Friday, June 26, 2009

On sports in the Twitter era, and the role of bloggers and tweeters

If anyone wasn’t already convinced that Twitter has altered the way we cover sports, they would do well to consider the events of the past week. First, we had Kevin Love breaking the news [Andy Hutchins, The Rookies] of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Kevin McHale’s dismissal on his own Twitter feed, followed in close succession by a supposed Twitter feud [Andrew Stoeten, Blog] between Chad Ochocinco and Shawne Merriman, Shaquille O’Neal learning of his trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Twitter [King James Gospel] and several notable reactions across the sports world to the death of Michael Jackson (including some that were over-the-top [Jonathan Sacks, Sports Rubbish). Even before this week, many prominent news organizations have been running stories based on information from the Twitter feeds of athletes, agents and coaches, and that doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.

The big question is what these developments mean for sports coverage. Quoting athletes from Twitter, Twitter feuds and stories based on Twitter information have their own sets of unique issues that I’ll look at later, but for just breaking news, it’s hard to imagine a better platform, especially in the sports world. When any sort of big story (a trade, an injury, a free-agent signing) happens, the sports segment of the Twitter universe tends to explode. Sometimes, that results in stories like the Love incident, where an insider such as an athlete or coach breaks news directly to their followers before the media gets to it.

More frequently, as with the Shaq trade, one reporter or blogger will pick up on the story, write a piece and then promote it on their Twitter feed. Another growing segment of news comes from media live-tweeting from certain events, such as the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy proceedings or Steve Nash’s charity soccer event. If the news is important enough, it will fly around the sports world thanks to the ease of retweeting and linking.

Twitter isn't not just for breaking news, either; if a mainstream columnist or a blogger has a unique or valuable take on a situation, either in a longer piece or in just a witty tweet, that will be rebroadcast as well, helping to publicize their work. Moreover, as Will Leitch wrote in a great column this week, Twitter is a fantastic way to collect sports information even if you’re not putting much of your own information out there. It allows you to see what the hot stories are in the national media and on small team blogs all at once, and pick out those that you find interesting for further reading.

Personally, I haven’t found that the advent of Twitter necessarily means I read less long-form pieces. What I have found is that the location of where I read those places has changed. The advantage of big sports sites like ESPN and Yahoo! is their depth of information and their ability to put breaking stories up quickly. I used to check those sites regularly just to see if anything big was going on, and would often find myself reading other pieces they added to pass the time. With smaller blogs, I often found myself not checking in as frequently, as they usually put up a new piece every couple days or so and it wasn’t worth continually looking at the site to see if there was something new. Now, with Twitter, I don’t have to spend time just surfing the general sports sites, as anything interesting that they break will be flying across Twitter instantly (and sometimes even before one of the big sites has it, like ESPN with the Shaq trade).

Moreover, I see plenty of interesting blog pieces cleverly promoted in 140 characters or less, so I check those out instead of reading the general sports stories. When the bloggers I follow regularly put a new post up, they generally alert the world on Twitter, and I generally know just from their 140-character summary if it’s something I’m interested in reading or promoting. In many ways, it’s a lot like a RSS feed but more useful thanks to the Twitter-exclusive original analysis and witty remarks many writers offer in addition to promoting their own stuff. The recommendation aspect of Twitter is also useful; I’m much more likely to check out a piece at a site I don’t regularly read or a Twitter feed I don’t normally follow if it’s mentioned by a writer I follow and respect.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Twitter and Twitter users break stories in the majority of circumstances. However, that doesn’t make their function of promoting and redistributing the news any less important, and it doesn’t make it different from many major news outlets (something which I had an interesting Twitter conversation about with Dave Leeder of the Globe and Mail yesterday in the wake of the Jackson coverage, where the accurate details were spread across Twitter long before mainstream organizations such as CNN and NBC clued in). Much of what you see in a newspaper or on a sports website is not original content produced specifically for that organization; a lot of it is wire-service material picked up from agencies such as The Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg. Moreover, a great deal of that wire-service material is not news broken by the wire service, especially when looking at trades or free-agent signings; those are more frequently broken by local beat reporters or well-connected national writers such as Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski or Fox’s Jay Glazer and then re-reported or rewritten by wire-service staff for transmission to their client papers.

Thus, many Twitter users and bloggers are fulfilling a similar function to wire services by taking information that one group of people sees and transmitting it to different groups of people. In fact, I’d argue that the Twitter users and bloggers are providing a more valuable function, as they generally add their own commentary to the straight news and they generally link to the original piece, two things which wire services rarely, if ever, bother with. Occasionally, a wire-service piece will include a vague line like “the trade was first reported by”, but they’ll rarely mention the name of the reporter or provide a link, making it difficult for interested readers to find the original piece. More frequently, they’ll forego attribution altogether if their reporters are able to re-report the story by getting a coach, general manager or agent to confirm to them what’s already taken place.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as these services still have their role to play. Newspapers and websites need a great deal of content, and it isn’t possible to have their own staff generate certain kinds of content efficiently. For example, consider the Shaq trade. This is the kind of big news that transcends the individual franchises involved (the Suns and Cavaliers); any paper that covers the NBA at all will likely want to have a story on it. However, it isn’t at all cost-efficient for a paper like the Sacramento Bee (to pick one at random) to have a reporter based in either Cleveland or Phoenix on the off-chance that some news big enough to make the papers in Sacramento will arise in either city. It’s far more effective for one AP writer to pull a story together and send it out to all the interested papers across the country that don’t have their own personnel covering the trade.

It is ironic that these wire services are some of the biggest critics of the blogging and tweeting segments of the sports world, though. When AP chairman Dean Singleton rails at Google and bloggers [Joseph Jaffe, Jaffe Juice] and apparently agrees with Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson’s characterization of them as “parasites”, perhaps he should look in the mirror. If the definition of a news parasite is one who disseminates without adding original content, the wire services are perhaps more guilty of said offence than bloggers. At least bloggers who comment on these stories on their own sites or on Twitter are providing credit to whoever broke the story, a link to the original piece and their own take on the news, all of which are rather valuable. With the wire services, the credit often goes missing or is unnecessarily vague, the link to the original is generally non-existent, and extra analysis generallyis not included (which is fine, as that’s the way that straight news tends to be done).

Perhaps the problem is with the connotation of the word “parasites”. Of course, it evokes rather unfortunate mental images of bugs or worms living off of larger hosts. “Symbiotes” might be a better term; many organisms provide useful functions for their hosts, such as the gut flora that live in the human digestive tract and help to process food. In that manner, wire services, bloggers and tweeters all provide useful benefits to the original reporters to some degree, as all help get the information to the masses. Bloggers and tweeters help even more by providing credit and links to their sources. There’s enough room out there on the sports segment of the interwebs for each group to carve out its niche. In the end, we all have the same goal of getting the information out there; we would be better served working as parts of a symbiotic whole than feuding with each other.

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