Visualize the Games III: Surviving the Grind

One of the most unique sporting events I ever regularly designed was the College World Series for the Omaha World-Herald. It’s an 11-day event featuring late games, and often doubleheaders, every day, and our coverage was (and in Omaha, still is) defined by daily special sections, usually six pages, and continuous digital presence. In the newsroom, this doesn’t just mean long hours cranking pages out. It puts your sanity and willpower through a pretty incredible gauntlet (Don’t make me say gantlet, please.). By the fourth day, your work is blurring together, you’re pretty sure you’ve lost five pounds, and your family’s recent recollection of you is defined by the work clothes strewn about the house nightly.

Oh, and there are still seven more days of this to go!

Welcome to the Olympics. The Games are even longer — 17 days, ceremony to ceremony — though in the United States we regularly benefit from major headway due to the time zone difference. Even the Eastern time zone is five hours behind London, and it gets better as you head west. But, lag time or not, the Games are a bear to design. What follows are a few tips for staying above water even as the subjects you’re covering often don’t.

You’re not a hero, and you’re not a martyr
We have to get this one out of the way. If you’re planning on designing this entire event without help, your real-world sympathy is going to be limited to those you can goad into some woeful comments on the various social media outlets. You. Need. Help. You’re not designed to work 18 days in a row. Fatigue makes even steeled veterans sloppy, and your obligation to your readers and digital audience is to stay sharper than they are. Don’t forget, the Games wear on them as well.

You’re also not credentialed at the Games. The writers and reporters on the ground in London are under a completely different grind, and yours is not a one-to-one comparison. Don’t let anyone make it so. Take days off. Resist the lure of checking out the photo wires. Kick back. Be a fan of the Olympics for a night. Read your publication as a fan would. When you get back in the office, remember what it was like being a fan, and think about what you want your coverage to convey to those who get that feeling for 17 days.

Identify special opportunities ahead of time
Do you have a local or regional athlete competing for a medal tomorrow? Is there an event of national interest (gymnastics?) handing out medals today? If the Olympics were the NFL season, most days would be “any given Sunday” and these special opportunities would be the Super Bowl. It’s a cue to crank the volume as high as you can crank it — whatever that means in your particular newsroom. If your standard print protocol is three stories and a rail on the cover, these big days in London are the time to dial it down to one story and a promo instead. We’ve long lived in an era in which selling out to what people want most is acceptable, and the Olympics are for embracing this.

Recognize the money shot
The best photographers at your organization and in the world will be in London. You’re going to be inundated with stellar photography even if you’re limited to one wire service. But every few days — probably five times during the Games — you’re going to see that photo come across your desk. You know the one. The image that everybody in the building, people on the street and even babies yet to be born unanimously agree is superb. Understand that these particular images are going to be how your audience remembers the games. Kerri Strug being carried to the medal stand. Michael Johnson’s arms in the air. These images are quite literally, memories. You have to treat them as such. Regardless of your print size, it’s impossible to overplay them. Digitally, it’s impossible to overuse or overpromote them. Recognize them and treat them reverently.

Generate unique content daily
This means you. Specifically, you. Not your bosses. Not your reporters in London. Not the news wire. You, the person gazing upon this. It doesn’t have to be life-altering content. It could be a by the numbers box. It could be a photo page. It could be a graphic showing the distance between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte at every split. But you need to do the research, and you need to put it together. This is how you put “your” stamp on presentation. It’s not through varying your design for the sake of change. It’s through getting involved every day in content production and executing it.

Best of luck, and enjoy the Games.

twitter: @sportsdesigner