Jason Fry


Boston explosions a reminder of how breaking news reporting is changing

Terrible events such as yesterday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon have always meant “all hands on deck” for news organizations, with staffers pulled off their regular beats to contribute.

But the endpoint of the newsgathering and reporting is no longer a front-page package of stories explaining — the best one can — what happened, why it happened and what might be next. Now, there is no endpoint — events are reported in real time, with stories in constant motion, and the front page is a snapshot of an organization’s reporting at the moment when the presses needed to roll.

Boston was a reminder of that, and a look at what’s changing in real-time journalism. Through Twitter and various live blogs, I found myself looking over my shoulder at the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Reuters and other news organizations, and was able to make some observations and draw some conclusions.

My first observation doesn’t speak to what’s changed in journalism, but to what’s remained the same. The Boston Globe’s impressive reporting was driven by having boots on the ground — quite literally, since the newspaper had reporters and photographers at the finish line very near the site of the two bombs.

That’s how John Tlumacki captured the image that seems likely to become the iconic photograph of this tragic day in Boston, and how reporters such as Billy Baker and Chad Finn contributed a wealth of detail — by turns horrifying and surreal — from the scene.

The tools have changed, with Twitter an instant printing press for bite-sized bits of news, but the skills — a keen eye, empathetic ear, and a good list of contacts — have not.

But these days there’s another layer to reporting such events. Besides boots on the ground, news organizations also need an eye in the sky — someone charged with gathering information, deciding what’s credible and what’s not, and presenting it to readers.

Such traffic cops have been part of covering breaking news for generations, but once their role was an internal one aimed at producing those front-page packages. Now, the role is external — and the assets they use can no longer be limited to their own news organizations. The roster of reporters (and those acting like them) for a breaking-news event is ever shifting and changing, bound not by whose ID tag someone wears but by where they are, what they see and what they know.

Other journalists are seeing and hearing things and tweeting them, and must be incorporated into what an organization knows and communicates to its readers. That’s also true of all the people once bundled together under the heading of “sources” — government officials, hospital spokespeople and others now release information directly to the public, without funneling it through the media. And so do people who are participants in an event or observers.

Take the tweets from Bruce Mendelsohn, a marketer who was attending a party just above the site of the first explosion. Mendelsohn is the kind of witness reporters hope to find but rarely do — a former Army medic with an eye for detail and the ability to assess spectators’ injuries and what might have caused them. A photo he took was picked up by the Associated Press, and news organizations quoted him — but only after they discovered his tweets, which were available to all.

 

 

(By the way, next time journalists are quick to dismiss citizen journalism, point them to Mendelsohn’s tweets and photograph. He was reporting on his own, and quite capably.)

The role of a news organization’s eye in the sky demands far more than just aggregating the work of others. It requires the ability to juggle all the parts of a developing story, continually account for new information, and quickly vet tips, photos and descriptions. In a situation such as the Boston Marathon, few bits of information will be able to be vetted the way news organizations would like. The eye in the sky will have to make those calls, relying on another old tool: the reporter’s gut instinct. (Though lessons like these will help.)

Which brings us to the most wrenching change for news organizations confronted by an event like Boston: News gathering and reporting — an intrinsically messy hodgepodge of verifying facts and debunking chatter — is now done in front of readers. Instead of waiting for a carefully crafted report on the news or a front page, readers are now in the “fog of war” with the participants and reporters and officials and everybody else.

Whether we like it or not, this isn’t going to change — given readers’ hunger for news on such days, news organizations can’t remain silent about reports until they’ve been verified with officials and subjected to the organization’s own system of scrutiny. The chaos of breaking news is no longer something out of which coverage arises — it’s the coverage itself.

One of the many difficulties with this is none of us — reporters, officials and readers alike — is used to it. Reporters want to be first but fear the consequences of being wrong. Frustrated officials seeking to figure out what’s going on may pass along a reporting mistake, seemingly verifying it and thereby amplifying it. Readers want information from the beginning of the reporting process but still hold news organizations to the same standards that governed the final product. All of this adds up to a profound change — one we’ve only begun to grapple with.

In a situation like this, the best way forward for news organizations is acceptance and transparency. We have to tell readers what we’re sure we know and how we know it, acknowledge and assess things that we’re hearing, and provide constant updates and cautions that what we think we know is changing rapidly. Establishing facts has value, of course — as does wise analysis. But so too does providing information, publicly asking questions (and providing a forum for answers) and debunking rumors. Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s rules of a crisis are good advice here:

 

In time, all of us will become more accustomed to reporting in the fog of war, with the entire newsgathering process taking place in public. We will develop language, standards and procedures for such reporting, shaped in part by readers — who will in turn learn how to use them to assess and respond to our work. Those standards and procedures are already emerging. But there is much thinking and work still to be done — and the lessons of days like yesterday are part of that process.

Previously: Covering what comes next in the aftermath of the blasts | How journalists are covering, reacting to Boston Marathon explosions | BostonGlobe.com, other sites drop paywalls following Boston Marathon explosions

Correction: This post originally misspelled Tlumacki’s last name. Read more

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How ESPN published “Chink in the Armor” Jeremy Lin headline & what’s happened since

The rise of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ Asian-American star, has been one of 2012’s feel-good sports stories. But it’s come with an unwelcome undercurrent: racial references by fans, columnists and TV personalities that have ranged from innocent-but-cringe-worthy to openly offensive.

Last week, ESPN went from the sidelines of this spectacle to center stage, issuing three apologies within 24 hours for “offensive and inappropriate comments” that led to one employee’s dismissal and another’s suspension for 30 days.

