The National Sports Journalism Center is pleased to announce the addition of Ronnie Ramos to its slate of esteemed columnists. As the weekly Sports New Media columnist, Ramos will discuss the impact and implementation of social media, online journalism and technology in sports media. Ramos is the Managing Director of Digital Communications at the NCAA, where he manages the association’s websites, reporters and social media strategies. Prior to joining the NCAA, Ramos spent 25 years as a reporter and editor for five newspapers, including the Miami Herald and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University and a Pulitzer Prize judge. He is also an adjunct professor at IUPUI’s School of Journalism, teaching graduate level sports journalism courses.
Today’s brand of online journalism differs significantly from how traditional newspapers practiced their craft. Spurred by the 24-7 news cycle and fed by social media’s requirement for interaction, online journalism has blurred the line between news reporters and columnists.
Also gone is the clear delineation between a seasoned journalist and a Twitter-obsessed blogger who leverages his followers into an influential pulpit (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that).
As online journalism hurls toward the future, often propelled by Twitter’s continued development as a breaking news platform, it can be helpful to look at what those old-fashioned newspapers do well and find strategic ways to incorporate them into their faster-paced, modern platforms.
Here are four things online journalists can learn from their printed word counterparts:
1) Reporting matters.
In most cases, reporting online is just not as good (meaning accuracy and depth) as it is in newspapers. Blame it on the pressure to publish immediately and the ease with which one can repeat almost anything on Twitter. Whatever the reason, online journalism would be better if there were more reporting.
Make the extra call. Check things out. It may sound like Reporting 101, but it is startling how many times it doesn’t happen online.
One example: Len Pasquarrelli, a former newspaper writer who migrated online and writes for the Sports Xchange, wrote this past July that Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts “will never play another snap there under that (existing) contract,” according to one unnamed person identified only as “close to the Mathis situation.”
Pasquarelli didn’t include a comment from Mathis or any reference that he tried to reach Mathis. Turns out, it wasn’t that hard to get a response from Mathis. Nate Dunlevy, who runs a website called 18to88, asked Mathis about the story via Twitter. Mathis responded quickly and refuted the story.
The reporting issue is not just a matter for individuals. Two days after Mathis denied the story, Fox Sports picked up the original story, without including anything from Mathis. Which leads perfectly into the second topic …
2) Correct your mistakes.
The original Fox Sports story is still online, with no indication there is an error – Mathis is playing for the Colts under his current contract. Online journalists and websites would improve their credibility if corrections to errors and omissions were more prominent.
When I was executive editor of the Shreveport Times, I mandated that all corrections would appear on the front page of the section in which they occurred. That meant if there was an error on 8A, the correction ran on the front page of the newspaper. I thought it was important to correct mistakes prominently.
It made reporters and editors more careful. It also signaled to the public we were serious about correcting our mistakes.
Websites focused on breaking news and vying for readership, should own up to mistakes. Too often, websites just publish an updated version of the story, without any sign that a previous version was incorrect. Websites should include a box with the story, stating they had an error and explaining what was corrected.
Currently, stories that are wrong are often not corrected – or even taken down.
On July 17, 2007, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen’s reported:“ [Michael] Vick is unlikely to be indicted in the dogfighting federal investigation, according to information gathered by the NFL and Atlanta Falcons, sources tell ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. The authorities have told the Falcons and league that there has not been any evidence that can be tied to Vick with the alleged dogfighting ring, the sources said.”
The story is still available on ESPN.com. There is no mention that there is an error in the story. Vick was indicted the next day.
3) Differentiate between reporting and opinion.
In the old days, back in the early 2000s, reporters wrote stories and columnists wrote opinion pieces. Today, newspaper beat reporters write straight news stories for the print product and then they post blogs and tweets full of their opinions.
The separation of news and sports in printed newspapers helped build credibility for the reporters and the newspapers. The challenge today for online news is that as reporters strive to engage readers via social media or grow their audience online, it is opinion that generates the attention.
To be sure, there is excellent reporting being done by online news organizations. Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, for example, has performed some excellent investigative work, most recently his stories on a rogue booster’s role at the University of Miami.
And ESPN.com, long known for focusing on breaking news and not as much in-depth sports investigations, seems to be making a move in this area by hiring Don Van Natta Jr., a top-notch investigative reporter for the New York Times who will start at ESPN in January.
Yet even Yahoo! can confuse readers when they publish stories under the dual bylines of Robinson and Dan Wetzel, who is a national columnist. The story states it’s an investigation, but when writers alternate between news and opinion, it can make things confusing for readers.
4) Bring context and perspective to the conversation.
This is something newspapers have traditionally done well – but there is no reason online sports sites should not own this genre going forward. There should be room for both the constant breaking news and the step-back perspective piece that ties a strong of breaking news together.
Grantland.com has done some nice work in this area, including some stories that attempt to put a daily sports event into perspective (see what we learned from UConn-Harvard).
As readers search online for content they are interested in, online sites should provide a change of pace to the constant breaking sports news. Giving readers depth and explanation earns websites credibility and can establish their writers as subject-matter experts.
As readers continue to migrate online for their sports news, sports websites should not forget some of the excellent practices of newspaper sports sections.