The Web has done wonders for news, crushing nearly all limitations of traditional media.
Unlike newspapers and television stations, Web sites don’t have restrictions on publication time or content length.
Online media sites can publish stories throughout the day, as soon as they happen. There’s no need to limit a story to 12 inches of text or a video to 30 seconds. Editors don’t have to decide which photographs hit the cutting-room floor; on the Web, there’s room for all of it.
But the greatest Web advantage of all might be accessibility — bringing readers closer to news than they’ve ever been and allowing them to become part of the story like never before.
It also presents an incredible challenge.
In the sports world — and let’s be honest, what other world is there? — athletes have gone from being story subjects to story writers, publishing news and random thoughts on blogs, Twitter, Facebook or on their own Web sites. Fans have found a way to project their voices beyond the ballpark, blogging with reports after games and practices, and chiming in on nearly anything to do with their teams. News agencies and team Web sites have given fans another place to become part of the story, opening up forums that allow readers to comment on breaking news in real time.
That interaction is necessary for the growth of the media industry. But it’s also created a monster that must be fed regularly and can almost never get enough.
At The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, beat writer Rob Moseley hosts the newspaper’s University of Oregon football blog, by far the most-read blog at registerguard.com. Moseley posts often with everything from breaking news and game updates to practice and injury reports to which uniform combination the Ducks will wear in their next game.
UO football fans can’t get enough, even though Moseley regularly blogs five times a day. During football season, his blog generates 8,500 hits on a slow day. Late in the week, leading up to a game, that number swells to more than 15,000 a day.
On Oct. 6, Moseley blogged with an update on the knee injury of starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Oregon football coach Chip Kelly’s policy on injuries has been to say only that if an injured player is not out for the season, he’s day-to-day. This allows Kelly to play a little bit of cloak and dagger with opposing coaches. It also allows the rumor mill to run rampant, fueled by reporters and bloggers who are overly eager to break stories, and fans who’ve become accustomed to getting their information without delay.
So, Moseley blogged at around noon that Masoli was still out and Nate Costa had taken command of the UO offense that day in practice. By dinner time, there were more than 80 reader comments on the post, many of them speculative about the nature of Masoli’s injury.
Moseley interjected, after more than 30 comments had gone up, by saying “Please stop speculating about the nature of Masoli’s injury. That sort of rumor gets accepted as fact and goes viral, and I don’t want this blog to be involved in that. ”
That same evening, The Oregonian newspaper’s John Canzano blogged about Masoli’s injury with this:
“A second, unconfirmed report from Eugene whispered that the Ducks might make an announcement on Masoli’s long-term prognosis sometime Wednesday or Thursday. The source went as far as to suggest that Masoli might be gone for the season, but until we hear that from an on-record source, I can’t reasonably report that as fact.”
So if Canzano “can’t reasonably report that as fact,” why report it at all? As Moseley put it, “that sort of rumor gets accepted as fact and goes viral,” so why contribute to that?
Plain and simple: To be first.
The Web has created an immediacy that reporters must honor or else risk losing their following. But that mentality has watered down news value and allowed speculation to reside alongside facts, all for the sake of remaining relevant and sparking discussion. It seems that for every time a reporter is right about a story while jumping to be the first to post, he’s wrong two or three others.
Associated Press sports stories regularly note now that a breaking story was “first reported by ESPN.com” or by a specific newspaper’s Web site. As media Web sites clamor for readers’ attention, receiving that credit, or merely not getting beat by other reporters, has become every bit as important as reporting the news accurately.
For the record, not only has Masoli not been announced as being out for the season, but four days after Canzano’s post, the Ducks said that Masoli could be used in an emergency situation that weekend at UCLA, if necessary.
It’s tough to put the blame entirely on Canzano, though. Ten years ago, he wouldn’t have been publishing anything at all until the newspaper came out the next morning, and his readers wouldn’t have been able to react to it and comment on it until then, and their discussions would’ve been limited to bar and water cooler talks and sports radio call-ins.
Now, news and reactions are instant.
And readers’ expectations are immediate.
In response to Moseley’s interjection about posting rumors, “joeduck” suggested that perhaps, then, the blog host shouldn’t report on injuries at all unless he had accurate information from the team. Moseley never posted anything inaccurate, nor did he encourage speculation with his information, but with Kelly’s policy on status updates, and with his own refusal to dive into conjecture, Moseley is, at times, limited in the injury news he can report.
Still, it’s a no-brainer for him to report that the starting quarterback has not practiced and the backup will take the reigns in the upcoming game, even if the extent of the starter’s injury isn’t known.
In his comment, “joeduck” continued by saying “I realize you probably see it as part of your job but since you get little or no facts about injuries why report them? That way the many people on this blog will have to look elsewhere for the information and can speculate and start rumors on another blog.”
And the answer, “joeduck,” is contained in your question.
Because if they were given nothing, “look elsewhere” is exactly what readers would do.