The first incident to garner widespread attention involved a headline on ESPN’s mobile website early Saturday morning. As ESPN dealt with the fallout from that mistake, its attention was drawn to another incident, on ESPNEWS on Wednesday night, then to a third on ESPN Radio on Friday night. All three involved the phrase “chink in the armor,” which has no racial connotations in itself but was an unfortunate choice — to say the least — when used in discussing Lin’s on-court performance.

After looking into the incidents, The Poynter Review Project sees one as a lapse in judgment by an editor working without a net and the other two as terribly timed slips of the tongue. One of the punishments imposed strikes us as too severe. And we note that the phrase that got ESPN in so much trouble is awfully shopworn and lazy. Whether they can be misinterpreted or not, clichés are signs of a writer or speaker on cruise control — which increases the chance of a crash.

How mobile mistake happened

Let’s look at the headline first. According to ESPN, it appeared on the mobile website around 2:30 a.m. Saturday and was taken down about 35 minutes later. The headline linked to a story by Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com about whether the Knicks’ loss to the New Orleans Hornets had exposed weaknesses in Lin’s game.

Anthony Mormile, vice president for mobile content at ESPN, said the Bristol-based editorial team for the mobile sites consists of eight people who usually work two per shift. After 2 a.m., one editor is often catching up on the “back end,” updating content for sports that aren’t in season and taking care of other editorial loose ends. The other editor is generally handling the “front end” of the site, loading up “experience carousels” with headlines, summaries and links to articles. (Because cellphones offer less screen real estate than desktop computers, the mobile editors often write different headlines.)

Mormile said that, on Saturday night, the front-end editor — 28-year-old Anthony Federico, who had six years of experience on the mobile team — liked Begley’s column and decided to spotlight it for the mobile site, sensing that the conversation had shifted from the Knicks’ loss to potential holes in Lin’s game. As Mormile noted, Federico “created more work for himself” in doing so, and, by deciding to feature the Lin story on the mobile home page, “in theory, he did absolutely 100 percent the right thing.”

Unfortunately, his choice of headlines unraveled all that. Said Mormile, “Anthony had no concept, no awareness that could be construed as a potentially explosive headline.”

Rob King, senior vice president for editorial, print and digital, said that, as things now stand, the Web and mobile sides of ESPN’s house are technologically different and generally work in parallel, not together. On the Web side, King said, lead content packages and headlines go through a copy desk before they’re pushed live, and a copy editor is always there when a home page editor is working. But the mobile team doesn’t have “that level of oversight … you had one person making a move that a lot of people could see.”

Mormile says the mobile editors generally double-check each other’s work, providing at least an informal safety net. But the other editor on Federico’s shift was busy supporting ESPN’s Bracket Bound app, which is getting a lot of usage in the run-up to March Madness. Federico pushed the headline out himself — and, when Mormile was alerted a little after 3 a.m., Twitter “was blowing up with people putting up screen shots and condemnations.”

The next morning, ESPN issued a prepared statement saying that “we are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.” Linking to that statement via Twitter, King wrote that “there’s no defense for the indefensible. All we can offer are our apologies, sincere though incalculably inadequate.”

Multiple references over several days

By then, though, ESPN was dealing with another unfortunate use of the phrase: ESPNEWS anchor Max Bretos had used it Wednesday night while interviewing Knicks analyst Walt Frazier. That brought another apology, one also made on the air Saturday. The third use of the phrase in connection with Lin came to light after that: On Friday night, Knicks play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes had said it on ESPN Radio New York.

On Sunday, Federico was dismissed and Bretos suspended for 30 days. (Dedes is employed by MSG Network, which produces the Knicks’ radio broadcasts.) John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, said that the two decisions were reached after “a number of conversations” and that, although “the subject matter was the same, we looked at each incident on its own.”

Mormile said Federico “was devastated, but understood” the company’s decision. On Twitter, Bretos apologized, said his comment was “not done with any racial reference,” acknowledged that the phrase had been inappropriate in that context and pledged to “make every effort to avoid something similar happening again.” Asked about Dedes, an MSG spokesman said Monday that “we are evaluating and will have no additional comment at this time.”

Why one firing and one suspension?

One potential factor in the severity of the punishments: Earlier in the week, racial sensitivity regarding the Lin storyline was a topic in the company’s monthly editorial board meeting, and ESPN issued a memo to all its content groups urging staffers to be cognizant of how Lin was discussed — a directive that was revisited in a Friday staff meeting.

Anyone who had followed other media outlets’ Lin coverage understood the need for caution: MSG had shown a fan-made graphic of Lin emerging from a fortune cookie; the New York Post celebrated a Lin buzzer-beater with the back-page headline “AMASIAN!”; and Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock had apologized for a sophomoric, racially tinged tweet about Lin. Not long after discussing the need to avoid such missteps, however, ESPN had a flurry of its own to deal with.

Mormile praised Federico as “a good, good kid,” and called the mistake “a momentary lapse of judgment that ended up being an egregious error.” Many journalists have been saved by the sharp eyes of others and some luck; sadly, Federico had neither on his side. But, even at mobile speed, a headline writer has time to deliberate, and learning how to step back and assess one’s work is a critical skill. (We reached out to Federico, who didn’t want to comment at this time.)

The 30-day suspension of Bretos — who has been with ESPN for two years — strikes us as too harsh, though. Looking at the clip of Bretos’ comments, we see no sign he was trying to be snarky or clever, and an on-air reporter must think, listen and talk in real time, with no chance to review his or her words. Flubs and slips of the tongue are a hazard of the trade, and an unfortunate choice of words at the wrong time can be devastating. Reconsidering Bretos’ sentence would neither undermine ESPN’s speedy and forthright response to these incidents nor damage its efforts to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again.

