner of a sports blog/site? 

ML: For Dallas Sports Fanatic, after news hit of the suspension of play for all sports one-by-one, we quickly saw how the landscape of coverage was changing for the short term. We quickly gathered our editors and leadership team together to formalize a strategy. We made a quick decision on how to expand our coverage to include more general related topics (economic impact on games, best sports movies/docs to stream, phone interviews, etc.). Of course, there is always a concern that site traffic won’t live up to the expectations you’ve set, but planning and strategizing has helped alleviate some of these concerns.

DG: You cover a lot of different sports so your site has been affected on many levels. How are things going?

ML: As the owner of our organization, you’re humbled in knowing you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. I’m thankful that everyone has stepped up in their changing and evolving roles throughout this pandemic; that says a lot about our staff. We capitalized on the inclusion of general topics while putting a hard focus on the NFL offseason and actually saw our biggest site numbers since July of last year. We communicate daily in our online Slack tool that allows us to plan and bounce ideas off one another. We schedule our articles well in advance to ensure we find something relevant to talk about. Our editor-in-chief watches our traffic and analytics closely so we ensure we understand what’s relevant and our readers want.

DG: What will post-coronavirus sports journalism look like?

I fully expect the landscape of journalism to take a sharp turn. I would expect press conference style interviews to become the new norm for at least the next year or so. I think in general teams will clamp down the amount of access in terms of time and people become stricter, as it should be. This pandemic is an eye-opening look at the way teams do business long and short.

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