My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center begs sportswriters to slow down and do less — and it seems to have hit a nerve. (As always with my sportswriting columns, the lessons apply equally to any other journalist.)
The genesis of this column came back in the fall, when Nieman Reports published a look at beat writing in the digital age, including my own somewhat emo musings on being caught between indie blogging and fandom on the one hand and professional journalism and neutrality on the other. Elsewhere in the report, I read my NSJC colleague Dave Kindred’s exploration of how sportswriters’ beats had changed because of the web and Twitter. Kindred opened with Wally Matthews, now of ESPN New York, explaining how the beat writers would race to be first to tweet the lineup once a team posted it on the dugout wall. A Denver Post Broncos beat writer, Lindsay Jones, was able to top that bit of ridiculousness: Reporters can’t use cellphones from the Broncos’ practice facility, so they have to run out of the stadium to be first to tweet something. (By the way, fans watching practice can tweet their thumbs off. Is there an organization more in love with stupid rules than the NFL?)
Some things send you rushing to the keyboard, inspired or indignant; others have to simmer. The two Nieman pieces nagged at me all fall and winter, until I finally was able to articulate what bothered me. Those beat writers weren’t technology rejectionists: They’d embraced new tools, and were working their butts off. Yet their lives were worse — web publishing, blogs and Twitter had only added to the burdens of an already tough job. Why? Because they were using those new tools to do things the old way. Someone had sold them a bill of goods.
I don’t follow one Mets beat writer or another on Twitter — I follow all of them. They’re part of a collective flow of news, one I dip into to get news when I need it. Do I want to know tonight’s lineup? Of course. Do I care who had it first? No. Do I notice who had it first? No. With Twitter the question’s faintly ridiculous, in fact. Twitter embodies The And World, in which I get news from as many sources as I can take in and the flow is the important thing, not the component streams. I’d like to think I chose a crummy metaphor on purpose — there really aren’t individual elements of a flow, are there?
Those beat writers were using Twitter as if this were still The Or World, in which I’m going to buy Paper A or Paper B based on who has a scoop on the front page. Today I consume Papers A, B, C, D and so on. And as for scoops, 99% of them have shelf lives so short that for all intents and purposes they no longer exist.
Too much of what Kindred found those beat writers doing is a waste of time. So why are they doing it? I suspect it’s a combination of things. There’s a culture of competitiveness and adrenaline, which isn’t a bad thing so much as it’s a good impulse wastefully channeled. Habit and tradition are part of it too, I’m sure. I suspect it’s also fear, on multiple levels — higher-ups shoved writers down new media pathways, writers were too intimidated by desperate times in the news business who question whether that was the best use of their time, and working harder is always easier to demonstrate than working smarter.
What should those beat writers do instead of competing for mayfly-lived scoops? My advice came down to “Worry a lot less about being first with the news and worry a lot more about being first with what the news means.” Then my column elicited a sharp, smart follow-up from Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk — and one of Calcaterra’s commenters absolutely nailed it, far better than I did.
Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.”
And then I come here.
BANG. There it is — the elusive sweet spot. Be the place readers turn to find out what that bit of news means. Do that, and you’ll have an audience and a brand. And a future.
My latest National Sports Journalism Center column began with this post on The Changing Newsroom, the excellent blog by the University of Memphis’s Carrie Brown-Smith, in which Brown-Smith and Drury University’s Jonathan Groves identified sports departments as homes for newspaper’s Web innovators. Asked on Twitter if I thought that were true, I said that I did — and then spent some time thinking about why.
Here’s the answer — or rather, five answers. All of which really come back to the same answer, which is that unlike lots of other subjects in the paper, there is an enormous appetite for sports news, analysis and conversation. In-depth stories about civics, politics or science often get discussed as spinach readers feel compelled to eat, but sports is nothing like that — plenty of fans will happy scarf down everything a newspaper can offer and then go looking for more. Sports departments began responding to that demand before their colleagues in other departments did, meaning they’ve had more time to adapt to innovations. Sports departments accepted long ago that news is a real-time endeavor, embraced Twitter, and have been arguably helped by becoming part of an ecosystem of papers, sports-news sites, and independent blogs.
The lesson for me is that the days of deriding sports as the Toy Department should be long gone. Sports have gone digital-first; newspaper departments that are struggling with doing the same could do a lot worse than spending a couple of weeks on the sports desk.
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For a superb example of using Twitter as a journalistic tool, look at how Joanna Smith of the Toronto Star is handling reporting from the court proceedings against Col. Russell Williams, a Canadian air force officer who has confessed to brutal rapes and murders. Smith has been letting the story unfold 140 characters at a time, mixing the evidence presented with reactions from the courtroom — and sometimes firmly telling us that she’s going to elide some details. At the same time, Smith is smoothly answering readers’ tweets, some of them challenging or hostile. There’s a lot to learn from here — Smith is doing several very difficult things simultaneously, and doing all of them well. (Warning: The details of the Williams case are horrifying.)
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My apologies for scarce posts — I am working as senior editor for MSG.com through the end of the year, and trying to finish a book that’s due at the end of the month. I will try to be a better correspondent once I can breathe a bit.