Sports Illustrated’s Peter King Shows You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tweets

Peter King didn’t particularly want to write a weekly online column and he certainly wasn’t interested in Twitter. He had a full-time job covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated, thank you, and that was quite enough.

 
But King, 53, wanted to remain relevant. So he agreed when his editors first suggested in 1997 that he write a weekly column for SI.com, and later when they asked him to take some time most days to send out a few tweets.
“I was not excited about it when it started,” King told me in a recent interview. “But I always fear getting left behind by some new form of communication.”
King still writes for the weekly magazine, but he has plenty of readers for his online work. His Monday Morning Quarterback column for SI.com has about 2.5 million weekly readers during football season and about 1.5 million in the off-season, according to a spokeswoman for SI.

About 433,000 people follow King on Twitter. That volume is staggering. By contrast, Mike Wise, the Washington Post sports reporter who was recently suspended for a month after posting a fake “scoop” on his Twitter account, has about 3,800 followers. On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy for ESPN.com, has more than 1.2 million Twitter followers.

In making the transition from print guy to multi-platform guy, King has crashed through the wall that has traditionally separated journalists from readers by taking a very personal and conversational approach to the work he does online.

A window into his workday

There’s still plenty of NFL reporting and analysis in what King does on SI.com and Twitter, just as there is in the stories he does for the weekly print magazine as a senior writer.

But King’s online work is liberally sprinkled with tidbits about the life of Peter King — what sort of coffee he likes, his latest travel hassle, a movie he enjoyed: “Loved Despicable Me, and yes, I’m an old softie. Even better: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. You’ve got to see that.” He recently wrote about his encounter with the Catwoman, a passenger seated next to him on a plane who showed him the tattoo of her cat that covered most of her left calf.

 
“I’m trying to write a column that’s entertaining to the masses, a column that’s not only informational about the NFL but that’s fun to read about a life that’s tangential to the NFL,” King told me by phone from Baltimore, where he was continuing a series of visits to NFL training camps.
King said that when he first started the weekly online column, one of his editors told him he needed to do more than dump his notebook full of NFL nuggets onto the screen.

“He said, ‘People want to go along with you when you do your job,’ ” King recalled. ” ‘People think your job is the coolest in the world. So I think there is great value in just telling people what your life is like as you go about doing your job.’ “
So King writes about the half-marathon he plans to run after shooting off his mouth that the Cincinnati Bengals would never sign wide receiver Terrell Owens. (They did, and many readers have delighted in pointing out that King said he would run a marathon — not a half-marathon — if the Bengals signed Owens.)

King writes about charities that he supports, and gives his readers the information they need if they want to chip in. He writes about seeing fireworks one night in his hometown of Boston, and his gripe that they didn’t start until 10:37 p.m. (“Geezers like me tend to be nodding off during the crescendo.”) And he wrote a tribute to his brother, Bob, who died of a heart attack earlier this year while bike-riding in Connecticut.

King told me that he limits how much he writes about himself. His weekly columns are long — about 8,000 words — and he said that at least 80 percent of it should be about the NFL.

And the column is packed with information about the NFL. One recent installment included reports from five different NFL training camps, a detailed analysis of the 10 quarterbacks drafted in 2007 and a lengthy list of “Ten Things I Think I Think” that included King’s opinion on subjects including the best running back on the Miami Dolphins, the latest on Albert Haynesworth’s showdown with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, and the contract holdout by cornerback Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets.

“People are mostly reading me to read about the NFL,” he said.

The sportswriter as a personality

Growing up in northern Connecticut, King was a fan of the Boston Red Sox and outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. He was also a fan of the journalists who covered them, but said they were as distant to him as any of the Red Sox players.

“That has changed over the years,” King said. “We are encouraged to be seen and be heard.”
 
That sort of distance doesn’t work as well in an online world where readers are accustomed to engaging with what they read on blogs or Twitter.

King said he spent 20 minutes one day responding to questions from some of the people who follow him on Twitter. That’s not unusual. It enables him to connect, one-on-one, with a reader while providing information to thousands of others. “Peter King replied to me on twitter,” wrote shawn_woods15. “I feel pretty important right now.”

King’s tweeting rhythm varies. Some days he only posts a handful. Some days he posts dozens, starting as early as 5 a.m. and tweeting into the evening hours. Using TweetDeck, he often retweets commentary by others, offering his own theories and opinions on the sports speculation of the day.

How social media has changed his reporting

King appreciates the immediacy afforded by working online. To demonstrate the dramatic shift in his approach to storytelling, he described the time in 1996 when Brett Favre, then the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, told him on a Wednesday night that he was checking into rehab for abusing Vicodin.

The story didn’t appear anywhere until Sports Illustrated published eight days later. If that happened now, King said, he would have the basic news up on his Twitter account within five minutes and tell people to check out SI.com, where he would provide a fuller story within an hour.

But that immediacy, and the urge to be first, can create problems. King has fact-checkers and editors for the work he does for the magazine and his weekly online column. No one is checking his tweets.
“If I have any sincere doubt about the validity of anything I’ve heard, I’m not going to put it up there,” King said. “I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, I’m not sure if this is true or not but I just heard that Eli Manning is retiring.’ I wouldn’t do that. I feel like if I put something up there, people are going to believe it. And they should believe it.”
King has no complaints about the demands the online work places on him. It is what expected of journalists these days, particularly sports reporters trying to feed a constant appetite for news and information about their favorite teams and players.
Mike Sando, treasurer of Pro Football Writers of America, is a former sports reporter for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., who now covers the NFC West for ESPN.com. He said the demands on sportswriters have increased tremendously.
“Reporters are finding out how much they really love their jobs,” Sando told me in an e-mail. “Those who really love the work will have a chance to brand themselves in ways traditional newspaper work did not allow, but the grind isn’t for everyone.”
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King said the job can be something of a grind during football season, but that he knows a more leisurely off-season awaits.

“It’s a job that you’re obviously always involved with,” King said. “But I love my job.”

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