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Bill Simmons on breaking news in a Twitter universe

A brief treat for sports fans and future-of-media junkies: Bill Simmons’ column at ESPN.com about his accidental tweeting last week about Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss’ trade to the Minnesota Vikings. Simmons heard a rumor about the trade from a source and meant to send a direct message (“moss Vikings”) to ESPN reporter Adam Schefter. Instead, Simmons accidentally tweeted it to the world, which made the story blow up from private rumor to public discussion in record time.

The column talks about how that happened, but more interestingly, it also gets into how journalists think about Twitter today, as an outlet for breaking news, as a source, and as a forum for speculation. It’s worth a read, but here are a couple excerpts:

Twitter, which exacerbates the demands of immediacy, blurs the line between reporting and postulating, and forces writers to chase too many bum steers. With every media company unabashedly playing the “We Had It First!” game, reporters’ salary and credibility hinges directly on how many stories they break. That entices reporters to become enslaved to certain sources (almost always agents or general managers), push transparent agendas (almost always from those same agents or GMs) and “break” news before there’s anything to officially break. It also swings the source/reporter dynamic heavily toward the source. Take care of me and I will take care of you.

[...]

On the surface, this annoys me to no end. Who cares? It’s not like we have some giant scoreboard keeping track of everything. But my reporter friends all say the same thing: It’s not about one scoop but the entire body of scoops (not just for the reporter, but the company that employs them). Think of Ichiro grinding out 200 hits every season. Yeah, most of them are mundane singles … but they add up. For readers, that volume turns it into a “feel” thing.

I feel like that guy breaks his share of stories, hence, I trust him. Or flipping that around: I don’t trust that guy, he throws stuff out there left and right and half of it’s not true.

So yeah, there’s no official scoreboard for scoops. We just subconsciously keep score. As do editors. As do media companies. Some will do whatever it takes to pad their stats, whether it’s pimping every decision someone makes to get repaid with information later, playing the odds by reporting something they hope is true (and if it is, they look like a stud), spinning every angle against someone who once butted heads with a favored source, whatever. The best reporters maintain relationships, avoid agendas, craft good narratives, never stop cultivating new sources and — occasionally — break news simply because it’s an outcome of being good at their jobs. That’s what should matter. And that’s how they should be judged. I wish that were always the case.

[...]

In the Twitter era, we see writers repeatedly toss out nuggets of information without taking full ownership. It’s my least favorite thing about Twitter (because it’s wishy-washy) and one of my favorite things about Twitter (because nonstop conjecture is so much fun for sports fans). We saw it happen during the LeBron saga, the baseball trade deadline, Favre’s latest round of “I Might Come Back” — it’s just part of following sports in 2010. Call it “pseudo-reporting”: telling your audience that you think something happened or that you heard something happened, and somehow that sentiment becomes actual news.

Simmons also gives a window into the source development process, detailing how an NBA-exec candidate tried to get Simmons to promote him for a job in exchange for the promise of later scoops. Overall, it’s a great, self-aware piece useful for any journalist thinking about how Twitter fits into new workflows.

                                   
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