What’s next

One step we would suggest is for ESPN to demand that its writers and on-air talent find richer language and fresher turns of phrase. We’d be happy never to read or hear “chink in the armor” again on ESPN. That has nothing to do with political correctness or the possibility of an innocent phrase being misconstrued. Rather, it’s that the descriptive power of that phrase was leached away by overuse decades ago, and it’s now just clichéd noise — and a sign of someone on cruise control. (Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless discussed the issue of racial sensitivity and ESPN’s missteps on “First Take” on Monday morning.)

Technological help also might be on the way. King said that ESPN is “right in the middle of building a better process” that allows editors to publish to all platforms, which would align the mobile team’s efforts better with those of its Web counterparts and give its employees more of a safety net.

Technological fixes aren’t everything, of course: In its prepared statement, ESPN promised other measures, including self-examination and response to constructive criticism.

“It’s a teaching moment and a learning moment for the entire organization,” Wildhack said. “And that’s what we’re going to use it as.”

This post was simultaneously published on ESPN.com as part of the Poynter Review Project. Read more

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Rules of the game change as sports journalists compete against teams they cover

In September of 2009, when I started writing a weekly column about digital sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, I figured one of my major themes would be the fraught relationship between the mainstream media (inevitably shortened to MSM) and indie sports bloggers. Despite the missiles lobbed back and forth (here a “tired hack,” there a “mother’s basement”), I thought the distance between the two was shrinking. And as a writer with a foot placed uneasily in each camp, I fancied I might be able to help dispel myths and misconceptions.

But over my column’s two-year run, MSM vs. indie bloggers increasingly struck me as a narrower and narrower distinction between two variations on a theme. Sure, I occasionally waded into MSM/indie-infested waters – see here and here, for instance. But such columns would prove exceptions. Another development struck me as more important, with far more potential to remake sports journalism.

That development? It’s that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents are all increasingly bypassing journalists and using digital tools to communicate directly with fans. Right now, this stuff is mostly marketing. But as sports organizations become more sure-footed digitally, they will become journalists’ competitors. And that will lead them to reassess bargains struck with newspapers generations ago.

As always with such things, looking back, you wonder why it took you so long to notice the pattern. As far back as the mid-1990s, any self-respecting member of the digerati would tell you that digital tools allowed anybody to be a publisher – everybody now had a printing press and a distribution network in their personal computer. Newspapers, magazines and publishing houses were no longer gatekeepers between authors and a world-wide audience.

But when we digital cheerleaders said “anybody,” we were usually thinking of really small subsets of anybody: activists, grass-roots organizers, whistleblowers and the like. We weren’t thinking about the Yankees or the NFL or the Pentagon or General Electric or other big entities whose voices were already heard loud and clear.

Stick with me for a brief excursion into history.

One of the biggest problems for news organizations trying to change today is they don’t understand why they succeeded yesterday. News organizations see themselves as providers of information and defenders of democracy — which is true, and well worth defending. But that civic mission isn’t what made newspapers pillars of their communities. They attained that status because they were really good at printing – specifically, printing information and distributing it in a timely manner.

In the pre-digital world, if you needed to tell a lot of people in a given area that you had a hot deal on sofas, a good selection of groceries, or were showing movies at a certain time, putting an ad in the newspaper was the best way to do that. Those ads paid for a lot of journalism, but the arrangement came with an odd mutual blindness: Journalists habitually focused on the articles and ignored the ads, while advertisers habitually focused on the ads and ignored the articles.

Sports was an odd duck, simultaneously news and entertainment. Unlike many newsmakers, teams wanted reporters to cover what they were doing. That led to a tacit bargain: Newspapers got access and readers, while teams got publicity and customers. And that bargain held, even as sports reporting matured to include economics and race and performance-enhancing drugs and injuries and other concerns that teams and athletes would rather not have discussed.

But now, that bargain is imperiled. Because now anybody can publish, and anybody turns out to really mean “anybody.” That includes teams, leagues, athletic organizations, agents and athletes themselves – all those who used to speak through sportswriters. As a result, the rules of the game are swiftly being rewritten.

Back in April, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote a blog post discussing what he saw as the role of media for sports teams. Cuban took inventory of the media platforms in the locker room after a Mavs game, discussing which ones were useful to the Mavs and which ones weren’t.

His conclusion: Newspaper and TV reporters were essential because they reached segments of the Mavs’ audience that wouldn’t go online for information, but Internet reporters were on shakier ground. Cuban saved particular ire for Web writers who get paid, seeing them as primarily chasing page views (and, therefore, controversy) rather than writing as a labor of love. That caused a stir in the blogosphere, but I was more interested in what Cuban hadn’t said. He hadn’t talked about news value, or the public’s right to know, or any of the things that send journalists to the barricades. Instead, he’d sized up the locker room as a businessman.

Cuban saw print and TV reporters as complementary to the Mavs’ efforts, while Web writers were competitors with the Mavs’ own online outposts. But Ted Leonsis – the Web veteran who owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics – had gone further at a Washington Post-hosted sports-business symposium.

I have a direct, unfiltered way to reach our audience now, and I think that harnessing that is what you have to do as ownership, because we are media brands … when someone goes to find out something about me or a team or a player, and they go to Google and they type that in, I want to learn how to get the highest on the list, and I’ve done that. I don’t want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks.

Now, throw in athletes who are taking to Twitter to connect directly with fans, and using it to break their own news. Most professional athletes on Twitter are still digital immigrants – they started tweeting after they were famous. But very soon, star rookies will arrive who have used social media throughout their teens. For them, communicating via social media will be far more familiar than confronting a scrum of reporters.

All of these developments point to another buzzword from the Web’s early days: disintermediation, or eliminating the middleman. When teams are publishers, and athletes can speak directly to fans, the cost-benefit analysis of opening locker rooms to journalists changes. Like all middlemen in the digital world, they’re endangered.

