July 14, 2014

The Washington Post | The New York Times

Sports Illustrated’s LeBron James scoop was more public-relations enabling than act of journalism, critics are complaining.

In The Washington Post, Gene Weingarten calls last week’s James piece “expert PR editing provided free of charge by Sports Illustrated”:

Sigh. God help us all. This was not a scoop. It wasn’t even good journalism. It was a pure load of crap.

There’s still reason to go to journalism school — or at least to aspire to be a journalist — but it’s mostly to be a foot soldier in the war against the sort of thinking that has us idiotically celebrating this “scoop.” This “scoop” has all the earmarks of a punt, a sad, sad, acknowledgment of what journalism has too often become in our current world of all-news-all-the-time, where being first is overvalued and being good is too often beside the point, or financially imprudent. So we settle for being glib. And, in desperation for eyeballs and bucks, we too often confuse commerce with journalism.

In The New York Times, Richard Sandomir questioned why SI presented the scoop “as a 952-word statement on its website from the King, not a full-blown news story with context and breadth”:

James got the byline for his first-person account (or was it an open letter, an essay or a news release?), while Lee Jenkins, a top writer for the magazine who got the scoop, received an “as told to” credit.

News value aside, the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades.

And while James’s words may have been all that the sports world wanted to hear, the magazine should have pressed for a story that carried more journalistic heft.

It does seem distasteful for a journalist to work so closely with an athlete on an essay/statement/press release. But to characterize this as a missed opportunity for SI to dig deeper doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the James camp probably wasn’t interested in a deeper dive.

It’s worth asking also: What would a deeper dive have really entailed or provided for the reader? As NBCSports.com’s Craig Calcaterra wrote on his personal Tumblr:

Question: what, apart from the name of the team LeBron James chose and his reason for choosing it, do people interested in this story either not know or actually care about? What sort of “journalistic heft” does Sandomir think should have been added to this to “serve the reader” better? Jenkins prefacing the actual news with “James, 29, from Akron, has played for Miami since the 2010-11 season,” would not have added journalistic integrity here. It would have been byline-justifying filler.

Everyone tuning in to this story knows what’s happening. Sports Illustrated and Jenkins provided them with the one thing they didn’t know: where James was going and why. If there is any concern about larger context here, it can and will be addressed by SI sidebars, bullet-pointed, fact-based graphics and, most importantly, an in-depth story from Jenkins about his conversations with James which provides deeper context. All of which, I assume, have either already been published or will soon be.

Maybe SI could have done a better job at keeping James’s preferred narrative from so effectively working its way into nearly every sportswriter’s heart, including NYT’s own Michael Powell’s. But there’s plenty of room on the Internet for alternative takes if you find James’s own words insufficient. For the most cynical take implicating SI and the rest of the sports world, see Deadspin.

SI was too new-media savvy (it achieved “the biggest spike in viewers in a decade”) for the comfort of folks at the Post and the Times, but there’s still time for the magazine to be a “journalistic standard-bearer” when it comes to this story, too. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of longform story Jenkins comes up with this week.

About that NYT sports front

In case you missed it: The New York Times sports section ran an understated front page on Saturday about the James news:

It was widely shared and praised on Twitter. Deadspin declared it “brilliant.”

But here’s a problem: It was technically inaccurate. When the page ran on Saturday, James had not yet officially signed with the Cavaliers, Rob Schneider explained at the Society for News Design website:

A design that emphasizes a factual error fails the journalistic threshold for accuracy, and there is really no room for debate on that point.

I’m not talking about whether I like the page or not or the quality of the execution. Honestly, it is bold and risk taking in a way that, of course, many in the design community love it.

It is also poorly timed and misguided. It feels like a print page designed for Twitter and SportsCenter and less so for the readers of the print edition of The New York Times. It is telling that the debate about this page began before it actually arrived on the doorstep.

Meanwhile, Calcaterra praised the Times cover for making his point about the simplicity of the story: “No need for more ‘journalistic heft,'” he wrote. “It says all it needs to say.”

Of course, that’s not all the Times really felt needed to be said. Pages two and three of the sports section were filled almost entirely with stories about James — including a jump from page one of the A-section.

The omnipresent ESPN

One last observation from reading the Times on Saturday: Three of four James-related stories alluded to ESPN.

There’s Powell referring to “ESPN yakkers” who “deconstruct his every word and grimace.” There’s Scott Cacciola, in the front-page lead story, referring to “commentators on ESPN” who “spent an enormous number of hours attempting to analyze James’s decision-making process.” And then there’s Sandomir, who opened his column referencing how SI “beat a journalistic pack that included 15 on-air people at ESPN.”

ESPN is so central to how we experience sports in this country that all three journalists couldn’t help but note — with varying degrees of smugness — that it’s incredible the network didn’t get this scoop for itself. That’s the flak ESPN gets for, y’know, being so good at giving its audience what it wants.

For my part, I was impressed by how SI managed to break the news and own the first minute of the story. But then — because SI didn’t have live video online yet — I turned to ESPN’s SportsCenter for the rest of the afternoon.

Related: Sports Illustrated editors didn’t know of LeBron’s decision until ‘this morning’

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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