Documenting sports with technology

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? John Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter for The Times based in Northern California, discussed the tech he is using.

How has technology transformed sports reporting?
The biggest transformation has been the use of social media, and Twitter is the opium of the sports-reporting masses. When I started doing this 20 years ago, I didn’t know what the competition was reporting until I fetched the newspapers from the porch in the morning.

Now there’s a race to see who can tweet something first. It doesn’t matter how mundane or irrelevant it is. I can watch a football game, and within 15 seconds of the last play, my feed will have seven tweets all saying “First down.” Isn’t that useful? Twitter has turned a lot of sports reporting into play-by-play, hot takes and snarky one-liners. With retweets and replies, the echo can be deafening.

But most people still have stories to write. So at the end of games, when the important stuff is happening, none of the reporters are tweeting because they’re all writing on deadline so that their story can hit the web first. It is speed versus substance. I’m glad to report that substance is making a comeback. The real-life issues now so embedded with the sports world — like debates over racial injustice, brain damage, the ethics of college sports and cheating at the Olympics— cannot be parsed to 140 characters.

What tech gadgetry and apps do you always have with you when you’re on assignment?
I always have my iPhone, my battered Olympus digital recorder, a small spiral notebook and a pocketful of pens taken from cheap hotels. (I figure the hotels owe me for all the free advertising I have given them over the years.) I’m learning I can have nothing but an iPhone and I’m fine.

I don’t cover live events much these days, because I mostly write longer, broader pieces. I work out of my house and from the road. When I do go to games, or when I sit to do serious research and write, it’s on a Times-issued MacBook Air. It’s what I’m using right now, typing this into a Google Doc.

The game-changer was the smartphone. It’s not only my office phone. I can also use it to record interviews (its microphone is better than the one in my old Olympus, which is important in crowded, noisy places), take pictures and videos to help me remember the details of what I see, and even type or speak notes and interview answers into emails that I send myself. I use it the way other people use their phones. I email, text, tweet, post to Instagram, get directions, set timers and alarms, change flights, check weather, update my calendar, map my jogs, and listen to podcasts and Spotify during long drives or plane rides. On assignment, I’ve had entire conversations with Google Translate, two of us passing my phone back and forth.

Besides being an all-in-one communication tool, the iPhone helps my writing. I take photographs of places I know I’ll want to describe in detail later — the inside of someone’s home, a rocky mountain summit, a piece of jewelry that a subject is wearing, the shape of the clouds and the color of the sky. I take videos of places, too, and narrate them as I shoot so that I can watch and listen later. I get a lot of strange looks from people when I do these things.

What tech product are you currently obsessed with?
I often do stories overseas, and for the last couple of years, I have constantly connected with sources, interview subjects and my own family on my phone through WhatsApp, a brilliant messaging service that seems to be well known everywhere except the United States.

I use it to text, but also to trade photographs, short videos and voice messages, instantly. And you can call from it, even use it for face-to-face video conversations, free if you’re on Wi-Fi.

My wife was recently on a ship in the North Atlantic, and one morning I was in bed, having simultaneous conversations with her, a friend in Brazil and a reporting colleague in Nepal, all using text, photos and audio. Then someone from the office emailed me, which felt very 15 years ago.


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