Maybe this won’t matter. The last decade has seen an explosion in sports news, analysis and chatter, and dedicated fans continue to devour as much as they can get. But at the very least, sports journalists will face powerful new competitors with unbeatable access. And one way or another, their old prerogatives will be challenged.

Sooner or later, Mark Cuban or some like-minded owner is going to decide that publicity from traditional news coverage isn’t worth the headache of locker-room interrogations. Sooner or later, Ted Leonsis or some like-minded owner is going to decide to stop helping the Washington Post get clicks. Sooner or later, some star athlete is going to save all his talking for Twitter, and a team PR minder will just shrug.

What will happen then? My fear is that journalists will trumpet the public’s right to know, only to find that sports fans are largely content with in-house stories, indie blogging, highlights on demand and athlete tweets, and will dismiss talk of journalism as a civic mission as special pleading.

Rather than risk being caught flat-footed then, sports departments should plan now for the era of teams as publishers and competitors.

  • First, think about what news teams will hold back to break themselves, and get out of the business of competing with them for it.
  • Next, discuss which stories are me-too fare that readers can get anywhere, and that waste reporters’ valuable time.
  • Having done that, think about what niches teams can’t fill. Fortunately, there are lots of these — statistical analysis, investigative reporting, scouting upcoming opponents, minor-league reports and historical perspective, to name just a few. Think about if any of those approaches make sense for your news organization, and brainstorm how middlemen can use their status to add value. (For instance, become a great curator, using news judgment to collect the must-reads for a team’s fans whether things are good, bad or ugly.)

Change is coming. By focusing on what to do now, sports journalists can make sure that day isn’t such a shock when it arrives.

Jason Fry is a writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. While at The Wall Street Journal Online, 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. Nineteen of his Indiana University columns are collected as “Sportswriting in the Digital Age,” available from Amazon for the Kindle, and in other formats (including epub and PDF) from Smashwords. Email Jason at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter. Read more

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Some say that Starbucks sold in Barnes & Noble or Target is not the same as the coffee in its own standalone stores. Is that true of mega media brands who relocate? Is the Washington Post/Howie Kurtz combo more influential than the Daily Beast/Newsweek/Howie Kurtz combo?

4 questions to determine the value of your brand, plus how to keep your biggest stars happy

The age of the individual brand was inevitable, a natural consequence of the way digital media has remade our reading habits. In print, columns have a home on a section front or on the opinion page, but online the basic unit of reader consumption isn’t the section or page, but an article — or a video or podcast.

When readers search for or share columns, what’s found or shared is a single article. Meanwhile, writers spotlight links to their own work on their Tumblrs, share them with their Twitter followers, and hope for comments on their Facebook fan pages — all activity that spotlights their individual brands and pushes the institutional brand deeper into the shadows.

The idea of powerful individual brands and a push and pull with institutional ones didn’t begin with digital media: The peregrinations of noted columnists and TV anchors have generated industry buzz for generations.

Diehard fans say that Starbucks sold in Barnes & Noble or Target is not the same as the coffee in its own standalone stores. Is that true of mega media brands who relocate? Is the Washington Post/Howie Kurtz combo more influential than the Daily Beast/Newsweek/Howie Kurtz combo? Who wins and loses when individual and institutional brands interact?

Nor is the delicate dance between the two kinds of brands unique to the media world. Athletes consider questions of individual and institutional brands all the time — witness LeBron James’s “Decision” that took his talents from Cleveland to Miami. It’s a factor in the business world too: Apple’s stock price is routinely roiled by chatter about Steve Jobs’s health as investors worry about what the institution would be without the individual. Yet the same wasn’t true when Jobs returned to a beaten-down Apple from NeXT.

But is the trend inevitably to individual brands, or are they and institutional brands  more interdependent than we think?

There have been a number of recent defections of well-known individuals from hoary media brands to relative startups: Think Howard Kurtz leaving the Washington Post and Andrew Sullivan leaving the Atlantic, both for the Daily Beast. Or Jonathan Alter departing Newsweek for Bloomberg View.

But did those established stars enhance their own brands (along with the numbers on their bank statements) with those moves, or diminish them? And did their former institutions use their stars’ tenure wisely, to generate broader loyalty?

Not all of us pixel-stained wretches are Kurtzes or Sullivans, but we still have an awareness of our individual brands that we lacked five or 10 years ago — and we too may find success leads us to choosing between sticking with an old name or jumping to an upstart.

But what if our suitor isn’t run by the likes of Tina Brown? To go back to sports, are you better off being the highly paid Jayson Werth of the Washington Nationals, or the less well-paid but still comfortable Jayson Werth of the Philadelphia Phillies?

For individuals, the first question is, of course, “What’s best for you?” And maybe the salary offer provides a rather succinct answer to that question. (In which case, congrats and invest wisely.) If not, though, four questions to consider that might help you fix the value of your own brand against that of your institution:

