I doubt Jerry Yang and David Filo imagined that their tiny private web directory would grow into one of the most-used internet search engines on earth and a titan among internet media companies. I more seriously doubt they ever imagined their grad school hobby becoming what might be the most feared name among college football coaches and ADs.
Yahoo! has come a long way since 1994. So has sports journalism.
In many ways the Yahoo! sports staff is a cast of throwbacks: they painstakingly put together stories and follow traditional journalism’s rules on sources and verification. Charles Robinson’s and Dan Wetzel’s investigations into Miami, UNC, Oregon, and Ohio State played out over months.
The internet has changed the rules of journalism. It’s given reporters unlimited and instantaneous access to sources and data, which is a definite boon to their work. On the other hand, the democratization of start-up websites and free-to-operate blogs has created a wave of competition that’s empowered by the public demand for an instant and constant stream of information. No print-run deadline has ever created a challenge quite like this, and the result has been the sudden appearance of football stories seemingly ripped straight from The National Enquirer.
Though they’re important to today’s climate, the big multimedia players–ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, etc.–aren’t the trendsetters or the risk takers (though I suppose it could be said that ESPN frequently risks its journalistic credibility.) The big entities have advertisers, shareholders, and parent companies to keep happy. While they’ve adopted the tools and techniques of the internet community, they won’t, for example, play by Deadspin’s rules.
Deadspin is one of eight websites in the Gawker network. A privately owned company targeted at hard-to-offend, internet-affixed younger demographics, Gawker doesn’t have to fear audience blowback the way its bigger rivals do. This measure of freedom allows Deadspin to serve as a sports-news tabloid where the writers often have a celebrity columnist’s desire to be part of the scene and a blogger’s flair for search-engine optimization. Deadspin writer (now Gawker editor) A.J. Daluerio broke the Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger scandal with a story that focused as much on his attempts to wring information out of Sterger as it did Favre’s indescretions. To quote Daluerio, he “persisted because I’m a dick and it’s an incredibly funny story[...]”
As distant as it is in scope and concern from a publication like The Atlantic, Deadspin at least tried to report a full story on Favre. It’s easier to praise their recent expose on Manti Te’o. While still tabloid material, the piece sought to correct public perception with a few pounds of indisputable facts, and smartly embarrassed their more established competitors along the way. Not often rising to that ambition are the small-market sports operations–the team-specific sites of conglomerates like Rivals and Scout–and independent bloggers. Both were badly exposed during recent bouts of conference realignment speculation.
Orangebloods, an independent member of the Yahoo!-owned Rivals network, became a go-to source for Big 12 and ACC fans worrying about how these conferences could cannibalize each other. Every day seemed to bring new updates and rumors from unnamed sources. As rumor after rumor failed to materialize, it was obvious that while the site may have been well-connected to “insiders” with Texas and other Big 12 schools, it wasn’t well-connected with any facts. In retrospect, I’ll give its operators the benefit of the doubt and say it probably fell victim in part to the machinations of a few higher-ups hoping to use the site for their schools’ (or personal) agendas, though the bulk of the blame for their failings lies in Orangebloods’ inability (or unwillingness) to vet sources and discern just how truthful their reports were.
Worse are the completely uninhibited loose cannons, of which Chris Lambert, aka “Honus Sneed,” aka “Dude of WV” is a prime example. An internet troll extraordinaire, Lambert used a Twitter account, a Blogger site, and a litany of unverifiable and oft-contradictory rumors to obtain the coveted status of “guru” in the minds of many NCAA fans. How successful was he in getting attention? One batch of comments on the Seminoles’ purported departure from the ACC is the assumed cause behind a retaliatory announcement from FSU President Eric Barron.
His predictions haven’t quite reached the same peaks, either because he’s being fed misinformation or because he’s making up rumors and tips by the gross. Not surprisingly this isn’t a distanced, ethically mindful reporter we’re talking about: it’s a ticked-off Mountaineer fan who has an ax to grind with the ACC. Lambert admitted as much on Twitter, saying his goal was to “sow instability in the ACC & make poaching easier” in order to avenge the conference’s likely snub of WVU.
