Brimming with swagger, the top-ranked Allen High Eagles burst from an inflatable tunnel, rip through a paper banner, and sprint past a giddy gauntlet of pompom-waving cheerleaders at the season-opening Tom Landry Classic. It’s Zero Week of the 2011 Texas high school football season, and a sense of urgency flows from the field to the stands to the press box.

“You got the chat while I’m writing?” says Jeff Andrews, a stringer for ESPN Dallas, to his colleague Travis Brown as the Eagles kick off to Cedar Hill. Brown takes over the live chat with thirty-six readers as Andrews bangs out a story about the undercard game from tonight’s doubleheader at Southern Methodist University. By the time Allen and Cedar Hill reach the second quarter, Andrews and Brown have posted a story and photo from the early game on the ESPN Dallas website.

Three chairs down, Matt Reagan, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, tweets game updates, plugs stats into a spreadsheet, and updates the live box score. At the other end of the press box, three Dallas Morning News staffers hammer away at their own coverage, including a live chat, tweets, and stories, while a stringer freshens the News’s SportsDayHS website and mobile app with play-by-play updates.

Time out. Press boxes have always been full of harried reporters scribbling stats and hustling down to the field to snag post-game quotes for tomorrow’s paper. But in Texas this season, prep scribes got a whole new understanding of deadline pressure. Newsrooms unleashed a torrent of real-time coverage, the latest gambit in their ongoing effort to make money online. High school football fanatics now can stay digitally engrossed in the game’s minutiae to a degree never before possible: play-by-play action, live box scores, real-time chats, and user-powered updates—all from a quick glance at their smartphones, tablets, or computers.

High school football may seem an unlikely candidate for a lucrative niche market, one that would attract advertisers and app developers. And in most places, it would be. But this is Texas, where football is a way of life. If you’ve read Buzz Bissinger’s warts-and-all 1990 book Friday Night Lights, or seen the movie and TV series inspired by it, you know what I’m talking about. Historian Joe Nick Patoski, who spent two years curating a high school football exhibit for the Texas State History Museum, estimates that more than 100,000 players take part in the sport statewide, with hundreds of thousands more students involved in activities surrounding the game. Throw in the parents, boosters, teachers, friends, relatives, and fans, and it adds up to a highly motivated, and engaged, digital audience.

The most aggressive suitor of that audience, for the moment, is The Dallas Morning News, which last fall launched a real-time scoring project that featured live play-by-play coverage of about fifty games a week. The initiative, which includes a $1.99 app for the iPhone and Android, is believed to be the first of its kind for high school sports. “It’s taking local to another level,” says Mark Francescutti, the News’s senior online managing editor of sports. The ambitious plan drew industry-wide attention as a new wrinkle in how the news business might mine niche audiences. News managers hailed it as a “competitive advantage” over mainstream rivals like the Star-Telegram, whose high school football site, dfwVarsity.com, offers a mobile app, real-time chats, statistical databases, and box scores, and two-year-old ESPN Dallas, which covers a handful of local games every weekend.

The strategy, News managers tell me, isn’t to instantly cash in on $1.99 downloads of the app, but rather to piggyback on the paper’s existing freelance structure—most real-time coverage is handled by stringers—and expand a high school presence that already includes print and online coverage as well as TV and radio partnerships. The News’s most recent two-year package advertising deal for high school sports generated roughly $700,000 in revenue. A flood of real-time scoring updates creates even more page views to sell.

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.

A few weeks later, at Southlake Carroll High, another perennial North Texas powerhouse, I met Carroll fan Phil Barber at the gate and he whisked me to the top row of sold-out Dragon Stadium. Barber, seventy-seven, is one of eight members of the Dragon Council, a volunteer group separate from the booster club. Barber has missed only one Carroll game since 1978, and he has no need for technology to enhance his in-game experience: “I don’t even have a computer, thank you very much,” he told me. But Barber introduced me to a fellow council member, Eddie Robertson, who said he’d been using a new, free iPhone app called Friday Night Rivals to keep up with live scores.


It’s Personal

Friday Night Rivals is the brainchild of a pair of suburban Dallas software developers, a nights-and-weekends side project that debuted on iTunes in August just before the News’s app. It’s a simple program powered by user-generated score updates from more than four hundred games across Texas each weekend. Scores are verified by other users. Jason Pace, one of the developers, said users downloaded the app to more than 22,000 devices through mid-December. Since the duo’s labor was free, startup costs amounted to only about $700, which they’ve already recouped through national ads and a 99-cent, push-notification upgrade. “The free model works for us,” Pace said.

