Use a Sports Beat System to Improve Coverage on Your Online News Site

One of the things I focused on revamping this past summer was how the sports teams were covered by my staffs. The program has long had a sports-focused website, FHNgameday.com, which had sports columns, live coverage of games and stories about the school’s teams.

Balanced coverage of all teams in the school had dropped the past couple of years and I knew there needed to be a fix. So, I brought back something I got rid of years ago – a beat system. I struggled for years finding a way to implement a beat system where staffers would actually cover their beats. It wasn’t ever a problem with the idea of a beat system, it was more in the fact that I wasn’t capable of implementing an effective one. It’s one of the main reasons why I developed the Rule of 3.

While the Rule of 3 (and its 2017 reboot) fixed a majority of the problems I had, it didn’t help the sports coverage. So, I spent some focused time this summer wiping the slate clean and coming up with a new Sports Beat system for the program. We are 9 weeks in to the new system and things are going fairly well.

Briefly speaking, here’s how the system works:

  • Each varsity sport has a beat writer, some varsity beats have two writers.
  • The beat is covered on a weekly basis with content hitting the website every week. If two writers share one beat, they generally rotate coverage between the two of them every other week.
  • The beat writer is also responsible for yearbook and newspaper coverage of their beat
  • The beat writers are encouraged to vary their coverage on a weekly basis. For example, this is what a 10-week sports season might look like for their coverage
    • Week 1: Preview to season (Q and A)
    • Week 2: Athlete Feature (Profile)
    • Week 3: Ballgame Preview (Story)
    • Week 4: Facebook Live (interview after game)
    • Week 5: Preview to game (infographic comparing stats of two teams)
    • Week 6: Recap of ballgame (Story)
    • Week 7: Athlete Feature (Profile)
    • Week 8: Facebook Live (interview/preview before game)
    • Week 9: Recap of ballgame (infographic comparing stats of two teams)
    • Week 10: Recap of Season (Q and A with Stats)

You can see the handout I shared with my students to start the year here.

While the system is still in its infancy, here are my 5 early takeaways:

  1. The demand for a beat was higher than I anticipated – The beat was offered to students in all publication hours. I was hoping to find 10 students who would buy into the system and take on a beat. We ended up with nearly 20 wanting to take this on. We hadn’t planned for that. While we did end up with a couple more than the original 10 that we had planned because a couple individuals split their sports beat, we did let those who wanted a sports beat and didn’t get one the ability to write a sports feature each month instead, adding even more content to certain sports.
  2. It takes organization – I knew it was going to take some planning and organization headed into it so we were pretty prepared. We had students look at the sports calendars before the season started and actually plan out what their coverage item was going to be each week. That helped immensely in giving them a plan they didn’t have to worry about coming up with each week, but could adjust on the fly. We also needed to have a good system in place where beat writers are checked in with every Wednesday and their stories/coverage are tracked on a spreadsheet each week.
  3. The coverage options were are big help – One of my biggest fears headed in was that students were going to think a weekly beat was too daunting, and, that was the early feedback they were giving. To combat that, we worked to vary their coverage options up and force them into creating alternative types of coverage. If you see the weekly chart above, you’ll notice that it’s not all stories or videos or graphics, it’s a mix. Some of the content pieces take a bit more time than others. Some involve multimedia. Some involve attending a game, but it’s not all the same week after week. This has actually worked really well to have there be a bit of ebb and flow from week to week for them and it’s helped diversify the coverage on their site.
  4. We need more feature stories – While the variety of coverage does help, it still is a pretty big job to create content on a weekly basis for a beat and one thing that has suffered as a result are the strong feature stories for the yearbook and newspaper staffs. The beat writers just don’t have the time to write them. While we do have a few students writing sports features (as I mentioned above), I’m going to work to get a system in place for the winter sports season where this is not an after thought add-on, but something that is planned, with purpose, from the beginning.
  5. For the most part, the staffers really like it – I just finished reading my September evaluations from the staffers and the overwhelming consensus by those with a sports beat was, that while they were intimidated by the system at first, they felt it’s gone great and they really like it. They like being the expert on a sport at school. They see the overall coverage of the school sports being much more balanced. And, they see a huge difference in the amount of quality coverage of school sports on the website.

Many sports seasons are starting to wind down so the planning here for the winter season has already begun. I’ll be sharing more takeaways as I have them and even some specific details, like how they are doing their Facebook Live interviews.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below or if you are running a sports beat system at your school feel free to share any tips or ideas you have as well.

Aaron Manfull

Aaron is in his 20th year of advising student media. He is currently the Director of Student Media at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri. He is the Journalism Education Association Digital Media Chair and co-Director of Media Now. He created The Next 26 and is a former Dow Jones News Fund National Journalism Teacher of the Year. He is one of the authors of the textbook "Student Journalism and Media Literacy." You can find him on Twitter and Instragram @manfull and on Snapchat as aaronmanfull. He's a proud father. A transplanted Iowan. And an avid Hawkeye Fan.

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