  1. Are you someone’s habit? Do you have a cadre of regular readers and commentors who compare your latest column, video or whatever against what’s come before? Or is your traffic more a function of your beat and/or the regular ebb and flow of news? What, if anything, can you discover about where your traffic is coming from? If a lot it comes from searches for your name, good. If it’s from bookmarks for some kind of home for your work, even better. If a lot of it’s path-based traffic through a section, your brand may need some more building.
  2. Where is the value of your stuff accruing? Google yourself and your work. (You need to be doing that anyway, so get over whatever residual shame you may have about it.) If people are sharing, discussing, or commenting on your work away from your new organization’s site, how are those discussions phrased? Are they referring to you, or to a column on your paper’s site, with your name an afterthought or not cited at all?
  3. Does the institutional brand mean more to you than you think? We all have issues with our employers — editors we wish would wield a scalpel instead of a cleaver, bureaucratic dopiness, frustrating technology. And most of us at least daydream about the hue and shade of grass elsewhere. But you may find your sense of worth is more bound up with that institutional brand than you think. Take a deep breath, look in the mirror and introduce yourself as working for your prospective employer. See how it feels. Weird’s OK. Disappointing isn’t.
  4. How hard are you prepared to work? One of the great benefits of the digital age is we have the tools to advance our personal brands; we can all be publishers if we wish to be, or very effective promoters and republishers if we don’t want to go that far. But such tools are so easy to use that we can forget that using them effectively is the work of every day and every hour. Well-established institutional brands allow us to free-ride on their name and marketing muscle: When we stop pedaling we coast a bit, instead of wondering why the bike fell over.

Institutions face trickier questions. The fragmentation of people’s reading and viewing habits makes it harder for institutions to build and maintain their own brands.

In the print era, there was no such thing as a reader who picked up the paper, turned instantly to C3, read one article and threw the rest in the trash. And the higher individual brands rise, the more likely someone will try and pick them off, or that individual will begin to think of himself or herself as distinct from the institution.

If you’re responsible for the well-being of your organization’s brand, here are four ways to build better bonds between your institutional brand and those valuable but potentially irksome individual brands:

  1. Identify your most valuable individual brands. Who are your star columnists, your up-and-coming community stars, your makers of videos that tend to go viral? If you can identify them, so can your competitors, so figure out who they are and look to keep them in the fold.
  2. Turn centrifugal force into centripetal force, or at least balance them. Look for ways to harness your stars’ ambitions. Don’t worry if that means enhancing their individual brands — because you’ll be doing it within the framework of your own institutional brand. Build that columnist’s archive out into a destination mini-site, or make that beat writer with a gift of gab into a YouTube star. See if you can build a partnership instead of a zero-sum game.
  3. Make your individual brands into institutional gateways. For all the care and attention lavished on home pages, more and more people are reaching your site through search and social media, and consuming your content piecemeal. That makes each column or video effectively a homepage — the potential first stop for visitors to your site. (And the rest of your site is still important; a collection of individual brands risks being just the sum of its parts.) Think about what you want fans of individual brands to do next. If people like this columnist, who else might they like? If this writer’s beat is what interests them, what other resources can you show them?
  4. Get really good at building brands. Keep your stars happy by helping them build their individual brands, but keep track of what works and what doesn’t, so you can replicate those successes as much as is possible. To risk another sports metaphor, one of Billy Beane’s insights in Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” was that it was more efficient to make pitchers into closers than to buy them on the free-agent market. Make your own closers.

Individual brands are part of the media landscape now, and talented, ambitious writers will naturally concern themselves with them and seek to enhance them. But while they have to contend with fragmented reader habits, institutional brands remain important too, and the two can be made to work together rather than in opposition.

Jason Fry is a writer, editor and digital-media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the writer of Reinventing the Newsroom and co-writer of Faith and Fear in Flushing. Follow him on Twitter at jasoncfry.
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AP, CNN Trade Shots Over AP’s 15-Minute Edge in Reporting Steinbrenner Death

Early Tuesday morning, legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was taken to the hospital in Tampa, Fla. At 9:44 a.m. EDT, the Associated Press sent out a news alert that Steinbrenner had died — a report that was cited within minutes by Fox News, MSNBC and ESPN.

CNN, though, didn’t report that Steinbrenner had died until 9:59 a.m., when Alina Cho cited a statement from Steinbrenner’s family.

Fifteen minutes isn’t a very long time; by lunchtime CNN and its competitors were busy dissecting Steinbrenner’s life and legacy, and it’s unlikely that many people outside of the news business noticed or particularly cared which network said what at the beginning.

But 15 minutes can feel like 15 years amid the blare of breaking news — and the lag served as a reminder that CNN and the AP have gone their separate ways and raised the question of whether CNN is paying the price.

CNN had used AP materials and services since its debut in 1980, but it cut ties with the news service on June 21, nine days before its contract with AP expired.

In announcing that decision, CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton said that “the content we offer will be distinctive, compelling and, I am proud to say, our own.” AP spokesman Paul Colford, for his part, said at the time that “it is unfortunate that CNN’s viewers will no longer have access to the breaking news and worldwide reporting resources of the Associated Press, the gold standard in journalism.”

When asked about the Steinbrenner announcement, both the AP and CNN were quick to engage in further sniping.

“AP staffers have been watching with interest and amusement how CNN, which is supposedly a breaking-news organization, is now routinely late on stories without AP services and also has to devise ways to get at stories that AP has already made available to CNN’s competitors and AP members,” Colford said. “The mounting evidence online and on TV suggests that CNN’s audience is being shortchanged.”

CNN spokesman Nigel Pritchard, however, said that it’s “highly unlikely we would have gone ahead” with the initial AP account of Steinbrenner’s death because it didn’t cite a verified source.

Pritchard said that a TV affiliate gave CNN “an unsourced heads-up” about Steinbrenner’s death, and a CNN assignment editor in New York confirmed that with Steinbrenner’s family. Pritchard said that process is “standard to our editorial guidelines. … CNN will always try and get separate verification if no sources are given.”

Pritchard noted that the AP has quoted CNN in its stories since the two parted ways, such as in a report about Virgin Airways stranding passengers on the airport tarmac in Hartford, Conn. Citations of other news organizations aren’t uncommon, he notes. “We quote them, they quote us — it happens.”

