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How do sports reporters at newspapers adapt to the Internet? Often, grudgingly

Sports reporters often lead their newsrooms in activity on social media. That doesn’t mean they have to like it.

While the rise of the Internet has obviously impacted all corners of the journalism world, if you were ranking the most affected, sports reporters at newspapers would be high on the list. Passionate fan bases have more choices than ever — some well beyond a paper’s distribution area — from which to gobble up coverage of their favorite teams. Social media has allowed journalists to build personal brands and establish themselves as experts on the teams and sports they cover. The game story has lost importance to the small update or the smart analysis.

Some have been made into stars by the new platform. But just because they tweet doesn’t mean they have to like it. Despite the promise of increased reach, there’s still a general disdain toward social media and the generation of online-first sports sites that has grown up over the past decade, according to an interesting (if admittedly small) study on the impact of trends in online publishing on newspaper sports journalists’ jobs. The paper — “Curmudgeons but Yet Adapters: Impact of Web 2.0 and Twitter on Newspaper Sports Journalists’ Jobs, Responsibilities, and Routines” — is a small window into some of the same newsroom culture issues that are playing out in other sections and on other desks.

“One thing that was interesting that we did not expect was the negativity toward social media,” said Oklahoma State University professor Edward Kian, one of the paper’s co-authors. “Because social media gives you a chance to brand yourself, and they did recognize that their stories were being viewed by people all over the world and being seen more, and that was a positive. But the general consensus was that they didn’t like interacting on social media, and they didn’t like all the time they had to spend on there — even though they acknowledged that it made keeping up with their beats and reporting easier.”

Kian and coauthor Ray Murray, also at Oklahoma State, interviewed 12 newspaper sports journalists at length — aged between 31 to 64, at papers of various sizes, on beats from prep sports to the big leagues, all around the country. Each of the participants was a well-established journalist with at least seven years of full-time newspaper experience.

Each the journalists told Kian and Murray that they have Twitter accounts and use them for reporting. But there was a divide among how the journalists actually tweet and interact with people, the study found. Reporters at larger papers covering more high-profile beats are more likely to use Twitter more often. But the researchers found that the younger journalists felt more comfortable interacting with readers on Twitter.

“I use Twitter only for work,” a reporter who’s worked for the same newspaper in the southeast for more than 30 years told the researchers. “I don’t want anybody to know about my personal life.”

Even when they didn’t like it, the reporters acknowledged the great power social media and the Internet had given them. One of the reporters interviewed for the study, a Major League Baseball beat reporter in the northeast, went so far as to say that he likely would have been laid off like others at his newspaper, had it not been for his web presence and the ability he had to draw in readers online and through social media:

Most of the [team's] fans aren’t reading our paper. But most of them are going to my blog once in a while if not every day. They also go to [my newspaper’s] Internet site. My job security comes from that. My job is only still there for online journalism, because [media consumers] could just pick up [another paper’s] newspaper content [on the team he covers]. We offer more than just basic stories on our online sites.

Kian presented the paper earlier this year at the International Symposium for Online Journalism in Austin, and it was also published in the conference’s journal, #ISOJ. Here are a couple other findings from the paper that we found interesting:

There’s a lot of animosity toward Deadspin and other blogs.

For years, there was an established career path for newspaper reporters: You started at a small paper, probably on an unsexy beat, and gradually worked your way up to bigger beats at better papers. But that hierarchy has been thrown out of whack as people without a background at traditional news outlets work for places like Deadspin, SB Nation, or their own sports blogs. As you might imagine, the newspaper sports reporters aren’t big on that change. Kian cited sports sites’ willingness to cover stories or take approaches traditional outlets wouldn’t — like Deadspin’s story last year about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo and his nonexistent girlfriend, as well as Deadspin’s fondness for calling out other outlets.

