TMZ and Donald Sterling’s penalty: Who cares?

The big news of today is, of course, Donald Sterling being banned for life by the NBA for his racist comments that were released over the weekend.

As news does these days, this news unfolded on Twitter. And it did so in an interesting way. At 1:36 p.m. — 24 minutes before the start of the scheduled news conference — TMZ published this tweet (followed by this post on their website)

NBC News soon followed with its own tweet:

These tweets fueled discussion leading up to NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s press conference, with people debating the relative fairness of it.

Then, just as Silver began talking, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! (a St. Bonaventure graduate and official Mentor of this blog) posted the bomb:

(If you’re scoring at home, and if my math is correct, Woj scooped the NBA on its own news by two minutes.)

I’m not particularly interested in the how or the why this happened. I don’t care why TMZ or NBC got the story wrong.

What interests me is why we care in the first place?

Why are journalists and news organizations putting so much time, emphasis and attention on breaking these kinds of stories? These kinds of scoops are what we could call “transactional scoops.” They’re stories about personnel decisions. They are stories that are going to be announced anyway – in a public forum. So why do we care who “broke” this story? Why does it matter who got this story first? Why were TMZ and NBC so willing to post information that was tentative and incomplete at best, flat-out wrong at first?

Think about it this way: Let’s say TMZ was right. Let’s say they had the story right? They would have had a scoop for exactly 41 minutes. That’s the amount of time between their tweet and when Silver announced the penalty. They would have had an “exclusive” for exactly 41 minutes. And then that’s it! Then it’s public. Then, the news is announced and everyone has it. How much value is there in having a scoop for 41 minutes? And by tomorrow morning, would anyone remember – or care – who had the scoop?

(In this case, Woj’s scoop does have value because it corrected wrong information that was already out in the marketplace of ideas.)

The general idea, I think, is that media people care. That people in the sports journalism business keep score of such things. But in working on the dissertation that kept me away from the blog this past year, I started to see that attitude changing. Outside of the national writers, there’s less and less emphasis on the Scoop Scoreboard, on keeping track of who broke what story first. Digital and social news is changing the lifespan of a scoop. A scoop now lasts minutes, or even seconds, before it’s shared on Twitter and confirmed by other reporters.

Not all scoops are the same. There’s a difference between TMZ breaking the news of Sterling’s rant (privacy concerns notwithstanding), which was a new story and a real scoop of sorts, and TMZ “breaking the news” of a punishment that was going to be announced 41 minutes later anyway. The first type of scoop is the kind journalists should strive for – breaking a new story (again, privacy concerns notwithstanding). The second type gets too much hype and attention.

At the end of the day, TMZ and NBC look bad for getting this story wrong. But at the end of the day, if they had gotten in right, who really would have cared?