Monday, August 1, 2011

State of Derby Journalism

I started to combine two of my favorite things in life: Roller derby and journalism.

The playing field of derby journalists could be summed up as either derby enthusiasts who knew little about actual journalism and the journalists who happened to find their way into derby.

The first group -- while not limited to them -- primarily focus on bout recaps without telling much of a story. They use little setup, minimal narrative and almost no quotes. Part of journalism is to tell someone else's story, not simply rehash events for your readers.

The second group is guilty of conflict of interest 9 times out of 10. Several journalists-saved-by-derby have written many an article on their league or bouts, and don't disclose that they're on the team.

In a way, these problems are systemic save a few examples. On the local level newspapers continue to struggle between derby's athletic DIY attitudes and its sordid past of flying butt blocks and showmanship of the 1970s. The only way a league might get coverage is if a member writes the article or they might have a friend who works for a local media outlet.

Yes, sadly, this limits one's exposure to the local populace. At least online alternatives exist for the standard roller derby fan.

Personal and team blogs help local fans keep up to date with their local leagues and possible events. The inclusion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, help get the word out almost instantaneous (given, that your casual fans don't follow the blogs).

On a national level, the Big Two of covering bouts, points and standings would include Derby News Network and Derby Tron. For the numbers based mathlete and stats fan, there really isn't anything much better than Derby Tron, which takes a comprehensive look at 107 teams (currently) and numbers them from the best to the worst based on comprehensive statistics. Their scorebox is usually pretty up to date.

DNN's numbers game boils down to stats and a Top 25 listing of WFTDA participating teams, which is great if you want to see who teams competing on a National (global?) playing field match up against each other. DNN also includes boutcasts of high level bouts, sometimes including audio and video of key matchups. It was one of the most reliable sites to watch live bouts from any place in the world with an Internet connection.

The folks at Derby News Network also write up bout previews and recaps, and Justice Feelgood Marshall's guidelines to writing bout recaps set a good standard to long form write-ups.

Still there's not a lot of diversity in terms of storytelling. Many of the recaps are straightforward and chronological, not inviting the readers in with quick quotes from the coaches, captains or key players.

Some of this is the nature of the sport – we're not used to talking to the media and we tend to be pretty quiet – while some of it is lack of experience getting people to talk.

For the print-quality on the national level, derby enthusiasts are limited to two magazines, Blood & Thunder and Five on Five. I've contributed to Five on Five in the past and I plan on writing for them again, but there's a reason. Blood & Thunder has a few columns from active derby participants and then the rest of the magazine is recaps that happened several months ago. If you weren't lucky enough to see them when they did happen, you've probably already heard the outcome or read the recaps.

This is the main danger with covering sports without an avenue of a daily media outlet – sports recaps become stale, giving urgency to finding new ways to tell the story. What Blood & Thunder does excel at is photography. It's photos are usually big and crisp, getting us directly involved in the action we might have otherwise missed at home watching the bout online or up in the stands in the back row. If B&T would play more to its strengths and learn to find the players with the stories the magazine would quickly become the Sports Illustrated of derby.

Five on Five works on covering the different angles that happen in derby, each quarter covering new and diverse topics. This WFTDA-produced magazine takes key topics and works them into articles to help leagues and skaters become better. Since it avoids the recap-problems of Blood & Thunder, Five on Five is less handcuffed with making things timely and can focus on other points of interest.

The advent of e-readers and tablets I think there's room for derby journalism to grow and prosper, but the DIY attitude is still there. Just like MySpace and that social-networking sites aid helping derby itself grow, the continued evolution of print and web products geared toward derby journalism will continue to strive.