It is Sept. 16, 2020, and the Big Ten has just made an announcement that would change how this sports desk operated for the rest of the year. The football season, after being canceled due to COVID-19 concerns mere weeks earlier, is back on. It's a source of joy for many football fans, especially those living with their friends who’d use the games as a chance to bond, even while socially distanced.
For myself, it’s a source of pure stress. Just three weeks prior, I was told that there would be no guaranteed place for me to stay during the fall quarter, and with a direct family member at risk, there’s no chance of me leaving New Jersey just to cover a few football games. With a staff of three people, and having to find new resources to work remotely and arrange everything for our staff, it was going to be a challenge just to find a way to cover it.
Nearly a year and 100 pieces later, not only have we come away on par with the standard set for ourselves previously, but we’ve also joined a new era of sports writing that might forever change the profession for the better. Doors have been opened to new horizons, and now it’s more possible than ever to start writing for these sporty publications, while making lifelong memories in the process.
For example, before the pandemic started, one of the most difficult things in covering games was getting post-game quotes from coaches and players, especially with away games. If you weren’t there, you missed the chance to ask questions and drive for answers for stories you were writing, and you had to work with whatever the reporters on hand asked – if you could even find a recording of the call to begin with.
This year, however, was completely different. Due to social distancing protocols, all of the press conferences were held on Zoom, home and away. As a result, all our writers got the chance to speak with coaches and players after every game, and we were able to speak directly to them for each question they could possibly have.
The same goes for photography from away games. While in previous years, it would be difficult to gain permission to get particular photos, almost all away games were photographed by Northwestern Athletics and uploaded onto a virtual “press box” available for anyone interested in using the photos as long as they were uploaded with credit.
Both of these new resources, developed because of the pandemic, not only gave the chance for anyone interested to fully participate in the sports writing process, but removed long-standing barriers for the business. Sports writing has long been done by few personalities who were given the opportunities to cover and follow teams through their publications and therefore gaining access that the typical person will never see and making a living off of “exposure” and “experience.”
Audiences have always been interested in what happens off the field, with David Uberti of Columbia Journalism Review writing that “The media circus surrounding professional sports is fed in part by this particularly odd sort of press access.”
Uberti also noted that the slow departure of locker room interviews – being replaced by softball interviews released by the teams – have some reporters believing it may lose the “human” element of covering sports teams and their players.
While this might be the case, I would make the argument that this departure from closed doors and inside access is making opportunities for new writers, who are now able to hone their craft and gain experience right on the front lines. What’s more, it’s becoming even more flexible for reporters to interview sources wherever they may be and build names for themselves. For example, after the men’s basketball game ended their 13-game losing streak, I told Chris Collins over Zoom “congrats on the win… damn, that feels good to say.”
I was later told that the interview was on live on Big Ten Network, and that a bunch of my friends had been watching it in our common room.
Oh also fun story from last night:— Coop Daley (@CoopDaley) December 21, 2020
NU MBB is not known for being in the national spotlight, so normally their press conferences don't get much attention apart from sports Medill.
You can imagine my surprise when I was told by multiple people they heard me on BTN, national tv 😅 pic.twitter.com/jtmTWIswkD
Sports journalism, despite the necessary distance, is not dying but evolving. Some of the best content creators from this year were not reporters punching into locker rooms and trying to find themselves in bubbles, but those working hard from their bedrooms to make unique content you can’t find anywhere else. Online journalism, while no longer the new darling it was 10 years ago, has become one of the most popular sources of news in recent years.
There are several reasons behind this, but a primary reason is the easy access – for both creators and their audiences – the internet provides to stories. As platforms like YouTube and Twitter grow, it’s becoming easier for anyone to speak their mind on major storylines in the sports world, and those dedicated enough have gotten the opportunity to share their work to an audience unseen almost 20 years ago, with new videos, opinions or quotes from across the globe.
We’re not unaware of these changes, as one of our primary objectives this year has been to include as much online multimedia as possible. Readers may have noticed that in every story this year, we have included video highlights from Twitter or YouTube, showing, rather than telling, what happened in key plays. It’s one of the most important aspects of our new style, and I believe as we keep producing content, it’ll become a staple of our work.
Of course, it’s impossible to mention the adjustments we’ve made this year without addressing our shortcomings. We lost a bunch of writers this year, due to both new opportunities and the pandemic, and when the year began, we had only three writers, and sometimes burnout has gotten the best of us. I greatly regret some of the opportunities we missed covering this year due to a lack of availability, including the football team’s win in the Citrus Bowl, the women's basketball team’s unforgettable postseason, and sports like tennis, golf and swimming going completely uncovered. Hell, one of our former editors, Justine Banbury, was named an All-American in the NCAA Fencing Championships, and we didn’t even mention it until now.
A third place finish for @NUWFencing at the NCAA Championships – the best in program history 💯— Northwestern Athletics (@NU_Sports) March 28, 2021
AND three All-Americans: Sky Miller, Justine Banbury, and Anna Biasco. 🏆🏆🏆😻#GoCats pic.twitter.com/ARSN6B8nOl
It was not a perfect year by any means, and there were some hiccups in our coverage, but I could not be prouder of where we ended up: 100 pieces, written by five different people.
[Editor’s note: Coop Daley wrote 69 of these pieces]
Normal coverage of sports again. New opportunities for any writer wanting to join. Features on the big happenings in Northwestern sports. Finding ourselves back on the frontlines of regular sports coverage.
Now, with all that has happened this year, it might be difficult to return to “normal,” whatever that may have been before. I hope Northwestern tries to keep the postgame press conferences for away games and give its student journalists the opportunities to earn their chops both from home and afar. As I return for my third year at North by Northwestern, I hope that we can grow our coverage and find ourselves in a new position even better than before.
It is June 2, 2021, and the Big Ten is done with sports for the year. They will return in the fall with full crowds and regular press coverage, and fans across the country are looking forward to it. Unlike last September, I’m incredibly excited for the return and to cover everything as we continue to grow and evolve.