Sports is MVP at digital media summit as journalism industry tackles disruption

Rick Horrow, CEO of Horrow Sports Ventures and a pioneer in the business of sports, teed up the SportsManias Digital Media Summit, a daylong forum in Miami last Friday, with just a couple strokes.

He spoke of how Super Bowl I, played in 1967, was broadcast simultaneously by CBS and NBC, something now unthinkable, and the 30-second TV spots were sold for $38,500 each. “Fast-forward 50 years later, NBC sells a 30 -second [Super Bowl ad] for $5 million.” And then Horrow recalled a conversation about wanting to give a young member of his family a TV as a gift. The response, he said, was, “What do I want a television for? All I need is right here,” showing off a smartphone.

The sports industry is no game — and digital media is not just covering it; it’s changing this multibillion-dollar business. Addressing the intersection of traditional sports journalism and social media, the conference featured six panels on themes such as sports journalism do’s and don’ts on social media; the impact of blogs and non-traditional media outlets; the evolution of sports writing; the shift to mobile; and the fantasy sports phenomenon.

The discussions included both print and TV journalists such as Bob Ryan, columnist emeritus for The Boston Globe; Jemele Hill, a columnist and analyst for ESPN; and Dan Le Batard, of the Miami Herald and ESPN, as well as editors and executives from the sports media industry, such as Noreen Gillespie, deputy sports editor for the Associated Press; Pete Vlastelica, executive vice president of Fox Sports Digital Media; and Mitch Gelman, vice president of product at Gannett Co.

The summit, an invitation-only event, was funded in part by Knight Foundation.

For Aymara Del Aguila, co-founder and CEO of SportsManias, “the reason for the summit is that our mission is to promote quality journalism and to deliver it via the most innovative digital platforms. We thought it was important to bring sports digital entrepreneurs, writers and editors from across the country who are facing the challenges of finding ways of bringing traditional journalism to the new consumption habits. We are trying to promote journalism but also trying to be fast and attractive.”

As journalism labors to keep pace with technology, finding new, engaging ways to tell stories, trying to bring time-honored values up to the fast-and-faster expectations of consumers, “sports is where, in many newsrooms across America, the experiments are taking place,” noted Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism at Knight Foundation and one of the moderators at the event.

“That’s where the innovation is taking place, some of the risk-taking, in terms of storytelling, is taking place,” she said. “As a social media editor [at The New York Times] all my experiments I did first in the sports department. ‘Snow Fall,’ the famous multimedia story at the Times, came out of the sports department.”

In fact, the discussions throughout the day reflected, from different angles, on the opportunities and challenges of a quickly changing landscape in media in general and sports journalism in particular.

“I imagine many people in the room believe in some noble journalism principles and they got diluted because you have a blogosphere that [is] out in front on speaking to the marketplace,” said Le Batard during one panel, titled “Blog Effect.” “The marketplace says that the things we care about are not the things they care about.” Journalists, he said, have to consider and deal with “caution, perspective and dwindling resources. Now go fight — and against people who aren’t handcuffed by that.”

In the discussion “The Sportswriter of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Woody Paige, a columnist from The Denver Post and ESPN, offered perspective as he recalled how, when he hosted a radio show in 1974 in Denver, “the paper called me and said ‘we think that’s a conflict of interest. … We don’t want you to mention you work for the newspaper. Don’t give it any scoops. Don’t talk about what you are writing about.’ I find it funny that now newspapers want people to be in radio and TV shows.”

Paige capped his appearance with an impassioned call for good writing. “If you can’t write you can’t communicate,” he said. “I’m a writer. I play the fool in television, but I care about writing. And I’m amazed that the people who write me can’t write. If you are in the digital business, you have to be able to write.”

In the panel “The Sports Digital Landscape,” Mitch Gelman, of Gannett, spoke of the evolving “front porch” where news is delivered: once, literally, on the porch with the newspaper; later in the living room with TV; and now on the mobile phone, everywhere.

That was the concept Tim Stephens, of SportsManias, took to look at the opportunities for journalism in this new environment. After offering a reminder that the iPhone has only been around since 2007, Stephens argued that, in the mobile phone, “You’ve got a great tool.”

“You have an opportunity to be more immediate, more intimate, more relevant to your audience at all times,” he said. “As newspapers still line the birdcages, [readers] will carry you on the palm of their hand 24/7, 365, and you are going to have ways to reach them and be more effective delivering news that [is] important to them in innovative and interesting ways.”

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected].