Sports, Linking and the New Competitive Advantage
In my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center, I look at the diminishing value of scoops in the era of links and retweets. Sports fans now get information not just from destination sites, but from emails, Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. Meanwhile, at least on Twitter, sportswriters now routinely acknowledge news broken by their rivals. (And increasingly by athletes, agents and leagues that don’t need middlemen in the first place.)
The result is that scoops — at least of the routine, I-learned-this-a-little-before-you-did variety — have almost no value anymore. Linking and Twitter acknowledgments have blurred the once-inviolate boundaries between news organizations, and those boundaries have been erased by fans’ use of social media to gather and consume information from many different news organizations at once. The life expectancy of “routine scoops” has dwindled from a day in the paper era to minutes in the Web era to seconds in the Twitter era. Given this mayfly life, few sports fans notice where routine scoops come from anymore, and fewer sports fans care.
This, I argue over at NSJC, is ultimately good for sportswriters, because it makes being smart and fast more valuable than just being fast and makes writing me-too stories pointless. Reader and brand loyalty is now won by being first to offer analysis, predictions, and historical context, as well as by creating “true scoops” that aren’t easy to match. What links that seemingly different material is that it’s hard to copy, and its value is difficult to capture through links and retweets. This restores some of the competitive advantage of being first, which is good for the publisher. For the writer, doesn’t working on this stuff sound a lot more fun than turning out commodity stories more and more fans have already read?
Which brings me to Zachary Kouwe and the New York Times. What went wrong and led to Kouwe’s departure from the Times for plagiarism has been dissected from several points of view. There have been questions about the punishing pace of being a young reporter who has to turn out tweets and blog posts and Web stories and print stories. And the Times (and by extension the rest of the mainstream press) has been lambasted for not embracing the culture of the link that underpins the Web. (For three good takes on what happened, see Felix Salmon at Reuters, Paul Smalera on True/Slant and Mathew Ingram at GigaOM.)
Both Ingram and Smalera wonder why Kouwe spent so much time re-reporting when he could have just linked, and wonder if competitive concerns were at the heart of that decision. Ingram observes that links are bridges that “can also take readers elsewhere, and if your business depends (or you think it depends) on keeping those readers on your island, you might think twice about building that bridge.” And Smalera writes that “editors of certain stripe do get annoyed/upset when you attribute reporting to a competitor, especially if they’re of the opinion that you could report the same details yourself if you’d quit being so lazy and pick up the damn phone. … I would bet, with no inside knowledge, that the fiercely competitive Times, especially its Business section, especially DealBook, is loath to credit competitors, because it looks weak. So editors push for original-sounding reporting, and Kouwe massaged wire copy and blog posts to meet deadlines and word counts.”
I don’t have any inside knowledge either, but I’d bet Ingram and Smalera have found the crux of the problem — which I see less as a deliberate rejection of Web values than as an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.
Let’s go back to sports. What Kouwe was doing was re-reporting “routine scoops.” This is a waste of time on the Web anyway — as Felix Salmon notes, “there are surely higher and better uses of your valuable time than going back to rewrite a story which already exists elsewhere.”
I agree absolutely — particularly when fewer and fewer readers care. The prescription for business news is the same as it is for sports: Link to and retweet the news your competitor broke, then beat your competitor to the punch of explaining what it means and why it matters. That’s where the competitive advantage lies now.