Rivals isn’t nearly as detailed or content-rich as the News’s app, which includes stories, stats, and photos in addition to real-time scores. But with fan forums and the option to follow favorite teams, Rivals is more social—not unlike Cobb’s Facebook posts—and customizable. It’s a serious competitor for mobile fans’ attention. “Newspapers are cutting back and charging for content,” Pace said. “It definitely leaves a space open for people like us.” Throughout the season, downloads of the free FNR app easily outpaced the $1.99 News app, which had yet to crack five-thousand downloads a week before the state football finals.

Still, News managers said they were happy with early results from their real-time scoring initiative, which extends well beyond the mobile app. Play-by-play coverage of some fifty games a week helped drive a 40-percent jump in daily unique visitors to the paper’s SportsDayHS website on Friday nights in September, October, and November. “We weren’t sure if it was going to work,” said Rich Alfano, a general manager who oversees SportsDayHS’s business and news operations. “We were afraid we were going to be sitting there on Friday night and half the games weren’t going to be transmitted properly, the freelancers weren’t going to be able to upload the data quickly enough.”

Alfano said the real-time project also bolsters the News in its tug-of-war with ESPN Dallas, which has hired away several of the paper’s columnists and reporters. “They can match us on Cowboys and other big sports because they could steal away our guys—they’ve got to cover NFL football, right?” he said. “But high school, that’s a little bit more unique. That’s very local. That’s kind of our core competency, covering local sports.”


Serve the Passionate Vertical

In October, when I caught back up with Ross Roblin, the Cedar Hill fan I met in August who had avoided the News’s high school coverage since the paper started charging for web content, he was using the News’s app at home to get around the pay wall. The app, in addition to real-time scoring, gives users access to prep coverage and weekly rankings otherwise available only to subscribers. So by paying the one-time $1.99 fee, Roblin got the targeted coverage he wants without having to shell out $16 a month. “It’s a good way of getting some of that unlocked for me,” Roblin said.

Roblin’s experience—a practical, bottom-line appeal—differs from the more social, friends-and-neighbors experience that Raquel Hernandez sought on Facebook. Ideally, a news outlet looking to tap a niche market would build an app that would capture both, because Roblin and Hernandez are members of the same “passionate vertical,” a phrase Alfano uses to refer to niche markets with highly motivated followings. In 2010, for instance, visitors to SportsDayHS clicked on an average of fourteen pages per month, nearly twice the number of pages clicked on by the typical visitor to the paper’s regular online sports section.

Sure, the Texas high school football fan is a unique animal, but it’s hardly the only passionate vertical with enough mass and devotion to attract advertisers. The Charlotte Observer covers NASCAR with a separately branded, mobile-friendly portal called ThatsRacin.com. The Las Vegas Sun attracts serious web traffic with aggressive multiplatform coverage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which Sun editor Rob Curley unapologetically calls “Las Vegas’ major-league sports franchise.” And that’s just in the sports world.

The News’s real-time high school project seems to be delivering more readers, so by that measure it makes sense. But, as I wondered at the outset, where does this real-time deluge leave the art of sports writing? Do great stories still matter?

It’s a question that has crossed the mind of Matt Wixon, the News’s lead high school sports columnist—even if he doesn’t have a clear answer. Fortunately for Wixon, when he writes his column from one of the area’s marquee games of the week, he’s paired with a statistician who handles the real-time scoring. “My first priority is always a really good column and analysis to give the readers, even people who were at the games, something they didn’t know, or a reason to read it,” he said.

Still, Wixon sends out a blizzard of updates while he live-chats the games he covers, so he understands the concern “that being so immersed in it, over and over, and not having the time, is going to take away from your story.” Forty-year-old Wixon is no ink-stained troglodyte. He and I were among a handful of News reporters trained in the mid-aughts to shoot web video, and he credits the chats and social media with deepening his relationship with readers. “But still, the most satisfying part of my career is putting together a good story. Not the tweet that gets two-thousand hits.”

Okay, but what about the fans? Maybe for them this emphasis on real-time updates is a logical tradeoff that empowers them to get the information they want, when they want it, even if the next-day stories suffer a bit.

I called Raquel Hernandez, the Trinity fan who follows John Cobb’s Facebook posts, and she set me straight. “I still read the follow-up stories,” she told me, saying she visits the Star-Telegram’s website for game recaps. “I like to get the journalist’s take.”

So maybe my either-or attitude about the new immediacy missed the point. Fans want it all—the latest news and numbers now, and a great yarn tomorrow, all delivered with an intimacy reminiscent of a bunch of friends sitting around watching the home team.

Real-time scoring, chats, and the like are a great way to bring fans along for the ride, especially with high school sports, which are mostly untelevised. But it’s far from clear whether professional newsrooms—used to playing it down the middle and diminished by a decade of cutbacks—can deliver this rapid-fire content with the personalized touch that fans want, and do it without missing a beat on the old-fashioned game story. If they can’t, fans on Facebook and hobbyist developers may beat them at their own game.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Jake Batsell , a former Dallas Morning News reporter and videographer, is an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University.