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Thumb Wars: Social Media and Baseball Coverage, Part 1 | February
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(image courtesy geekwithlaptop.com)

How social media has revolutionized baseball coverage 

Be it reading books, shopping for clothes, or communicating with friends, technological advances of the past few years have revolutionized the way we perform the most simple of tasks.

Nothing has changed more drastically over the last couple of years than the coverage of major league baseball.

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 Before Twitter, Facebook, and all of the other new-fangled developments Web 2.0 has brought us, baseball coverage was relatively monotonous and predictable.

“The job used to be a mission of compiling the best possible report by each night’s deadline,” the Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen explained in an email last month. “You juggled your mission of strong daily coverage with the goal of writing rich feature and enterprise stories. When you found breaking news, you alerted your editors, then did all the reporting to give your morning readers the most comprehensive report possible.”

In the past, newspapers engaged in battles that were won when newspapers were opened in the morning at the breakfast table or on the bus ride to work. It was the sports department’s job to assemble the best sports section possible, with superior content and eye-catching visuals. A significant portion of the subscriptions a newspaper gained and lost was based on how their sports section compared to competitors.

Before social media and the Internet took hold of the world, baseball journalism was a far more relaxed process. There wasn’t any news broken during the day, none even during a game. Baseball journalists of this simpler time were still forced to work against harsh print deadlines—extra-innings were as dreaded then as they are now—but they weren’t forced to deal with the insatiable 24-hour news cycle.

These days, the process of breaking news has nearly turned entirely into a Twitter battle; a ‘Thumb Wars’ of sorts. Having quality sources remains absolutely critical to successful journalists, but a significant aspect of “breaking stories” involves having the quickest fingers.

“When the Twins gave Joe Mauer his extension last March,” Christensen explained, “several reporters were handed the press release at about the same time. With Twitter, it’s essentially a typing contest. Who can get the news out there the fastest?”

There’s certainly a reward for having the first Tweet, as the owner of the fastest fingers will be cited as the source in all future references. But there isn’t much margin for error.

Speed vs. accuracy

With the recent birth of the constantly-hungry news cycle, some would argue that quality journalism has been sacrificed for the sake of sensationalistic, attention-grabbing headlines. This ferocious battle for audience share seems to be preventing journalists from utilizing their writing and reporting skills, and a greater emphasis has been placed on speed and entertainment.

Though the depth and quality of some journalists may be suffering from the Web 2.0 boom, others view social media as a tool to improve and extend their coverage.

“Most of us were working very long hours then,” Christensen said of his responsibilities in the pre-Twitter days, “So it’s not like that has changed much. Now, our efforts are simply stretched over more platforms: Twitter, blogs, web videos and print.”

With the need to satisfy each of these social media platforms, being a baseball journalist is a tough gig. And it’s very easy to make a mistake; very tempting to take a short-cut.

“The effect is all sportswriters—at least all beat writers—are now similar to wire reporters, where every minute is a deadline,” the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton said of social media in a recent email. “It's more work, certainly. It also creates an atmosphere that increases the possibility of errors. But the impact of immediacy is undeniable.”

Providing people with an unfiltered, behind-the-scenes glimpse into priviledged information, information goes straight from a reporter’s thumbs to the masses. There’s absolutely a possibility for errors, and the allures of being the first to break a story are too great for some journalists.

In these days of MLB Trade Rumors, fast fingers are greatly rewarded. But you better be right before sending your message to millions of fans with itchy “retweet” fingers.

“You want to be first,” Christensen cautioned, “but you’d better be right, and quality still counts, too.”

With it being virtually impossible to rescind Twitter updates without the news spreading like wildfire, having discretion as a journalist is a must. Reporters can’t afford to make a mistake, and should always err on the side of caution.

When the Denver Posts’ Lindsay Jones heard rumors of Broncos’ wide receiver Kenny McKinley’s suicide, she faced an unsavory dilemna. Should she tweet the unconfirmed reports, citing “off-the-record sources,” or hold off on the story until she was absolutely certain of its legitimacy, even if she risked exclusivity?

Jones decided against running the story until she had an on-record source confirming the details. Though she was beat by an in-market competitor, Jones holds no regrets.

“There was no way—not even a tiny chance—that I was going to race to be first with the story of a player’s suicide without an on-the-record source,” Jones wrote in an article at Nieman Reports last year.

Jones’ hesitancy was absolutely the right approach. Newspapers are taking enough risk by allowing their reporters to post unfiltered thoughts on Twitter with the hope that their brand is being advertised and a few readers will click on links back to their website.

In fact, monetizing social media—and the Internet in general—has been a tough, uphill struggle for newspapers. Sports departments can’t ignore the social media trend, though finding compensation can prove difficult.

In Part Two of this mini-series, I'll take a look at how newspapers are struggling to monetize social media, as well as some new-found ethical dilemnas. Be sure to stay tuned!