“One of the veteran reporters we interviewed, with over 30 years [of experience], when we asked him about Deadspin specifically, he said he had never heard of it,” Kian said. “In multiple questions, he refused to acknowledge its existence. Well, obviously he had heard of Deadspin, and probably had been to the site — but his disdain for Deadspin was so much that he refused to acknowledge it.”

These journalists said they respected a number of somewhat more traditional online outlets, like ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports, as well as niche sites like Rivals.com and Scout.com (“the articles on those sites…not the message boards”) — all of which employ many former newspaper journalists whose journalistic values are closer to those of the reporters interviewed for the study. (“ESPN.com is mostly great journalism,” one columnist said. “Any newspaper person who says he doesn’t want to work there is lying or does not how much they are paid.”)

A majority of the reporters interviewed felt that blogging was not “real reporting” and that bloggers hurt the credibility of “real reporters,” the study said — noting that some now feel bloggers have been marginalized because of the popularity of Twitter. Still, the rancor among the newspaper journalists, including this reporter from a mid-sized newspaper in the west, was quite clear:

To be a blogger, you don’t need to write well. You don’t need to know any facts; you just need to put some words down. And there’s certainly no accountability. Some people could say “so and so is getting fired.” So if you get it wrong you can just write “we got bad information, it’s all good.” Unless the guy you reported wrongly about does anything about it, then you’re free to do whatever you wanna do.

I love the First Amendment, but there probably needs to be somebody policing somehow of the Internet — at least for people who claim to be journalists. You want to get all the facts right. If I wanna know something about NHL [National Hockey League] free agency, I’m going to NHL.com or ESPN.com; I’m not going to “Billy Bob’s Hockey Blog.” I hate freaking bloggers.

(Tell us how you really feel.)

Breaking a story isn’t what it used to be.

Despite the increased competition online, the journalist who covers an MLB team in the northeast said the value of actually breaking a story has been reduced:

From talking to other guys who were on the [name of MLB franchise] beat in the 90s, they would wake up in the morning and have the terror of reading every other newspaper to see whatever you missed. I don’t have that feeling any more. Everything is broken on Twitter or online somewhere. You just don’t miss much. If you do get beat with something, you are beaten for 15 minutes and no one really notices.

But due to the speed of Twitter, there is an outsized emphasis on getting information out quickly, and many of the journalists in the study felt like there was pressure to get information out as quickly as possible, even when they could’ve done more reporting for a story.

“Nobody has an exclusive and sits on it for the next day’s paper,” Kian said. “Even if you have the exclusive, you’re going to promote it on social media, if not release it online before.”

And that’s one of the ironies of the study: That even though the sports reporters interviewed have disdain for what their jobs have been turned into because of the web, the competition has, in many cases, pushed them to be among the top adopters of new technology in newsrooms.

When you find out news, you have to put it out there immediately somewhere. Whether your story is well formed or not now matters less. Twitter is the primary outlet that almost all of us [sports reporters] use for first reporting. and then you use the paper’s website for a short story.

Photo of journalists working in the press box at FedEx Field by Scott Ableman used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
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  • Bryan M.

    I would hesitate to make any sort of general statement about “sports writers” or even “newspaper sports writers” based on interviews with 12 people.

  • Jonathan Raymond

    “I love the First Amendment, but there probably needs to be somebody policing somehow of the Internet — at least for people who claim to be journalists. You want to get all the facts right. If I wanna know something about NHL [National Hockey League] free agency, I’m going to NHL.com or ESPN.com; I’m not going to “Billy Bob’s Hockey Blog.” I hate freaking bloggers”

    This guy needs therapy.

  • http://hipcider.com/ tdhurst

    I’m annoyed at people who refuse to adapt. You’re schtick is getting old, too many sports writers.

  • Max Meyer

    Some first amendments are more first than others, huh?

