What Does a Sports Desk Do When Sports Are on Hold?

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Victor Mather, a Sports reporter and editor at The New York Times, has a new column with an unusual name.

Where once he might have reported on an emergency goalie in the N.H.L. or analyzed what went wrong in a Daytona 500 crash, the new column, “The Day in (No) Sports,” brings readers stories about announcers taking their commentary home and athletes incorporating their children into their workouts.

Stories that “wouldn’t have been newsworthy before suddenly became interesting,” said Mr. Mather, who begins work at 7 each morning on the column, which he writes along with Danielle Allentuck, the Sports desk’s reporting fellow.

His shift in outlook is one that the entire desk has had to make since the coronavirus pandemic forced organized sports around the world to postpone or suspend competition. The cancellations threw much of the coverage planned for the next few months — articles about baseball spring training, the run-up to the Olympics, the N.B.A. playoffs — up in the air.

“There’s no playbook for how you cover sports when sports are not being played,” said Randal Archibold, the Sports editor for The Times.

The play, though, turned out to be simple: Report the news and write about things that can be welcome diversions from the news — which, in a way, is what Sports has always done. Some articles detail lost seasons, but others reveal ways in which people found new ways to play — or contribute.

Talya Minsberg, an assistant Sports editor, wrote about people across the United States turning to jogging as a way to safely exercise while practicing social distancing. And David Waldstein, a reporter, wrote about M.L.B. uniform material being used to produce protective masks and gowns.

The desk has also been publishing features on sports that typically are not as frequently covered by The Times, like a report from Mr. Waldstein on cheating in chess. Mr. Archibold said many readers were looking for “counterprogramming,” stories that offer a break from coronavirus coverage.

“You don’t want to be flip in any way,” he said, “but you also do want to acknowledge that readers, to some degree, want other things to read.”

Sports reporters and editors have also helped with coronavirus coverage on the National, Metro and International desks. They’ve written about coronavirus disbelievers, edited articles about overloaded hospitals in Italy and contributed to The Times’s 24/7 live updates on the pandemic.

Benjamin Hoffman, a senior Sports editor, said that covering the coronavirus hadn’t been as difficult as one might expect because sports coverage prepares reporters and editors to respond immediately to drastic change.

“If you’ve written up an N.B.A. finals game, with new posts every 15 minutes for the entirety of the game, it’s not too big of a stretch to then move on to other live coverage,” he said.

In fact, Mr. Hoffman helped manage a live blog that for weeks recorded how the coronavirus was affecting day-to-day life in the United States well beyond the sports world.

For reporters who cover sports that have been postponed or canceled, like Sopan Deb, a basketball reporter, the altered landscape requires finding different ways to write about their beats.

“We’re no longer talking about what’s going on on the floor, we’re talking about what’s going on off the floor,” Mr. Deb said.

Along with working on articles about athletes testing positive for the coronavirus, he has written about the financial hit the N.B.A. will take from its suspension, and the impact on arena employees and other workers.

“I have always seen sports as essential to society and culture; it intersects so much with everything,” Mr. Archibold, the Sports editor, said. “I think that it’s important to chronicle and document, as we do, the many ways that this virus is impacting life.”

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