Credit: Courtesy Weymouth FC. Dorset Echo's Neil Walton (right) interviewing Mark Moseley (centre) before lockdown.

The sports industry was among the hardest hit by the covid-19 pandemic. Events were cancelled, spectators and revenue streams were gone, and strict testing protocols were imposed. This had a ripple effect on sports journalism as, for months, there was frankly not much to report on.

This is why Neil Walton, senior sports correspondent at The Dorset Echo, was initially furloughed during the nationwide lockdown.

Upon his return, he discovered a newsroom with protocols around social distancing and office capacity to allow reporters to do their jobs.

And it was not just the workplace - Walton also described reporting from live sporting fixtures as "quite bizarre". 

The first football match he covered upon his return from furlough was the Vanarama National League South play-off final, contested between Weymouth and Dartford, played behind closed doors. 

The measures he had to pass through before the game were the strictest he had encountered during the pandemic. 

"Even before the game we had to read and familiarise ourselves with a 30-page dossier on Weymouth's covid-secure procedures," he said.

"Reporters had to enter the ground via a designated entrance and sit in a nominated area of the main stand at Weymouth, leaving through a separate exit.

"Masks had to be worn, our temperatures were taken and hand sanitiser applied, plus adhering to social distancing rules."

Walton added the absence of fans from games was "spooky".

Once inside, the process of covering the game, be it writing a match report or live-tweeting, has not changed and he has since covered various other games in similar environments. 

The coronavirus also factors in the type of content that Walton produces for the Echo. 

"Our content now encompasses how covid-19 has affected local clubs and we have done a range of stories on the impact the virus has had. 

"We have given full coverage to our local cricket and football teams during lockdown. Rugby will get the same treatment once it restarts, too."

Walton added that on the whole, the content he and his team have produced has been well-received by readers. However, some sports, such as sailing, have seen lower user engagement as a result of the pandemic in comparison with previous years. 

Interviewing is one of the few areas that has not been significantly affected by covid-19, according to Walton, who does most of his interviews over the phone just like he did pre-pandemic. 

It is not the same story for face-to-face conversations though.

"At live games, we are able to interview managers and players, albeit socially-distanced. We're lucky we still have access to the players and managers in these times," he said. 

The crisis underlined the need for local sports journalism now more than ever. As long as matches are played behind closed doors, reporters provide the vital link between the world of sports and audiences hungry for news.

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