How Yahoo! Sports has competed online by making investigative journalism its brand

When Charles Robinson first went to work as a reporter for Yahoo! Sports in 2004, he spent as much time explaining where he worked as he did trying to do his work.

“There was not a lot of understanding of what Yahoo! was,” Robinson said. “It’s a search engine — why would they cover sports? I felt like half my job was reporting and the other half was explaining who we were.”

Robinson doesn’t have that problem anymore. Yahoo! Sports has made a name for itself in the crowded world of online sports websites by focusing on good, old-fashioned investigative journalism that relies on documents, multiple sources and time-consuming reporting.

Yahoo! Sports started turning heads when it broke many of the stories about Reggie Bush and his family accepting gifts and cash from agents while he was playing for USC, stories that ultimately led to Bush giving up his Heisman Trophy.

More recently, it has broken stories about sports agents and college athletics, secret workouts of collegiate players by the New York Knicks, and recruiting violations that led to probation for the men’s basketball team at UConn.

It is an approach that seemingly runs counter to the voracious, around-the-clock appetite of sports fans for the latest news, gossip and opinion about which players might be traded, whether an injury will keep the star quarterback out of this weekend’s game, and how the coach plans to defend against the latest twist in the spread offense.

Focusing on enterprise distinguishes Yahoo! Sports

More so than most journalists, sports reporters face constant deadlines as they try to keep up blogs, post on Twitter and prepare a story for the next day’s paper or that evening’s broadcast. Or simply link to what’s been written on another blog or website.

Investigative reporting requires journalists to spend days, weeks or even months chasing leads that may or may not result in stories. It requires patience and trust from editors, who are still obliged to keep the stories flowing for readers and viewers. It is expensive, at a time when most newsroom budgets are shrinking.

Tim Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, says Yahoo! Sports has made it work by not trying to do it all. He said Yahoo! Sports is wise not to try to compete with the stable of columnists and multi-media content at ESPN.com, and that it can’t match the lineup of columnists at AOL Fanhouse.

“It seems that Yahoo! Sports stepped back and asked itself, ‘What can we do that’s special and different from everyone else? How do we stand out in this crowd?’” Franklin told me in an e-mail. “And they appeared to have answered that question with, ‘Enterprise journalism.’ They’ve produced a very impressive array of sports investigative stories, most notably the USC football scandal and the Reggie Bush story.”

The approach is a deliberate attempt to carve out a niche in a very crowded playing field.

“That had been the purview of traditional media,” said Gerry Ahern, the lead investigative editor for Yahoo! Sports. “But with various cutbacks and attrition in so-called old media, we saw an opportunity. We started assembling a staff with a background and an appetite for that type of reporting.”

Mike James, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Yahoo! Sports has made a name for itself during a period when newspapers have cut back on spending on things like investigative reporting. The Times used to have a separate sports investigative team, but now has 20 reporters to cover 21 beats, not to mention the increased demands to provide content for online.

“We still do investigations here,” James told me. “We break our people off to do them as the other major papers do. But invariably, to some degree, it suffers simply because of numbers.”

James acknowledged that Yahoo! led the reporting on Bush and USC, but said the Times remains the best source for anyone who wants to follow sports in Los Angeles.

“To be sure, Yahoo! beat us on this story,” he said. “But we do still have substantial resources, and we still are the news outlet that covers Los Angeles more thoroughly and across the board than anybody else.”

While the Bush/USC story may have put Yahoo! on the sports journalism map, Ahern said their investigative efforts are still a work-in progress. Robinson is the organization’s only full-time investigative reporter, having moved into that role in May after years covering the NFL beat.

But Ahern notes that other reporters are expected to do investigative reporting as well. “Charles is a one-man band, but what we try to do is work in tandem with folks in their individual disciplines — Major League Baseball, colleges — depending on what story we’re going after,” Ahern told me.

Robinson, who worked for newspapers in Michigan and Florida before going to work for Yahoo! Sports, said he is fortunate to have editors who understand what it takes to do investigative reporting. Like him, many of them got their start in newspapers.

“I’m no longer on a microwave beat,” he told me. “I’m baking a cake now. To do that online, you have to have the backing of bosses who are willing to say, ‘We’re going to have the patience and the understanding that this is what your job entails,’ and stick to it.”

‘An online audience is remarkably versatile’

Robinson also said he has found that online, where news and information is often parceled out in small bites, can be a good vehicle for long-form investigative reporting.

But it’s not just that online work has a longer shelf-life, broader reach and the ability to post full documents in support of the story. He said the online audience is not nearly as rigid as newspaper readers.

“They are willing to adjust to what you offer them,” Robinson said. “Online audiences are now reading 140 characters in Twitter, but they are also watching video and listening to podcasts. An online audience is remarkably versatile.”

Robinson and Ahern said they apply the same journalistic standards of verification and transparency that they did when they worked for newspapers. Ahern said, for example, that Yahoo! Sports will not pay for information and seeks multiple sources to verify facts in a story.

“There is somewhat of a belief out there among some that because it’s online the standards are more lax,” Ahern said. “Our standards are as stringent as any anywhere.”

Robinson said the intense competition for sports news sometimes forces stories to be published before all the reporting is done, but said Yahoo! and other sports outlets will ultimately be judged by their ability to get the story right, again and again.

“We’re trying to earn our piece of that real estate, and other outlets are doing the same thing,” he said. “The online audience is able to identify who is right more often than they are wrong. That’s how you earn respect, by continually being right.”

The National Sports Journalism Center’s Franklin applauds Yahoo! Sports for its commitment to investigative journalism. He said it also makes good business sense, noting that Yahoo! Sports is the national leader in page views for sports websites in some surveys.

“In this new media environment, those who win are going to be those who produce high quality, unique, original content,” Franklin said. “Yahoo! gets it.”

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