Last fall, Nieman Reports took a look at beats in the digital age, including how sportswriting is changing. My colleague Dave Kindred wrote a terrific piece about the exhausting pace of today’s multimedia sportswriting. And the Denver Post’s Lindsay Jones wrote about her experience covering the Broncos for Twitter, blogs and the paper.
Reading about Jones’s experiences and those of the beat writers interviewed by Kindred, I had the same reaction: My admiration for their hard work was followed by a queasy feeling that they’d all been sold a bill of goods. They were chasing after commodity stories at the expense of deeper engagement, and competing according to measures that actual readers no longer notice nor value.
Kindred opened his article with Wally Matthews explaining how beat reporters compete to be first to post the lineup via Twitter once a coach tapes it to the dugout wall. “It’s crazy,” Matthews told Kindred. “The beat guys, it matters if we get the lineup posted first by 45 seconds. We go around saying, ‘Look at the time code, I had the lineup way before you.’ ”
Matthews is right that this is crazy, but he’s not right that it matters. Let me give every beat writer with a busted thumb a heads-up from a reader: None of us notices or cares who was first.
Yes, as baseball-news junkies we want to know the lineup, and as soon as possible. But here’s the fundamental thing that’s changed: We no longer pick a single source from which to get our news. And news organizations need to adapt to this.
I’m a huge Mets fan and a Twitter junkie, but on Twitter I don’t have to pick between following Adam Rubin or David Lennon or Andy Martino or Matt Cerrone or anybody else. I follow them all, and their tweets flow together into a single collective news source, one whose component parts are of relatively little importance in themselves.
Reporters racing to post the lineup first are wasting their time for a couple of reasons. Not so long ago, “first” meant your competitors had to endure an agonizing day in which you had an exclusive. But the window of exclusivity has gone from a day in print to minutes on the web and seconds on Twitter and Facebook. More fundamentally, reporters playing by these rules are behaving like we still live in what I call The Or World – the vanished era in which I’d pause at the newsstand, scrutinize two front pages and buy one paper or the other. Today we live in The And World, in which I inhale all the news that interests me from as many sources as I want. (Oh, and by the way – pretty soon every competently run team will post the lineup on its own Twitter feed before a beat writer even sees it. Here’s Ted Leonsis to tell you why.)
When it comes to basic information everybody’s going to have, all I care about is that it gets to me. Which individual source put that information into the combined news flow? The question is so unimportant that I’m unlikely to remember the answer five minutes later. Maybe not even five seconds later.
Reporters of all stripes are insanely competitive: It’s what makes them good, it’s fun (or at least supplies the adrenaline we all crave, which isn’t always the same thing), and of course it’s the way news organizations keep score. But those news organizations need to realize the game has changed. Being first with commodity news no longer registers with readers — and readers, ultimately, are the ones who pay the bills, to the extent bills are paid at all in our era. The more energy wasted pursuing obsolete bragging rights, the less energy available for what really does still register with readers.
So what’s that? Stories that require you to slow down and invest more time in fewer efforts.
With commoditized news, the lifespan of scoops is now so short that they don’t matter. But not all news is commoditized – and with that kind of news, scoops hold their value. Exclusive reports, investigative journalism, and thoughtful long-form features can’t be quickly matched or hollowed out by a competitor’s summary or retweet. There sportswriters still have a chance at a window of exclusivity and creating something that will stand out from the news stream and be remembered by readers – with credit where it’s due.
Even in my kinder, gentler world, beat writers would still be hellaciously busy – and opportunities to try investigative or longer-form stories might be rare. But there’s still a value in slowing down and making precious reporting count. Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information. Readers will gravitate to such stories, share them and remember them.
But this too takes time – time good sportswriters are wasting producing me-too tweets and blog bits. So next time the lineup hits the dugout wall, keep working on something that’s actually interesting. When some reporter posts the lineup, retweet it and keep going. And the next day, if your boss asks why you weren’t first, point to the better stories you wrote a couple of hours later, when the other guys were out of words and having their thumbs repaired.
Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.on Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at email@example.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.