Walton’s June internal memo portrayed the end of its relationship with AP as part of a “content-ownership process” that began in 2007 to better leverage the network’s news operations. That effort, he said, would include expanding CNN’s wires team and launching CNN Share, an effort to better aggregate and distribute content within CNN. He also said CNN had struck a deal with Reuters to supplement breaking-news coverage. (CNN and Reuters themselves had parted ways in 2007.)

CNN isn’t the only news organization to break ties with the AP, which has seen strains within its membership over such issues as AP’s digital strategies, local coverage and pricing. Papers in Ohio, Montana and Tennessee have created cooperatives to share stories instead of relying on the AP, for instance. But if you cut off a wire service, you have to replace that content through your own efforts.

Sharing content between publishers or within a far-flung news organization has never been easier. Of course, hyperlinks allow news organizations to leverage the work of other news organizations without a formal agreement, supplementing their own newsgathering efforts. And with content fragmented into single stories that are discovered through search and distributed by readers through e-mail and social media, the lifetime of an exclusive has shrunk dramatically — now often measured in minutes.

But those minutes matter — particularly when news organizations are counting coup.

CORRECTION: A CNN spokesman relayed some incorrect information about the reporting of Steinbrenner’s death, which led to inaccuracies in the original version of this post. An assignment editor confirmed Steinbrenner’s death, not Susan Candiotti. Alina Cho announced his death on-air, not Candiotti. And the statement confirming the death was attributed to Steinbrenner’s family, not Steinbrenner spokesman Howard Rubenstein. All of these errors have been corrected.
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Will You Be Ready When ESPN Local Comes to Town?

Last April, ESPN Chicago debuted with a roster of writers drawn from the ranks of ESPN staffers as well as former Tribune and Sun-Times writers and bloggers, with their efforts supplemented by video tailored for Chicago and audio from ESPN’s local radio station.

Within three months it was the top sports destination in the market, surpassing the Tribune’s sports section. It has since been joined by ESPN Local sites in Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles, with ESPN New York to be rolled out soon.

ESPN’s deep pool of writers and video personalities and its radio network allow the sports colossus to launch local franchises that are impressive out of the box. Their brand name is catnip for beat reporters and columnists who seek national exposure and are worried about newspapers’ prospects. And ESPN can call on its impressive advertising-sales operations to find advertisers either as part of local deals or as part of larger agreements.

The new competition

In these paranoid days, it’s important to note that ESPN didn’t launch its local franchises to wreck local journalism, but because executives saw an ad-sales opportunity. Ultimately, the effect may be the same. Opinions and traffic metrics differ on whether ESPN Local steals readers from existing sites or simply provides an additional destination for sports-hungry fans. Similarly, local ad sales aren’t automatically a zero-sum game. If Miller Brewing Company looks at a city and decides the arrival of ESPN Local justifies increasing its regional ad budget, existing sports-news operations could be OK or even sell more ads.

But that’s far from certain, and local sports outlets should be nervous about the prospect of ESPN Local arriving in their town. The history of newspapers on the Web provides ample warning about what happens when strong new competitors seek your readers and the ad dollars that accompany them. And even the most voracious sports fan ultimately has finite time for Web surfing. Every minute spent on ESPN Local is a minute the local news franchise can’t use to strengthen its own connections with sports fans.

Get a game plan

So you’re a newspaper publisher or sports editor who’s just learned ESPN Local — or any other national sports-media company with expansion on its mind — is coming to your town. What should you do?

While I think sports sections need to be much more aggressive about adapting to the changing expectations of Web audiences, this isn’t the time for a radical rethinking of your site. Rather, look to build on your strengths and natural advantages.

Here’s a five-point plan for meeting the challenges of ESPN Local’s arrival:

1. Take a hard look at your own numbers. Which features are well-read, and which aren’t connecting with readers? Don’t just look at Web visitor counts; you need to think more broadly than that. What articles are getting shared by readers via e-mail and social media? Which writers are getting retweeted? Which columns consistently are a topic of discussion among local sports bloggers?

2. Double-down on your best brands. Think about which assets you can’t lose, such as your star columnist or your beat guy with the best sources or even the previously anonymous editor who’s cultivated a big Twitter following. These are the writers who have become closely identified with your organization and would leave the biggest holes if poached. Focus on building them into Web brands, working to make them destinations in their own right and the centers of loyal reader communities. This is a wise bargain to strike with your best talent: It protects you while showing them you care and offering them a bigger profile.

3. Invest in cross-platform programming. You need to match what ESPN Local will bring to the multimedia table. If you’re not already doing video, start now. (It doesn’t have to be pretty or expensive — timeliness and personality are more important than snazzy production.) If your market has one, find a non-ESPN radio outlet to partner with — and don’t just think about big radio stations. Look to college radio, or have a reader contest to find new voices for podcasts. Keep in mind that this is the ante, not the game: While you don’t necessarily need a huge expenditure up-front, in the coming years multimedia will become more important, not less.

4. Think community. Here, you really do have an incumbent advantage in terms of reader loyalty and physical roots in the community. Make use of it. But don’t just think about chats and comments and things happening on your own site. Community isn’t so easily hemmed in. Make sure your writers aren’t just tweeting but responding to readers through replies and direct messages. Create Twitter Lists that include not just your own writers, but rival writers, local athletes, team officials, bloggers, and dedicated fans. Hold special events locally for Twitter followers and Facebook fans. Listen to what readers say they want and give it to them.

5. Reach out to bloggers. For all the talk of the blog revolution, many local bloggers still crave recognition by established media outlets — and this is another place where your roots can work to your advantage. Beat ESPN to the punch by finding the best local bloggers and either making them part of your site or reaching out to them for coverage, reactions and expert opinion. For an example of a news organization that’s done this well, look at what the Washington Post has done with bloggers in The League, its Huffington Post-style blog about the NFL.

