A Most Exciting Deadline

Indianapolis — Butler University’s basketball players aren’t the only Indiana college students getting a front-and-center view of the Final Four.

A dozen students at Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center have been racing around Lucas Oil Stadium here all weekend, interviewing athletes and coaches, and pursuing many of the same story lines that have captivated the national news media. They’ve also gotten a taste of the unforgiving pace of covering the Final Four, particularly the national championship game. With tonight’s 9:21 p.m. tipoff, the students—like most of their professional counterparts—will be scrambling to make a midnight deadline.

If all goes as planned, by late tonight the young journalists of the Final Four Student News Bureau will have written 30 articles covering every aspect of the basketball extravaganza. Their work has been picked up by more than 60 news outlets around the country.

I caught up with the five student reporters who will be covering the game tonight. (Several others will be reporting from Butler’s campus six miles north of downtown.) Noticeably better pressed and coiffed than some of their more seasoned counterparts in the news-media workroom, the students, with credentials hanging around their necks, said they were ready to dig in.

Much of the thrill, they say, is going behind the scenes to cover such a big event alongside the country’s best sportswriters. At post-game press conferences, says Matt Dollinger, “the second right before you’re about to be called on for a question, you get a little nervous when you think about who else is watching, not just the coach.”

The sports-journalism program, now in its second year, enrolls 100 or so undergraduates. Tim Franklin, the center’s director, says the changes that have roiled the news business in recent years have nonetheless opened up new opportunities in sports journalism.

“You look at the newspaper industry and you think, ‘It’s contracting. Where are these folks going to work?’” says Mr. Franklin, a former editor at The Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune. “But when you look at sports specifically, there’s been tremendous growth on the digital side.”

One of the biggest players in the sports news-media industry, ESPN, has created local sports Web sites for Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Boston. Yahoo Sports is thriving, as are entrepreneurial Web sites like Deadspin. Professional teams, leagues, and large college programs, too, have created their own news Web sites.

The growth spurt has made sports-specific journalism programs even more necessary, says Malcolm Moran, director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

“This industry is exploding so much. The growth was so rapid that quality wasn’t always a part of it,” says Mr. Moran, a longtime former sportswriter for The New York Times and USA Today. “It’s never been more important for people to learn to do their job properly.”

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