In the early 1990s, I broke into journalism covering high school football for The Arizona Republic, roaming the sidelines and press boxes on Friday nights with a legal pad and tape recorder, then pounding out my story on my portable “Trash-80” computer. Back then, the story was everything. Fans awoke on Saturday morning and opened the sports section, eager to see how the writer turned the previous night’s contest into a narrative—even if they had watched it live themselves. Two decades later, fans can know a game’s outcome, its star performers, and narrative arc before stringers even file their stories. So when I heard about the News’s experiment, I wanted to see whether this deluge of real-time coverage connects people more deeply to the magic of the high school game, or dilutes the power of great storytelling, reducing the game’s drama and tension to a steady drip of incremental updates and statistics.
Rooting in Real Time
At the Allen-Cedar Hill season opener, I went into the stands looking for the soft glow of smartphones. I showed the News’s app on my iPhone to fans on both sides. Ken Lento, an Allen fan and print/digital News subscriber, liked what he saw. Lento, whose three sons play youth football, said he’s willing to pay for good content because he’s “starving for information” about the Eagles, who spent part of the 2011 season as the number one team in Rivals.com’s national high school rankings. Cedar Hill fan Ross Roblin, who doesn’t subscribe to the News, wasn’t so sure. Roblin, whose son plays in the band and whose daughter was somewhere in the stands that night, said he used to enjoy the News’s online high school coverage, but has avoided it since the paper began charging for full digital access. “I really want that local flavor,” he said, but he’s not willing to pay the $16 monthly fee. Still, Roblin was intrigued by the app and vowed to give it a try back home on his iPod Touch. We agreed to catch up in a few weeks.
On the Friday before Labor Day, I went to Pennington Field, home of Euless Trinity High Trojans, winner of three state titles since 2005, and things began to get complicated. The stands were buzzing even more than usual for the game against Abilene because the Trojans were unveiling custom, Nike-designed uniforms that replace Trinity’s traditional black with a bold new red—one of those distinctly unnatural Nike colors you might call fluorescent tomato.
As the Trojans gathered at midfield for their pregame “Haka,” a traditional Maori war dance, John Cobb, Trinity’s booster club webmaster, sent a Facebook status update to more than 5,000 Trinity fans: “less than 5 minutes to kickoff … the Haka looks awesome in the new unis.” Cobb, a 1994 Trinity grad, runs a real-time Facebook feed from the press box during every Trojans game. During last year’s state championship game, Cobb said, a Trinity fan in Ireland got off work at 3 a.m. and rushed home to follow Cobb’s updates on Facebook. “If I can give the fans out there a little glimpse of what I get to see, I consider it a job well done,” he said. A few weeks later, when I checked Cobb’s Facebook feed minutes before kickoff, Trojan fans had checked in from Texas, Missouri, Connecticut, South Carolina, Michigan, and Hawaii.
At the Abilene game, I met Trinity fan Raquel Hernandez, thirty-five, who was following Cobb’s Facebook feed on her iPhone. I showed Hernandez the News’s app and asked what she thought of it. “It doesn’t seem very personal, whereas Facebook is people that you know,” said Hernandez, a Euless resident who watches Trinity games with her uncle. “You can capture certain moments that you wouldn’t be able to capture if you were just looking at stats on another app. These are your boys. You live in this area, and so you watch these guys grow up. It’s more personal.”
That sounded familiar. Ever since digital technology gave everyone the ability to weigh in on matters that we all used to rely on the professional media to describe and explain—like a football game or a political debate—mainstream journalism has struggled to match the intimacy and direct appeal that citizen journalism, at its best, can deliver. The conventions of a professional newsroom just don’t allow it. So for Hernandez at least, the News’s real-time competition isn’t so much mainstream rivals like the Star-Telegram or ESPN Dallas, it’s Cobb, whose free Facebook updates allow a community of friends and neighbors to follow and discuss their beloved team as the game unfolds.