Journalism unbound

While researching and writing Thirty-Two Minutes in March, I frequently had to look up game schedules or find sources to verify scores. One might think a logical place to find this information would be Indiana’s largest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star.  But I quickly tired of constantly closing pop-up ads and wading through lifestyle content only to find that sporting events outside metro Indianapolis were largely ignored.

I blame the Gannet-ization of the Star for the deep cuts in local sports coverage. For the past several years, they haven’t even bothered to assign a reporter to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. Anything other than Colts and Pacers doesn’t seem to be a priority. (Which shouldn’t be a surprise, I guess. The Star recently ran a subscription campaign to promote readership and drive sales. Did they tout the number of Pulitzers won? Hard-hitting investigative reporting? High-minded journalism? Nope. They focused on the number of grocery coupons available in the Thursday edition.)

So I found myself relying more and more on John Harrell’s website (indianahsbasketball.homestead.com). The site provides scores, schedules, rankings, and a huge trove of historical data for all of Indiana’s high school teams. Including some that no longer exist. If you ever wake up in a cold sweat and can’t get back to sleep until you figure out the last year Pittsboro won a sectional, John Harrell has the answer. (What? Don’t look at me like that and pretend this hasn’t happened to you.) Several times over the last two years I’d ask a coach a question and be met with “I dunno….you should check Harrell’s site.”

Harrell has operated the website for both football and basketball since its inception over fifteen years ago. He worked as a sports desk editor for the Bloomington Herald-Times for 44 years before retiring in 2011. I asked him how he got trapped into gathering and distributing all this information.

“Back in 1980 Jeff Sagarin came to Bloomington and asked if we (the Herald-Times) wanted somebody to rank high school basketball teams for us,” he says. “And he really needed somebody to chase down scores, so that’s when I became involved.”

Harrell updates all of the scores personally, and usually on the same night as the game. He can frequently be found on Twitter asking for game results from remote corners of the state.

“It’s an everyday job during basketball season. It’s not all day, it’s mostly evenings and then some mornings.                          

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A few fans in Rockville, Indiana

With all the activity on winter nights, I ask him whether he ever gets to actually attend a game.         

“Not really,” he says. “I saw a game at Huntington North (his alma mater) last year . They wanted to say something about me at halftime, and they did. But I had to take a laptop with me to update scores.

“And I saw a game at the Fort Wayne Coliseum on a New Year’s Day when there were only about five games going on. But otherwise, I’m at home updating scores.”

I know that a lot of coaches and fans access the information frequently. I tell him that there were days that I’d look up information four or five times on the same day.

“For football, it’s just kind of a weekend thing. But for basketball, I’ll average 200,000 hits per day. Last December – just for the month –  I had like seven and a half million hits.”

Unlike a lot of other local sports sites (not to mention The Star), Harrell doesn’t charge a subscription fee, and he really doesn’t sell many ads, either. But he doesn’t seem to feel underappreciated. He said that coaches and ADs thank him all the time, and he knows sportswriters rely on his work.

So for very little money, and at a cost of six evenings a week for much of the year, I ask him what his motivation is.

“Just goodwill,” he says. “I worked at a newspaper for 45 years, and it would have been nice to have. And I get a lot of enjoyment out of it.”

I tell him how much I appreciate what he does.

“Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of recognition,” he says. “It shows you high school basketball is still pretty big in Indiana.”                                                                                                                     
Quick, somebody tell Gannett.

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