When Ezra Klein left the Washington Post in January to start his own website at Vox Media, a big factor in his decision was Vox’s custom-built content management system, called Chorus. “They had the technology we thought we were inventing,” Klein told The New York Times. As it happens, that technology, which powers Vox’s growing media empire, began with a sports blog in 2003.
Vox’s sporty origins were no fluke. Turns out that sports media have long led the way in journalistic innovation. In 1898, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his new invention—the wireless telegraph—by sending updates from a regatta to the Dublin Daily Express. A year later, The New York Herald paid him to broadcast the America’s Cup. In the 1970s, Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves and Hawks so he could broadcast their games on his WTCG “superstation,” helping sell the nation on this new thing called cable television. WTCG became TBS, and soon we had ESPN (launched in 1979) and CNN (launched in 1980), pioneers of the nonstop news cycle.
The internet only accelerated sports media’s role as chief innovator. While studying digital innovation in newsrooms a few years ago, Carrie Brown-Smith, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, noticed that the sports section tended to be the source of many of those innovations. “It was often a couple years ahead of the rest of the newsroom,” she says. Sports journalism has taken the lead, for instance, in audience engagement, creative use of technology, and experimental story presentation.
It makes sense. Sports fans are legion and passionate and always looking for new ways to engage with the teams and games they love; and sports’ (undeserved) image as the newsroom lightweight—the proverbial Toy Department—actually made experimentation seem less risky. “It’s probably the only time being considered the ‘toy department’ was a good thing,” says Jim Brady, who was one of the first sports editors of Washingtonpost.com in 1995, and its executive editor from 2004 to 2008.