The busiest season for a sports journalist isn't always when their team is playing games.
Often, it can be the off-season, with the draft, recruiting, free-agency, coaching changes all happening. I covered college basketball for 10 years, and there was no busier time for me than the three coaching searchers I covered. It's a much more frantic time than during the season, more irregular and more exhausting. You always know when the next game is going to be. You never know when the next rumor you're going to have to chase down. And keep in mind, this was before Twitter.
In full disclosure, I know a lot of the people in this story. I've mentioned before how Woj has been a friend and mentor to me. I may not always have been a great reporter, but when I was, it was lessons learned and motivation gleaned from people like Woj. I've known Tim Bontemps since he was a freshman at St. Bonaventure and the assistant sports editor of the student paper, of which I was sort-of an unofficial advisor to the sports department (and please don't take that as any kind of humble brag or credit-taking or anything like that. Tim is a far better reporter than I ever could have been, and that's all his own skill and ambition).
The post raises some interesting issues about beat reporting in the digital world. At times, it seems to lament the old days when the off-season was "off" and writers (whom he refers to as the piranha tank) didn't feel compelled to tweet rumors about alleged pick-up games. That's a normative value I don't necessarily share — the exchange for this always-on kind of sports journalism is a more informed and engaged fanbase. There's good and bad about both kinds of journalism.
Some of the issues raised by Curtis:
The Trade Rumor Era is powered by a network of anonymous sources. A few years ago, the piranha tank seemed to adopt the policy of overexplanation from the news pages of the New York Times (e.g., “officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record”). But the NBA writers’ ornate descriptors — “a source familiar with the team’s thinking” — didn’t help much. I’m familiar with a team’s thinking. Recently, more writers have opted for minimalism: “league source.”
Sourcing is an issue throughout journalism. I haven't studied this in depth yet, but my guess would be that the "minimalism" may in part be due to this character limits of twitter. It's a tough area - anonymous sources should really only used rarely, and reporters should be as transparent as possible. But it's easy to say that in the classroom. It's harder to put into practice when your competition is using sources on Twitter to break news.
Which brings us to ...
In the Trade Rumor Era, the premium currency isn’t really a rumor at all. It’s a genuine scoop, like Stephen A. Smith’s called shot of James, Wade, and Bosh to the Heat in 2010. ... in the Trade Rumor Era, everyone is a national basketball writer. Woj competes with Stein. Stein competes with the personal trainer in Cleveland who’s guaranteeing LeBron will come home. The trainer competes with message-board prophet “Carl2680,” who beat even Bontemps to the Kidd scoop. Twitter is their Thunderdome. The old penalty for getting beat on a story was that your editor called. The new penalty is that your Twitter followers remind you that Woj, Stein, Sam Amick, and the rest are outhustling you. “It’s not just that they get credit,” said Bucher. “But then you get ridiculed for being late, as if you somehow didn’t know it was going on.” And then your editor calls.
This idea came up a lot in my dissertation* — this idea of new scoop scoreboard, where reporters are judged based on what stories they break.
(And if you're wondering where the hell this blog has been this year, that dissertation — and the ongoing revisions — are the answer.)
And while this is certainly true for the Woj's of the world, I wonder how much it's true for the local journalists. Do readers really mock reporters who aren't as fast with the news as the national guys? Do they even notice? Are editors really that invested in breaking news? It also raises a heretical-sounding question: Does breaking the news on where LeBron James decides to go really matter?
Looking at the off-seasons of sports reporters suggests a lot about the state of sports journalism. It shows the pressures they're under to keep up with the news. If you want to be a sports reporter, look at what Tim, Woj and the others have had to do this past week, and think if that's really how you want to spend your summer weekends, because that's what the job looks like. Perhaps this marks a shift in focus for sports journalism — rather than focusing on game-coverage (which readers can often get anywhere), news outlets can focus on personnel moves, on transactions.
Maybe the day is coming when a sports reporters' job is focused on the off-season rather than the season itself.