Posted by: structureofnews | August 10, 2014

Game Day (Plus One)

ThumperIf you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all – Thumper, in Bambi (1942)

So I’m definitely misusing Thumper‘s aw-shucks-adorably-cute line from Bambi, but that’s one of the takeaways I took away from a recent post at Poynter about the survival of sports match reports, even in a world where major games are available online and results can be found everywhere.

The post, by Roy Peter Clark, makes the case that there’s still room for great match reports when they bring more to the table than just who-won-and-how, and points to a great piece by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff on Brazil’s humilating 7-1 defeat by Germany in the World Cup semi-final – a game watched live by millions, and probably tens if not hundreds of millions. (Even me, for all of 10 minutes.  But there were four goals in that time.)  It starts:

It’s been said Brazil has never fully recovered from its greatest sporting tragedy, the 1950 home loss to Uruguay in the World Cup final. Despite proceeding to win a record five global crowns and injecting beauty into the beautiful game, for blessing the sport with legendary players such as Pele, Romario and Ronaldo, Brazil remains haunted by the ghosts of “Maracanazo” — a term capturing the heartbreak of that day before 173,000 spectators at Rio’s Maracana stadium.

After what unfolded Tuesday, a 7-1 loss to Germany in the Cup semifinals, Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations, an expression to capture what it looked and felt like at Estadio Mineirao, what it meant to concede four goals in six minutes of the first half, to suffer one of the most humbling setbacks in World Cup annals, to lose at home for the first time in 12 years and to equal the largest margin of defeat in its eminent history.

There’s a lot morworldcupe sociology than sport in that piece, and that makes sense.  If you’re going to have to write a second-day story about an event most people have already seen, you need to bring something else to the table than just-the-facts.  Not just because lots of people might have already watched the game, but because even for those who haven’t, machines will likely do as good a job of covering the basics, and will do it faster and cheaper than humans can.

Chicago-based Narrative Science started out doing exactly that, and has since moved on to a range of other types of stories. The AP recently got a lot of attention for automating basic company earnings news, and other organizations like Reuters and Bloomberg have had machine-generated headlines and stories for some time.

Machines are already better at speed and breadth than humans are, and in the not-too-distant future will probably take on tasks that people can’t possibly compete on, such as highly personalized stories or creating news-on-demand.

Which brings me back to Thumper. It’s easy enough to say that we shouldn’t do basic match coverage – or basic corporate disclosure news, or or basic coverage of city hall meetings, or whatever – if we can’t add much to the public understanding of an event, but the truth is that often we can’t.  It isn’t easy to add a huge amount of insight on deadline, and we shouldn’t expect that it is.  (One reason that insight is valuable is that it’s rare.)

Which means that news organizations that can afford to, should probably move more aggressively to automate such basic coverage, freeing their staff to do the rarer, but higher value-added pieces when they can.  That said, not every newsroom can afford automations, and there’s always that nagging space that needs to be filled in tomorrow’s paper.

So the goal really should be to put in the minimum amount of effort into things that don’t add a huge amount of value, saving time and brain cells for bigger and better pieces.  That may not sound particularly sexy or public-spirited, but the truth is that a lot of journalism is figuring out – as early as possible – where to invest a finite amount of effort and time in.

Or, to paraphrase poor Thumper: “If you can’t say something valuable or insightful, don’t say nothing at all.  Or at least don’t spend a lot of time to say it.


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