Still, everyone described above has at least vestiges of a traditional journalist, even if they’re by way of a shock jock or cult leader. The last rung on the internet-news ladder is the hive mind.
Curious internet users–sometimes spontaneously, sometimes directed–have broken several football stories, most notably with the trail of follies that eventually coalesced into sanctions for the UNC Tar Heels. Beginning with defensive tackle Marvin Austin’s ill-advised tweets, contacting public figures and conducting research throughout the story’s development, and keeping their gripes alive even after the delivery of sanctions, the NC State fans of Scout’s Pack Pride forums are without doubt at least partially responsible for igniting and maintaining the steady blaze that upended UNC’s football program. During the process they turned rumors, complaints, and long-standing grudges into a stream of persuasive evidence, and when that wasn’t enough they transformed into a self-directed crowd-sourcing project that unearthed public records and established a virtual archive of every possible development and piece of evidence in the case.
While they pursued their share of false leads, the Pack Pride crew was eventually credited for several breaks. The first was reviewing official (and publicly available) court documents and discovering that UNC football player James McAdoo not only blatantly plagiarized sources for a paper, but that both UNC and the NCAA had missed the obvious evidence. More damningly, the Pack Pride crew also unearthed a transcript belonging to former two-sport UNC star Julius Peppers; the transcript, which was left forgotten on a public server, roughly verified the worst of the school’s academic improprieties. If he holds true to his promise, it will also lead to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s resignation in June.
As unconventional as their methods were, the Pack Pride crew never entered dangerous legal ground, and their topic of interest was, at the end of the day, issues prosecutors rarely take interest in. The same can’t be said of the case unfolding in Steubenville, OH, which involves the alleged sexual assault of an underage victim by two likewise-juvenile members of the local high school football team.
While independent bloggers were the first to make the story national news, a cluster of computer hackers associated with the loose Anonymous collective upped the stakes. The hackers (operating under the name “Knight Sec”) themselves collected some of the case’s most damning evidence legitimately by tapping into the near permanent and under-appreciated archival capabilities of the internet, and also by communicating with students in Steubenville. Legal lines were crossed, however, when they hacked the servers of a privately owned fan site for the Steubenville football squad, defaced the site’s homepage, and broke into the owner’s e-mail account and dumped its contents onto the net; since then, the local sheriff’s office has become a target for even less discerning internet elements. The national cachet of Anonymous amplified the focus on Steubenville, and Knight Sec’s choice of target essentially cemented (rightly or wrongly) the topic of “runaway football culture” within the media narrative.
It used to be that you needed an informant or a warrant to get behind locked doors. Hacking has turned this model on its head, so much so that higher-ups at News International resorted to these measures themselves. Anyone who followed this scandal or Anonymous’ exploits knows that the security of personal technology is universally lagging, and that implementation of the defenses that are available is spotty. If the past few years are remembered in any way for changing how the public gets news, I think it’ll be because hackers–whether “hacktivists” or simple miscreants–will become a larger presence, and break more and more stories (and pile up more and more collateral damage.)
Football could fall into such a trend. Large, easily accessed networks like those run by corporate institutions and large universities are frequent targets for hacks, as are all manner of e-mail accounts and personal wireless devices. Imagine a hastily drafted confessional memo on concussions stolen from an NFL server, intercepted e-mails proving collusion or interference with player contracts, or a text message on steroid deals yanked from the ether. Or, instead of focusing on a small town in Ohio, hackers turned their attention to the recent death of a Notre Dame student working for the football team, and in doing so made public every e-mail in Brian Kelly’s account. If football, at any level, does become a frequent target for less-than-legal inquiry, there is one aspect that will be routine: it will be just the latest in a long line of challenges for traditional sports reportage.