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The ‘why,’ the ‘how’ and the true value of the NBA news-breaker

Mary Langenfeld / USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a great deal of debate in recent weeks about the role of NBA breaking news reporters and the value of their “scoops” in a world that’s increasingly digital, interconnected and capable of quickly spreading information and developing narratives around it. That these conversations are happening is a good thing – it’s been a crazy offseason in the NBA to say the least, and now is the ideal time to discuss how the news is trickling out and what kinds of discourse are stemming from it.

A lot’s been happening. Adrian Wojnarowski irked a lot of hoops fans on June 26 by leaking almost every single pick in the NBA draft a few seconds before Adam Silver approached the podium to announce them. Tim Bontemps broke a monster of a story two days later when he reported that Jason Kidd was making a power play in Brooklyn with the leverage of a possible departure to coach the Milwaukee Bucks. Everyone – but perhaps most notably Chris Sheridan, Chris Broussard, the aforementioned Woj and the media empire that is Caroline’s Cupcakes in Cleveland – contributed to the story of LeBron James leaving the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

These stories have provoked not only a lot of dialogues, but also a lot of meta-dialogues about how the stories are reported and developed. Bryan Curtis wrote a wonderful piece for Grantland that explored how NBA transactions have turned into more compelling stories than the games themselves. Kevin Draper published an in-depth analytical story for Deadspin about the reporters who covered the LeBron saga, what they got right and wrong, and how. Jack Moore had an interesting essay on The Cauldron about what value “scoops” still have anymore, given that practically everything these reporters tell us, we can just find in a team press release a few hours later.

All of these writings are valuable because they contribute to an meaningful conversation about how sports media is evolving. We’re all still relatively new to this Internet thing, and we’re still figuring out how best to use our technology and the culture around it to have the most intelligent and informed discourse possible, whether about sports or anything else. We’re not perfect at it, and though we’ll keep improving, we never will be.

So what’s the point of all the scoops? Why do we care? Why do we all follow Woj and his ilk on Twitter and refresh their feeds every eight seconds? To answer this question, I think, we need to dig deeper into why we care about sports in the first place. We’re all dealing with jobs and schools and parents and kids and spouses and exes and homes and births and deaths and all these things in life that actually matter – so why do we bother with sports?

I think one reason, perhaps the primary one, is that sports make for a great universal language. You can drop into an NBA conversation anywhere, whether you’re among your best friends or trying to fit into an unfamiliar new setting. You might be at the office water cooler, or the barbershop, or the rehearsal dinner before your sister-in-law marries some guy you’ve never met, but in any of the above situations, you can talk sports. Even if the person who says, “So, LeBron to Cleveland, huh?” is a complete stranger, you’ll still have the knowledge and the interest to respond and converse. That’s a cool thing.

Of course, to have a conversation that’s even remotely interesting, you need more than just facts. You need details and reasons. You need a complete picture of what’s going on and why. That’s what spurs debate, which is what makes this whole sports thing enjoyable in the first place.

Therefore:

The entire point of sports journalism should be to analyze, fairly and intelligently, why and how things happen the way they happen.

It’s not hard to see why this makes a difference. Imagine an alternate universe in which NBA reporters did not exist, and the only sources of news we had were the press releases and news conferences held by team personnel. It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Here’s a potential conversation that might go down:

Guy at barbershop: “So, I heard the Bucks hired Jason Kidd.”
You: “Yeah, pretty weird. The Nets are a decent team, and the Bucks are awful. Seems like a strange career move.”
Guy: “Yup.”

Now here’s that same conversation, only taking place in our actual universe, which is one in which Bontemps (with a notable assist from Woj) put hours of hard work into developing the story and helping us understand the answers to tough questions like “why” and “how”:

Guy at barbershop: “So, I heard the Bucks hired Jason Kidd.”
You: “Yeah, isn’t that crazy? I read that it happened because Kidd had a potential job with the Bucks lined up through his connection with Marc Lasry, so he used that as leverage to pull a power play with the Nets and angle for a bigger job with more money. Ballsy move!”
Guy: “Some nerve he’s got to demand a bigger job, huh? I mean, a year ago he was a washed-up player. Six months ago, he was a failing coach struggling to keep his job. Now he wants to become a big-time executive?”
You: “Hey, you can’t blame him for trying. I mean, if he’s got another job already lined up…”
Guy: “Yeah, but that other job’s in Milwaukee!”
You: “True, but maybe the Bucks are improving. If Sanders comes back with his head on straight, and Giannis keeps improving, and Jabari Parker is the real deal… I dunno, man. Could be a good team.”
Guy: “Could be. We’ll see.”

The value of all the scoops is that they advance the conversation. Thanks to the hard work of Woj and Bontemps, we know lots of little details about why Kidd did what he did. We have background information on Kidd’s history of clashing with authority figures. We know about the animosity that brewed this past season between Kidd and Billy King. We know that the big contracts doled out this summer to new head coaches, guys like Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher, piqued Kidd’s jealousy and left him thirsty for more. All of these little bits of information are things you wouldn’t find in an official Bucks press release. They help us understand the story beyond the simple “Kidd to Milwaukee” headline. They matter because they give us something real to talk about. Without the why and the how, we have nothing.

There are some who say that simply giving the facts, even with a complete disregard for the full context, counts for something. For example, one source identified as a “national online writer” told Draper for his Deadspin piece that Sheridan broke the story of LeBron James’ Cleveland return, despite the fact that Sheridan missed most of the details besides the “Cleveland” part. Still, the source told Draper that Sheridan won:

“I don’t think Sheridan loses credit based on being wrong about the details. What matters is he said LeBron chose Cleveland.”

That definitely does matter to many consumers. We live in an era that demands instant gratification, and there’s a premium placed on knowing the scoop first. That’s the reality, as dictated by millions upon millions of fans, and Sheridan seized upon that. He won the game the way America wants it to be played.

Me personally, though? I’m unsatisfied. My hangup is that simply having the basest fact right does nothing to advance any kind of dialogue about sports. It does nothing to help us understand LeBron – his career arc, his personal or professional goals, his family values, anything. It’s just one naked fact, and it’s one we were going to get anyway. A few weeks from now, it will be forgotten. I ultimately won’t care whether I got word of LeBron’s decision on July 9 or July 11, and I doubt that you will either. That’s why simply winning the race, chronologically speaking, is not good enough. It’s a quality argument, not a temporal one.

I don’t have a journalism degree – only a measly BA in English with a communications minor – so I’m not qualified to speak to the high-level ethical debates this issue might spark in a J-school classroom. I’ve also never broken news on the level that Sheridan has. But as a fan of the game and a news junkie, respectfully, I think we might need to change the way we think about breaking news.

When you first learn about how journalism works in, say, fifth grade, you’re taught that your fundamental goal is to pursue answers to the six W’s – Who, What, When, Where, Why and hoW. At least that’s what I was taught, anyway – but I was in fifth grade two decades ago. In 2014, we have a problem – those first four questions are too easy. Their answers are a dime a dozen, and once one person digs them up, they spread instantly the world over. The why and the how, though? That’s the stuff that really matters. Asking the tough questions can turn a simple fact into a nuanced debate – and that, I believe, is why we bother with sports in the first place.

Evans Clinchy