Looking back at great digital storytelling in sports journalism

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Given my previous incarnation as a 25-year sports journalist, I’m a sucker for a great sports story. I gravitate toward those that delve beyond the score or a pivotal play or the impact on a team’s playoff chances. I truly enjoy stories that dig deep into the human element, those morsels that add flavor to a story that are the fruits of a trusting interaction between subject and storyteller.

The story of Dock Ellis, the former major league pitcher who threw a no-hitter in June 1970 and later stated that he was under the influence of LSD during the game, has been well documented. After his playing career ended, Ellis professed that he never pitched without the use of drugs. He underwent counseling and then became a drug counselor himself, reportedly remaining sober until his 2008 death at age 63 from complications stemming from chronic liver disease.

nixonilloOutside The Lines, the investigatory arm of the ESPN television empire, has for decades deftly covered the issues of sport away from the playing field. Its reporting and production is top-notch, and OTL was recently honored with the DuPont Columbia Award for its three-part series on youth football.

But I was heretofore unaware of the OTL storytelling presence on the ESPN website, where I discovered The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis. Authored by Patrick Hruby and published in late 2012, the story is well researched and artfully written, with plenty of great backstories and insight into one one of the most enigmatic players in major league history. The story is replete with an assortment of complementary visuals: excellent photographs, impactful pull quotes, graphics, captions, even a collection of his baseball cards.

As Kevin Nguyen wrote in a 2012 piece for Nieman Lab, “It feels like an experience instead of a block of words surrounded by the detritus of the web.”

Credit: ESPN Outside the Lines.
Credit: ESPN Outside the Lines.

 

John Korpics, vice president of creative at ESPN Digital and Print Media, told Nguyen that the aim of the Ellis piece was to “replicate the immersive experience of reading a magazine,” but I feel it goes well beyond any experience you can get from a magazine. It’s apparent that many of the design components from ESPN The Magazine were utilized here, but in a far more dynamic fashion.

As you scroll through the piece, you view a succession of images and other art elements that skillfully break up the text of a very long, seven-“chapter” story. I’m not a huge fan of the cartoonish illustrations – with the exception of the Richard Nixon umpire – but they work well in context. The typeface is clean and easily readable and the use of white space is critical in minimizing clutter. It is also equally easy to view on mobile and desktop/tablet.

But as appealing as the presentation is, it does more than simply festoon the story. Hruby is an exceptional writer. In fact, his writing has been selected multiple times for “The Best American Sports Writing” anthology. It’s easy to see why.

 

 

Stephen Daly is associate director of communications at Northeastern University’s Office of Alumni Relations. Daly was a longtime sports writer for the Nashua Telegraph and Portsmouth Herald. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at Northeastern’s Media Innovation program.

 

[Ed note: Other, more recent, digital storytelling layouts in sports journalism to check out: Mariano Rivera King of Closers from The New York Times; Inside the world of competitive bass fishing cheaters from Grantland; A Swing of Beauty from The Washington Post. Moment of Truth from Sports Illustrated.]

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