Normally, Ava Wallace can be found interviewing the Washington Wizards players for The Washington Post, but she recently covered a Black Lives Matter protest in Louisville when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.
Alex Putterman, the University of Connecticut football beat writer at the Hartford Courant, hasn’t written a sports story in months. That’s because he’s been tracking COVID-19 cases in Connecticut.
Glenn Jordan had covered Tacko Fall’s stint playing basketball for the Maine Red Claws but is now writing about business for the Portland Press Herald.
Like minor leaguers traded to another team, the three journalists are among many sports writers across the country who have been moved to other beats to help cover two of the most significant stories in years – the coronavirus pandemic and police protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.
These transfers make sense because sports have shut down and sports reporters are well-equipped to make the switch, J.A. Adande, a former ESPN.com columnist who is now director of Sports Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School, said.
Sports writers are often good with numbers, make smart use of Twitter and excel on deadline. They also see how the games and seasons connect to broader issues, Adande said.
“I’ve always said that every interest can intersect with sports,” he said. Plummeting advertising revenues during the pandemic have led to deep cuts throughout journalism. The New York Times reported that at least 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their pay reduced.
The cuts have been dire in sports media, with 6% of the editorial staff at Sports Illustrated laid off in March. In June, The Athletic cut 8% of its staff. Sports writers who’ve made the temporary move to news say they’re relieved to have jobs.
“I mainly feel so lucky to be at The Post,” Wallace said. “I’ve thought about that nearly every day.”
Editors have most often tapped sports writers to help cover natural disasters or major stories such as 9/11. As an intern at the Miami Herald 1992, Adande helped cover Hurricane Andrew.
When an earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989 during the World Series, sports writers did excellent work covering damage in nearby neighborhoods, Robert Lipsyte, a former New York Times columnist and former ESPN ombudsman, said. News outlets are smart to turn to sports reporters now.
“They’re great on action. They’re great on talking to people on the fly,’’ Lipsyte said. “In terms of sheer muscle power, I think sports writers are better than a lot of other writers in terms of covering a demonstration.”
Coincidentally in Louisville
Wallace was one of three sports writers working on a project on how the pandemic was hitting Black and white communities unequally in Louisville. They had been immersed in the story for five weeks when Floyd was killed. With good contacts among neighborhood activists, Wallace and sports reporter Roman Stubbs were asked to cover a Louisville protest.
They were in a large crowd when police moved in after dark.
“We saw the tear gas. We didn’t smell it or taste it,’’ she said. “We were pushed pretty far back,” when the rubber bullets were fired 7 minutes later.
Wallace said she “snapped into reporter mode” and felt safe that night.
“I felt very focused, trying to remember all of the sounds I was hearing, trying to remember other people’s emotions,’’ she said. “I should have been more scared than I was.”
Ben Pope was hired last year to cover the Chicago Blackhawks for the Chicago Sun-Times. He’d long wanted to be a sports writer and wrote for Bleacher Report from age 12 to his freshman year at Northwestern under the pen name of Mark Jones.
He was moved to news this spring, and on May 30, he witnessed a burning police car and police striking protesters with batons while covering a large protest in Chicago.
“I probably should have felt some sense of danger looking back, but with the adrenaline and the focus on doing my job, I wasn’t really feeling it at the time,” he said.
Though he was happy to gain experience covering news, he’s eager to return to his hockey beat.
“I think I might appreciate covering sports more knowing what it’s like to cover news, knowing how volatile and intense it can be,” he said.
At the Courant, Putterman was asked March 4 to go on a “48-hour sprint” asking tough questions about the coronavirus. Ever since, he’s kept a daily spreadsheet on the progression of the virus in the state and written numerous stories on COVID-19. He said it hasn’t been much different asking questions of Gov. Ned Lamont than of coaches.
“You have to have some level of skepticism as part of your job, but you also have to listen and have an open mind,’’ he said.
Putterman, who has also covered Black Lives Matter protests, said his stint in news has been stressful.
“If you mess up how many yards the running back had, it’s not good and you don’t want to do that. Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody’s going to get sick or die because of it,” he said, but making an error about COVID-19 “could have serious consequences.”
Still, he said, one of the worst weeks was when he was on furlough.
“What really hurts is this is one of the biggest stories of our lives and we want to be telling these stories,” he said.
No longer the ‘toy department’
When Lori Riley started as a sports reporter in 1986, that department was often derided as ‘the toy department’ because it was seen as less serious than news. A sports writer at the Courant since 1989, she said that had changed by the 1990s, when athletics were viewed through a broader lens.
“I write about medical issues in sports,” she said. “I write about sociological aspects of sports.”
Since March, Riley has helped cover the pandemic for the Courant’s features department.
Jordan, a sports writer in Portland, Maine since 1994, said at first, it was a shock to be traded to the business desk, but since then, he’s found it refreshing. Like his former Courant colleague Riley, he has gravitated to telling people stories during the pandemic.
“That’s what makes for better stories, when you’re writing about people and their challenges and hopes and dreams,’’ he said.
Sports writers can adapt quickly to other beats because they’re used to parachuting in and conducting interviews under pressure, Jordan said.
“You have to talk to people who have just lost or been embarrassed or given up the game-losing home run, so there’s some empathy there,’’ he said.
Wallace said covering the pandemic and protests will stay with her.
“These two stories have the potential to define our generation, so I don’t think I’ll ever forget covering that and doing an interview with a mask on,’’ she said. “This moment seems like such a turning point for journalism and the media and everything that we do.”
Kate Farrish, a former reporter and editor for the Hartford Courant, is an assistant professor of journalism at Central Connecticut State University.