Around 10:30 p.m., Sunday night, a great buzzing will shake the cellphones of millions of Super Bowl watchers. From a press box in Atlanta, sportswriters will have turned in recaps of the game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, and editors will send those articles around the world in push notifications, as if, even mere moments after the clock at Mercedes-Benz Stadium strikes zero, America won’t already know the result.
More than 103 million people, nearly a third of the U.S. population, watched the Eagles defeat the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl. Another several million streamed the game. The outcome (Philadelphia 41, New England 33, in case you somehow didn’t know), the key plays (Philly Special, anyone?) and the key players (welcome, the legend of Nick Foles) were instantly inescapable.
And yet, that push notification came through as sure as newspapers landed on doorsteps the next morning, when recaps of America’s singular mandatory sporting event led most major newspapers and sports sections.
Such recaps, called “game stories” or “gamers” in journalism circles, are slowly disappearing. The conventional blow-by-blow accounts of the event’s most important moments are being supplanted by instant analysis blog posts, opinion pieces and deeper explorations of the game’s star players and their legacies.
Gamers about ordinary sporting events might still dot the front pages of print sports sections, helping readers catch up on events that ended overnight, but they often don’t attract large audiences online, especially in an era when fans can follow games live on a broadcast, online or via social media.
And for the Super Bowl, editors have to weigh assigning conventional gamers to capture the game’s moment in history with the knowledge that those stories could take up valuable column inches in print and the time of reporters also scurrying to complete other, more enterprising stories on deadline. Many sports journalism outfits are thus eschewing traditional gamers for feature and human-interest stories, articles that in the past played second fiddle to game recaps.
“The necessity of the game story as a piece of the historical record doesn’t matter as much because of video,” said Galen Clavio, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. “What matters more is the contextual content around the game.”
That’s left legacy and even newer digital players in sports media in a decades-long scramble to find a better method to convey the outcome of a game, and most outlets are still without a firm answer on how, or if, to replace the tried-and-true gamer.
“It should have stopped years ago,” said Mike Sherman, sports editor of the Tampa Bay Times and former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors trade group. “But with deadlines, you have some papers now that are closing down at 10 o’clock at night. So the challenge now is writing a story that hasn’t fully ended yet. Every time we start climbing back out of that ditch [of getting rid of the gamer], we end up back in it.”
In the 19th century, when sports coverage began appearing in newspapers, journalists developed a standard practice to report the outcome of an event: They pumped out the final score, mentioned the top performers and noted the size of the crowd at the venue, then listed the game’s scoring plays and key moments in chronological order. It was the only way most readers could learn a contest’s result.
And for the modern Super Bowl, news organizations are still without a consistent formula to retell the story of a game most of the nation’s news consumers have already seen.
“It’s the sportswriter’s job to extend the period of entertainment,” said Bob Lipsyte, a former New York Times sportswriter and retired ESPN ombudsman. “That’s the only reason to read the game story on Monday morning, because you’re going to learn something about something you already saw that you didn’t know before.”
As print sports journalism and the game story evolved in the television era, reporters dug deeper into interviews with players and coaches to provide personal anecdotes and reporting that live broadcasts could not include on the air. And those gamers, Lipsyte said, tried to suck readers back into the universe of the game the same way a television production could.
“The question is how much time and preparation can you do before you sit down in the press box before the start of the game?” he said. “ . . . Whatever little things you can bring to this, that’s the difference between great game stories and regular game stories.”
But in a journalism era driven by online performance metrics and audiences that crave statistical analysis as much as a juicy quote, reporters and editors see value in taking those bits of reporting that might once have filled a gamer and flexing them into their own blog posts or secondary stories, Clavio said. That’s steadily eroded the smart material that made game stories important reads for dedicated fans.
The Boston Globe, which on Sunday will cover a third straight Patriots Super Bowl, won’t publish a conventional game recap this year. Instead, the paper’s on-site journalists will publish an instant analysis about the game’s key plays, Patriots beat writer Nora Princiotti said. To cover the game’s basic contours and the postgame reaction, fellow beat writer Jim McBride writes a “breakdown” column for even more analysis of the results.
Other Globe reporters covering the game will fan out on sidebars and feature stories, each one focused on a separate facet of the game.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has refocused its NFL game stories into pieces that identify five things beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter learned from the game. He’ll write the same style story for the Super Bowl even though the hometown Falcons aren’t in the game.
“It will read like a gamer, walk like a gamer, talk like a gamer, but we’re just choosing the five best vignettes from the game,” he said.
The Tampa Bay Times won’t have a reporter at this year’s Super Bowl, since none of Florida’s three NFL teams even made the playoffs. The paper will pull a game recap from a wire service to lead its coverage, Sherman said, while a columnist will write about the most interesting thing that happens during the game, maybe even Tony Romo’s performance in the broadcast booth for CBS.
That kind of column, with deeply reported perspective, smart analysis and compelling storytelling, is likely the game story’s future, Princiotti said. A journalist can share the crucial, entertaining, even off-the-wall details of a game without diving back into the monotonous drumbeat of play-by-play, especially in a Super Bowl.
“At some point way back when, someone decided what ‘game story’ meant,” she said. “So maybe a story that’s a bit more analytical and a bit more narrow, maybe those should be game stories.”
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