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National Sports Journalism Center

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The Sports-News Ecosystem Begins With the Link

Earlier this month, the National Sports Journalism Center held a panel discussion called “Where’s the Line?” that sought to examine a host of digital-era questions: What information can you trust? Is the mainstream media taking up stories before they’re properly verified? Are legacy organizations changing their standards in reaction to competition from independent news outposts?

To answer that question, the Center brought aboard A.J. Daulerio of Deadspin, Rob King of ESPN.com, Mike Wise of the Washington Post and Ashley Adamson of WISH-TV. It was a wide-ranging, consistently interesting discussion – you can watch video and get a transcript here, but as might be expected, Item No. 1 on the agenda was the Brett Favre scandal, and two Daulerio decisions: to go on the record with details he said Jenn Sterger told him despite not having a clear go-ahead from her to do so; and to pay a source for the Favre voice mails and a nude picture allegedly sent to Sterger by Favre.

(I could write a whole column’s worth of disclosures and disclaimers here, but I’ll hope these two will suffice: I’ve written for Deadspin and am friendly with Daulerio.)

I liked that the other panelists neither tried to burn Daulerio as a witch nor treated him (or each other) with kid gloves. Both King and Wise said their outlets wouldn’t have paid a source. But King noted that magazines pay people to be on magazine covers – and went from there to a reference to ESPN’s much-criticized "The Decision” showcase for LeBron James: “That’s not paying for information, that’s paying for access. There’s certainly creative deals you can do around getting access to an athlete, like a time buy on television and talk about a decision about where you’re going to be playing next year.” And King noted that ESPN has thought about whether there’s a tipping point beyond which stories get written without sources’ full cooperation: “You sit around and say, ‘Alright, uh, who’s going to tip the scale? If it’s Derek Jeter, do we go?’ A year ago we’d say, ‘If it’s Tiger, do we go?’ ”

Wise, for his part, had issues with Daulerio’s treatment of Sterger, and said so. But he refused to climb on an old-media high horse, emphasizing that “I think there was a legitimate news story there, don’t let anybody fool you about that. … Anybody in America would want that story.” (Wise also discussed his ill-advised Twitter hoax that led to his suspension.)

Thinking about the issues raised, though, I kept returning to one wrinkle: Nobody publishes in a vacuum anymore.

The old paradigm for news was what I think of as the Or World – most journalistic decisions came down to having a big story that would make some reader stopping by the newsstand grab your paper instead of the other guy’s. But now we live in the And World – readers who are interested in a topic or a story can read as many takes on that story as they have time for, and they cross freely and easily between different news outlets and different types of news outlets, finding stories through links, search or social media.

Readers who would always read the New York Post and never pick up the Daily News (or vice versa) are now routinely exposed to stories from both. The same goes for readers whose parents would have never picked up a supermarket tabloid: A lot of Tiger Woods fans with highbrow habits got well-acquainted with TMZ a year ago.

The changes are driven by one exceedingly simple format and technology: the hyperlink. That familiar blue text now connects what was once separate, and is tumbling down walls and changing reader habits and journalistic practice.

Here are five points for discussion – a mix of commandments and suggested link-related practices:

1. A link is not an endorsement. Too many news organizations still act as if linking to something is the same as saying they agree with it, and either don’t link or force readers to endure tedious disclaimer screens that read like a gang of lawyers wrote them with a particularly dim child in mind. Meanwhile, readers have spent the last 15 years being trained as increasingly sophisticated consumers of content, to the point that they’re well ahead of newspaper lawyers and too many editors.

2. Never surprise a reader with a link. This is a corollary to Rule No. 1. A link isn’t an endorsement, but it also shouldn’t be a trap door. Let a reader know what’s awaiting him or her when that new browser window spawns. If there’s language that wouldn’t normally appear on your site, something that would upset them, or (say) a picture of a penis, let them know that.

3. Linking increasingly obliges you to be a gateway. The web may have made journalism as a whole into a free-for-all, but it hasn’t turned every newsroom into the Wild West. Readers don’t expect you to be able to cover everything, to get every scoop, or to change your standards and report on stories you never would have touched in 1990. But the ability to link is slowly but surely changing readers’ expectations. They don’t expect you to cover everything yourself, but they are beginning to expect that you’ll help them find coverage of everything that’s important to them. If everyone’s talking about Brett Favre and your website is pretending like the story doesn’t exist, readers begin to wonder who you are to tell them what’s a story and what isn’t – and ask what else you’re keeping from them.

4. Reader assumptions are bad for you. Ask readers to speculate on journalists’ motives and you’ll find a mess of conspiracy theories, assumptions of bad faith, and other things that will depress you. Many news outlets picked up the Favre story after the NFL began looking into the allegations. To those outlets, the NFL’s acknowledgment of the story was a trigger that allowed them to cover the story according to their own journalistic standards. But I guarantee lots of readers didn’t see it that way: They saw the late arrival as an excuse to gleefully piggyback on blog gossip, or as evidence that news outlets are too cozy with the NFL and other powerful institutions. What you see as principle may come across as prejudice.

5. Therefore, explain yourself. I firmly believe if newsrooms were more transparent and let readers see how the sausage is made (within the bounds of responsibility), journalists would be more trusted, not less. If a story reaches a level where it’s become watercooler fare, link to it and explain how your newsroom is approaching the story. If you’re aware of it and trying to confirm it through other avenues, say that. If you aren’t covering it for a given reason, say so and say why. You haven’t endorsed anything, you’ve made sure your readers know about a story, and you’ve explained what you’re doing and why instead of leaving readers to misconstrue your reasons.

Interestingly, ESPN’s King did just that on the NSJC panel: Answering a question about ESPN’s coverage of Ben Roethlisberger, King said ESPN had a policy going back to the early 1990s that civil suits weren’t a trigger for reporting, noting that was a reason for its initial approach to Roethlisberger’s case, as well as allegations that Michael Vick had given someone a “social disease” and been tested for it under the alias Ron Mexico.

I hadn’t known that was ESPN’s policy – and there’s an irony in the example. Will Leitch, Daulerio’s predecessor as editor of Deadspin, has frequently cited the Ron Mexico report as one of the primary inspirations for Deadspin – he was amazed that ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other mainstream media outlets were ignoring a story about a guy who at the time was one of the most marketable faces in the NFL.

Now, Deadspin and ESPN – and the Washington Post and New York Times and thousands of independent blogs good, bad and outrageous – are all part of one sports-media ecosystem, bound together by links and reader habit. We don’t know how this ecosystem will continue to evolve, but understanding the power and possibilities of the link is a good place to start.

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  jason.fry@gmail.com, 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  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
  
 

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