Your town isn’t in ESPN’s sights? That doesn’t matter. This isn’t about Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and New York, but about Sacramento, Grand Rapids, Charlotte and Baton Rouge. It’s wise to ask, “What would I do if ESPN Local were coming to my town?” while you still have some time to answer the question.

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After all, in one sense, ESPN Local already has arrived in your town. It’s just shown up in pieces, through new competition: college sports sites such as Rivals.com, regional cable sports networks that are moving online, team-centric blog networks such as SB Nation and as-yet-unaffiliated blogs by the dozens. All of these sites are new competitors clamoring for your readers’ attention. Protect your turf by playing offense before you find yourself on defense.

(Thanks to Dan Shanoff for his insights and counsel.)

Jason Fry writes a weekly sportswriting column for the National Sports Journalism Center and blogs about digital journalism at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com. Read more

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Advice for Sports Sections: Lay Off Travel, Game Stories

Amid the wrenching changes remaking the news industry, we find the sports department in a strange place, at once impressively ahead of the game and stubbornly lagging behind.

There has never been a more lavish spread set out before the information-hungry sports fan. There’s the near-infinite newsstand of traditional publications available via the Web, not to mention scoops, opinion and observations blasted out in real time by sportswriters who have adapted to new technology and a wealth of blogs lovingly maintained by passionate fans.

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At the same time, though, sports sections seem slow to break with old models and habits that no longer serve the interests of their readers, wasting precious resources on shopworn forms of coverage and attendance at big events that could be covered ably from afar. Brace yourself for next month’s tidal wave of stories from the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, too many of which will go unread.

First, the good news. Sports is immensely popular, teams have legions of deeply committed fans, sportswriters have a tradition of livelier voices than the rest of the paper, and every sports day offers a guarantee of real news.

All of these factors translate well to online success. I’m a diehard New York Mets fan, and even a relatively quiet day in the off-season gives me lots to read: several articles from the mainstream media and more than a dozen posts by independent bloggers who follow the Mets’ every move.

I have so much to read because sports is part of what Steven Berlin Johnson has called “the old-growth forest of the Web.” In the mid-aughts, the insatiable appetite for sports news and the ability for anyone to become a publisher combined to produce an information boom. Elsewhere in the paper, the transformation was only beginning.

In discussing journalism today, there’s a cottage industry focused on worrying (with good reason) about whether “citizen journalists” will materialize to cover, say, local government and how effective they might be in doing so. There’s no such worry in sports; every franchise already has a cadre of citizen journalists covering them in minute detail.

To be clear, this coverage is no substitute for the beat reporters who build relationships and cultivate sources by working phones and locker rooms, bringing fans stories they otherwise wouldn’t have. Sports fans who disparage the “MSM” don’t realize that today they’re getting the best of both worlds: a steady diet of beat reporting and passionate, independent blog opinion and analysis. (ESPN’s Jim Caple has an excellent take on this.)

Still, blogs do provide a baseline of coverage, and ferocious audience demand will ensure any void is filled. As a journalist, I find the relentless thinning of beat writers’ ranks tragic; but as a reader, I’m not overly worried about the future of day-to-day sports reporting.

The explosion in sports information is driven by more than independent bloggers. Mainstream sportswriters have readily adapted to in-house blogs, Twitter and other ways of getting information to readers quickly — and engaging those readers in dialogue. A string of blog updates or tweets from an informed beat writer watching a practice or a game can be invaluable, like a chance to sit on the sportswriter’s shoulder as events unfold. Twitter has been good for sportswriting in other ways, too — paradoxically, the confines of a 140-character limit seems to have freed many writers to be looser, funnier and more engaging than they seem in print.

Yet for all this innovation, in other ways sports departments seem stuck in the past, wasting time on decaying forms such as game stories and wasting dollars on attendance at big events with no hometown angle.

Sending a reporter to the Super Bowl when the local team has dispersed to their gated mansions and giant condos is a holdover from the days in which geography protected newspapers from competition, and the paper was local readers’ only way to get a timely, solid account of the game. But that world no longer exists — the Web now lets readers pick and choose from any news outlet’s up-to-the-minute coverage. Instead of a lack of Super Bowl coverage, there is a glut, which in these days ought to spark a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of having a local laptop in the press box.

Even if the hometown team isn’t involved, there are journalistic reasons to attend big sporting events. They’re gatherings of a sport’s key figures, making them prime networking opportunities and seedbeds for future stories. (And, hey, showing the flag has some value too.)

But the question isn’t whether reporters should be there; it’s whether the small additional benefit of having them there in person is worth the large additional cost in an era of shrinking budgets and staff cuts. To me, the answer is clearly “no” — particularly when a good sports reporter with an address book, big TV, blog and a Twitter account can be a hugely entertaining Super Bowl correspondent for a fraction of the price.

The same rigorous questioning is overdue for one of sportswriting’s most-cherished forms: the game story. Red Smith famously wrote that “people go to spectator sports to have fun, and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again.” Good point, but now there are many ways to have that fun again, from round-the-clock “SportsCenter” to condensed games I can watch on my iPhone whenever I want. By now, the paper’s approach is an also-ran.

Game stories still have a place where highlights and play by play aren’t readily available. (High-school sports, for instance.) And in the right hands, they can still be phenomenal. The question to ask about the form isn’t whether it can still be done well, but whether it continues to serve the audience.

And that’s where game stories fall down. For the most part, they tell readers what they already know — and worse, papers’ frenzied production cycles (whose goal is getting news on paper for delivery at a time when it already will be out of date) tie down writers who could be devoting precious time to telling readers things they don’t already know.

