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All in all, CNN would rather be the one who knocks
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July 14, 2014, 11:57 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In case you spent Friday under a rock, and that rock had no wifi and, like, only one bar of signal, all-world basketball player LeBron James announced he would be returning to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Breaking the story was Sports Illustrated, which published a first-person essay by James “as told to” SI staffer Lee Jenkins. It was quite a get for SI; at the moment, the story’s been tweeted over 140,000 times.

lebron-james-cc

But Richard Sandomir of The New York Times didn’t care for it much, writing a story ominously headlined “Getting the Scoop, but Not Necessarily the Story; Role of Sports Illustrated in LeBron James’s Announcement Raises Journalistic Questions.”

…armed with the biggest news of the day, the magazine presented it as a 952-word statement on its website from the King, not a full-blown news story with context and breadth…

News value aside, the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades.

And while James’s words may have been all that the sports world wanted to hear, the magazine should have pressed for a story that carried more journalistic heft.

That seemed a bit much to me; I seem to remember the Times letting Angelina Jolie tell her story in first person when she had a big announcement to make. But baseball writer Craig Calcaterra pushed back better than I could:

This is crazy. It’s an instance where Sandomir and the Times — who I think are fantastic most of the time, by the way — are fetishizing the business of Serious Journalism at the expense of understanding what sports fans actually care about, appreciating how informed sports fans already are and asserting that the reporter’s highest and best function is to get between fans and the news as opposed to delivering it to them.

Question: what, apart from the name of the team LeBron James chose and his reason for choosing it, do people interested in this story either not know or actually care about? What sort of “journalistic heft” does Sandomir think should have been added to this to “serve the reader” better? Jenkins prefacing the actual news with “James, 29, from Akron, has played for Miami since the 2010-11 season,” would not have added journalistic integrity here. It would have been byline-justifying filler.

Everyone tuning in to this story knows what’s happening. Sports Illustrated and Jenkins provided them with the one thing they didn’t know: where James was going and why. If there is any concern about larger context here, it can and will be addressed by SI sidebars, bullet-pointed, fact-based graphics and, most importantly, an in-depth story from Jenkins about his conversations with James which provides deeper context. All of which, I assume, have either already been published or will soon be.

[…]

[James’ announcement is] a big event, sure, but at bottom it’s functionally equivalent to a team issuing a statement that it placed a player on the disabled list. That day’s starting lineup. A simple bit of data. A commodity. And just as sports teams and leagues are increasingly bypassing the press in order to release that sort of commodity news directly to fans via their Twitter feeds or in-house news operations, LeBron James could have very easily tweeted that he was heading back to Cleveland to his 13.6 million followers. Or, like he did back in 2010, could’ve said it on some TV show cum P.R. festival he created for himself. Indeed, it’s amazing to me that Sports Illustrated even got what it got here and they should be credited for getting that much. I didn’t need more than that yesterday. I’m more than happy — hell, very, very eager — to wait for Jenkins’ in-depth followup to all of this. I bet it’ll be incredible.

Photo of LeBron James in 2009 by Keith Allison used under a Creative Commons license.

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