  • Larence McKordy

    Agree it’s a small sample size but it touches on some excellent points. I’ve been in the business for a long time and I’ve admittedly battled with some of these same issues. During the steady flow of newsroom purges a while back – thank goodness they’ve slowed down some — I think many crusty old sportswriters decided it would be a good idea to shut up and play ball by the new rules.

    I enjoy Deadspin and visit the site regularly. Excellent writers, though being the dinosaur that I am I’d like to see them execute better when they do indeed report the news. The Manti T’eo Deadspin story was a great read, but humorous in the way they decided they needed to embed and chronicle their own effort within the incredible T’eo tale. A lot of “And then we tried to call this dude….so then we went back and contacted this dude..”

    I think the turf war between newspapers and bloggers has cooled off. I was always amused at the outrage from blogosphere when one of the crusty old scribes would allude to them either by name or by trade in a negative manner in column or in their own blog. Lots of exclamation points! How dare he/she? In truth every mainstream rip of what was then this fresh new medium was a great favor to those trying to establish reputations as earnest and capable bloggers.
    We’ve come to know since then that some bloggers complement mainstream coverage of teams brilliantly. Others want to show you that they can use naughty words whenever they want. The readers, as they always have, eventually figure these things out.

  • drkrick

    That “somebody policing” is the readers. The fact that so many of them have shifted away from traditional outlets and toward online sources is telling him something he doesn’t want to admit to. Like the guy pretending he never heard of Deadspin.

  • waspuppet

    “And there’s certainly no accountability. Some people could say “so and
    so is getting fired.” So if you get it wrong you can just write “we got
    bad information, it’s all good.”

    Which is totally different from what happens when newspaper sportswriters get something wrong, said no one ever.

  • waspuppet

    “The Manti T’eo Deadspin story was a great read, but humorous in the way
    they decided they needed to embed and chronicle their own effort within
    the incredible T’eo tale. A lot of “And then we tried to call this
    dude….so then we went back and contacted this dude..”

    I think they were covering themselves because they figured all the old established sportswriters whom they were totally smoking on this story would try to poke holes in their sourcing. And sure enough, they tried anyway.

  • smack_libs_around

    Dan Shaughnessy is Boston’s ‘curmudgeon.’ He’s an always-angry sports media hack who gets bludgeoned and derided justifiably. Boston is actually awash in ‘curmudgeons’ and the Internet serves as a terrific platform to lob grenades back at them in equal (or better) measure to those that they lob themselves. Their wish was a highway with no one else on it; their rage is a byproduct of that not being so.

    As for Shaughnessy, the beauty of it all is that he’s locked behind The Boston Globe ‘pay-wall.’ Imagine toiling away at a thousand-word treatise that only six or fewer people will actually read. The Globe isn’t awash in on-line subscribers, so Shaughnessy’s ‘work’ (finger-quotes added for emphasis) is akin to a tree falling in the forest.

  • http://liartownusa.tumblr.com/image/65292876839 a_foreign_film

    “One of the veteran reporters we interviewed, with over 30 years [of experience], when we asked him about Deadspin specifically, he said he had never heard of it,” Kian said. “In multiple questions, he refused to acknowledge its existence. Well, obviously he had heard of Deadspin, and probably had been to the site — but his disdain for Deadspin was so much that he refused to acknowledge it.”

    peter king, is that you?

  • Bryan M.

    “Agree it’s a small sample size but it touches on some excellent points.”

    It’s not just a small sample. It’s 12 people. It’s useless to extrapolate to the entire universe of sports reporters working at newspapers.

    Are there excellent points to be made? Sure. But I wouldn’t use this paper as a launching point for anything other than the opinions of 12 people.

  • Matthew McQueeny

    This is a very interesting time in media, especially sports journalism. Where your responsibility lies, in terms of the paper product or your social media profiles, is increasingly blurred. I have a podcast and spent about an hour with a prominent New York Knicks beat writer back in October, talking about his progression in the industry and how he balances his growing workload. Check it out here: http://bit.ly/1izYhhb