If I were starting a sports section, I wouldn’t waste a dime flogging reporters to produce commodity news or getting it from some third party. Instead, I’d pay for a great box score, some kind of interesting visual metric (for baseball it might be a graph of win probability, with key plays highlighted) and a terrific slide show. Freed of doing play-by-play right after an event (not to mention while it unfolds), my reporters would be tasked with finding something to write that a reader who saw the game would still find valuable the next morning.

Sports departments ought to subject the game story to the same ruthless analysis as that proposed trip to Miami or Vancouver next month, and ask themselves two simple questions: Does this still make sense? If we were starting today, is this what we’d do?

When sports departments start asking those questions — and are clear-eyed about the answers — they will start catching up with the writers and readers who have eagerly embraced innovation elsewhere.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer editor and journalism consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes a weekly column about sportswriting and new media for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, writes about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom, and blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing. E-mail him at jason.fry@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter. Read more

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Fry: It’s Still Journalism That’ll Save Us, But…

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Nearly nine years ago, I came to Poynter to talk about how the Web was changing journalism –- and how it wasn’t. I said that this era’s new technologies and news sources posed challenges, but maintained that we could meet them with basic journalism tenets, from writing great stuff to using our offline instincts in assessing information found online.

Poynter asked me to revisit what I said then. What did I get right? What did I miss? And do I still think journalistic values are the best defense?

A lot of my advice strikes me as more or less today’s common sense. I’d like to say that’s because I was a far-sighted sage, but I think it’s just that the world has changed, with 2000′s online marvels now the stuff of daily life.

I said then that journalists could learn from online communities, but they had to take time to understand them and verify whatever didn’t pass their smell test. That’s hardly earthshaking advice now, because online communities are no longer exotic — many journalists spend time in them as part of their daily lives, and they’ve learned that their “feel” for what’s true and what isn’t works pretty well online, too. (See this post from BeatBlogging for a great example of unlocking the power of online communities.)

I said then that journalists had to beware of sacrificing accuracy and context for speed, and avoid the temptation to erase mistakes by republishing. Still an issue, but by now a familiar one — witness The New York Times’s recent examination of how it covered the circumstances of Caroline Kennedy ending her Senate bid. (For me, the most interesting question there wasn’t about the Times, but the Paterson administration: Did it exploit the Web news cycle by launching an attack designed to get early play and then be erased by a more-nuanced take? I couldn’t help thinking of the Roald Dahl story in which the police search a house in vain for the blunt instrument used by the killer — and then are served a leg of lamb fresh from the oven.)

But while the journalism principles may be the same, the rules of engagement are changing. Thinking about what I missed, two things jump out at me.

I didn’t see that stories would no longer be discrete things -– packages of text, headline and art prepared for print and adapted for online. They now increasingly flow from one form to another, and this is a question not only of timing but also of format. Yes, stories go from short Web takes to fuller accounts, which may be frozen in print at some point. But they’re also beginning to flow from words to video to beat blog to related links to topic page to discussion to reuse by readers, with the reporter shepherding the story through the process, if he or she isn’t tripped up by technological barriers along the way.

I also didn’t see what a two-way street the Web would become. And this may be the biggest change of all.

Back in 2000, most news -– however you defined it –- was still handed down from the few to the many. That’s changing as blogging, social networking and Web-enabled devices move from the techie fringes into more and more American lives. Facebook didn’t exist in 2000; its founder was 16. Nor did I mention blogs, which since then have gone from the stuff of starry-eyed revolution to supposed scourge of journalism to simply one of many ways we get information.

All these things have made the publishing world far more muddled but also far more interesting. If journalism was once a mountain from which we delivered our pronouncements, now readers have set up shop on the slopes. Sure, they’re now publishers in their own right if they want to be, which has provoked much hue and cry in newsrooms. But I suspect that ultimately, the fact that a few readers now create their own content isn’t nearly as important as the fact that many readers now comment on, share and re-use content. By using content as raw material and by voting with their feet for new forms of journalism, readers are doing as much or more than publishers to determine what journalism will become.

And journalists are learning that they have to come down from the mountaintop to meet those readers. I still insist, as I did in 2000, that the best way to grab the reader is to write great stuff –- this Michael Lewis story kills in print, over nine Web pages, or engraved on stone tablets. But Web readers gravitate to writers who engage them personally. In a sea of information noise, personality is a welcome bit of signal. More-personal writing won’t work for everything -– the account of the City Council meeting probably shouldn’t be a personal narrative –- but beat blogs, video, chats and discussion forums all offer opportunities for making a more personal connection that journalists can build on.

Such big cultural changes are challenging for many journalists, and our industry is experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. But these changes won’t be the death of journalism. There’s nothing about life on Facebook or a sideline blogging that will trip up a journalist with a working ethical compass. Nor will they be journalism’s salvation. Salvation is a rather abstract concept for an industry going through today’s brutal resizing. They’ll just be different.

So, an update for my 31-year-old self: Yes, I still think great reporting and writing is central to what journalists do. I still think a few newspapers — in whatever form –- offer a wider perspective valuable in a world of many niche publications. And I think basic journalism values are effective tools for tackling digital-era challenges. And thank goodness for all that. But we have to add to those values and skills by learning to help a story unfold in new forms and by engaging readers in new ways. Our readers are demanding no less, and they will determine our industry’s destiny.

Oh, and learn to stand up straight, kid. That picture still makes me cringe.

Jason Fry is the Web CMS evangelist for EidosMedia, a supplier of cross-media editorial platforms for news organizations. He spent nearly 13 years at The Wall Street Journal Online and has also worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Fresno Bee. His new blog is Reinventing the Newsroom. He also co-writes Faith and Fear in Flushing, a blog about the Mets. Visit his personal site, or contact him via Facebook or Twitter. Read more

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