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The Case of the Missing Scoop

In the digital world, sportswriters don’t have to wait for the next day’s paper to break news. They can take a half-hour to write a blog post or a story for the Web, a minute to help an editor craft a headline, or a few seconds to share the news with their Twitter followers. And sports fans learn information not just by visiting news organizations’ Web sites, but by receiving emails, tweets and status updates written by their fellow fans.

News has never spread more quickly or in so many different ways. But the ability to break news so quickly has robbed that news of much of its competitive value. Scoops were once jealously guarded with an eye on tomorrow’s newsstand – the goal was a day on which you had a story your competitors didn’t, and a second day on which your competitors had to acknowledge through gritted teeth that you’d had it first. But that game is disappearing because of the Web. Web publishing reduced the life expectancy of most scoops to hours. Twitter has now reduced it to minutes.

But at least you can still be first, right? Sure – just don’t expect credit for it. News organizations serving readers at digital speed can no longer ignore a rival’s story while they work up their own for publication, so they link to that story and retweet it. That blurs organizational boundaries, which are then all but erased by readers’ sharing and aggregating of news into a single, communal news feed. Few readers now notice who was first. Far fewer readers care.

And scoops are about to be further devalued. Athletes, agents, teams and leagues no longer need news organizations to break news – increasingly, they do it themselves. Looking into the not-so-distant future, the question won’t be how often news is broken by a given reporter, but how much news will be broken by reporters at all.

Like a lot of digital developments, this sounds awful at first – another cherished journalistic tradition tossed on the ash heap. But while we’ll be nostalgic about the era of routine scoops and exclusives, I don’t think readers will miss it all that much – because breaking news will become the short-lived raw material from which sportswriters are free to craft more interesting and memorable things.

In an era of lightning-quick linking, the most valuable thing isn’t being first, but being smartest. Amid a blizzard of retweets, the way to win new readers and create deeper bonds with existing ones is to create something that resists being copied.

Here are four starting points for how to win the new competition for reader attention and loyalty:

* Analysis. The moment I learn the news, I start wanting to understand why it happened and what it means. Walk me through how we got here. Draw on the depth of your accumulated reporting to show me how the dots of recent days, months or years have now connected into a line. Take me behind the scenes. Help me understand how what just happened went from possibility to probability to reality.

* Predictions and Scenarios. The world just changed in some way big or small. So what happens next? What previous assumptions and plans must now be discarded? What are some of the things that might happen next, and how likely are those things? What should I watch for to make my own predictions? Use your expertise to guide me and make me smarter.

* Historical Context. Every player, team and sport has a rich history that just got richer. What antecedents are there for what just happened? What was different then, and what remains the same? How will we remember this day? Are there best-case and worst-case scenarios to be derived from that history? Echoes and ironies to explore? Bring your experience to bear on my behalf.

* True Scoops. One kind of breaking news will become more valuable in the future – the news that wouldn’t have been revealed without dogged investigation. Such stories are the ones that unfold without our noticing, or whose sources can’t tell them or don’t want them told. This kind of journalism is too often dismissed as doomed, a victim of slashed budgets and distracted readers. While how to pay for such journalism is a challenge, I think news organizations will reassess the value of these “true scoops” for one simple reason: They’re very hard to copy. A true scoop can’t be matched with a quick phone call, or have its essence captured in a linked sentence or a 140-character tweet. True scoops still play by the old rules and in fact are now even more valuable – because the Web makes their influence and potential audience much larger.

While true scoops will arise from slow, painstaking work, elsewhere being fast remains essential. But where once the race was to break news, now it’s to explain that news – to offer wise analysis, a smart guide to what’s next, or seasoned perspective. Speed still counts, but breaking news is no longer the finish line. It’s the starting gun.

A tip of the cap to my fellow 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panelists Henry Abbott, Howard Beck, Rob King and Dan Shanoff. While they may not agree with any or all of this column, it benefited from their experience and wisdom. Thank you, gentlemen.

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 www.faithandfearinflushing.com, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom www.reinventingthenewsroom.com]. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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