Let’s face it: If it were between waterboarding and Twittering, many sports journalists would probably take a deep breath and give the first form of torture a whirl.
It might be overly simple to chalk up Tweet reticence to an old-school sports bunker mentality – even if threads of truth remain with that theory.
Quite simply, we’ve already been asking our writers and editors to stretch, stretch and then stretch some more. When is there time to figure out something new? And Twitter is a technological tool that certainly has its entry barriers. In fact, the stats increasingly show that it brings new meaning to the term "one-and-done."
But after barreling through that barrier myself, getting to know it’s most practical uses and talking to others who are trying out new uses for it, I’m convinced Twitter is a valuable tool. The key is tuning out the hype. In that vein, we present five hype-busting ways Twitter can actually help sportswriters and editors do their jobs better.
- Real-time reception: Forget the AP wire, hourly radio news breaks, the ESPN crawl and even RSS feeds that are pushed to your phone. That stuff is all Jurassic. There is no better tool for knowing what’s happening right now than Twitter. Use a mobile version of it on your smartphone, follow the right news sources and you’re set. You’ve got the most current information possible at your fingertips. I’ve found this to be the most useful Twitter tool for me as an editor – a one-stop shop for staying informed. I can follow the Tweets of ESPN, AP, other newspapers, local TV and radio entities, our own writers, competing writers, leagues, teams and various others in the know – all in a one-stop shop. This underscores one of the main misconceptions about Twitter, that it’s an ego-serving "look at me" tool. For most people, it’s way more about who you follow than who follows you. It’s well worth the time to set up Twitter, even if it’s for this sole purpose only. Heck, you never even have to send out a single Tweet of your own – what you had for lunch or otherwise – if you don’t want to.
- Real-time delivery: Speed is everything these days. And in 140 characters, there’s no time for writer’s block. "If there is big news in the locker room after a game, I don’t have to wait to get back to my computer to write about it," says Matt Maiocco, who covers the 49ers for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and has been Tweeting since March. "I can deliver that news instantly." Maiocco’s fellow NFL writer Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times even thinks the immediacy of the technology might be helping the formation of his stories that end up in print. "Twitter forces me to put my observations into words in the most succinct of ways throughout the day," says Farmer. "I now have to crystallize my thoughts, and it sort of creates a mini-outline." Once those 140-character blasts have merged into something Web-ready, Twitter is helpful again for broadcasting that story’s existence. "Instead of waiting for people to find your story, you can let them know it’s out there," says New York Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly, one of the SE ranks’ earliest Twitter adopters.
- Another platform, no extra work: For a writer whose personal bandwidth is already stretched to capacity – from filing for the Web, filing for print, feeding the blog, placating TV/radio demands and making sure there’s a hotel room waiting in the next city – Twitter doesn’t have to be the proverbial straw. Our Giants beat writer, for example, has his Twitter feed automated so that any blog posts or stories that hit the Web also send out a Twitter link. Think of Twitter in this way as an automatic broadcast – or amplification – tool. Andrew Baggarly has developed quite a following with his ExtraBaggs blog – largely because Giants diehards know he will break news there first. Twitter ensures that news gets amplified, sending it out to a dedicated audience quickly – and without Andy even having to sign on to Twitter. Andy could get a trade tip from an agent while driving, pull over, blast a quick blog post from his iPhone and have it reach multiple platforms with hardly any interruption to his commute. "Anything you can do to give yourself an advantage," Baggarly reasons. "The first thing is obviously writing well and with perspective, but it also can’t hurt to the first one to get it out there."
- Reader connection: This remains the Twitter wild card. How much will the time we spend cultivating an audience pay off in any meaningful – or monetary – way? (Uh, stay tuned.) During the Sharks’ short-lived playoff run this spring, we spent time during games interacting with a fairly dedicated Twitter fan base – offering some play-by-play and redistributing ("Re-Tweeting") insights, analysis and photos shot by cellphone from inside or outside the arena. At the end of games, we engaged those followers by encouraging them to Tweet us their best headline for a chance to win an e-subscription. By the series’ conclusion, many clearly viewed us – meaning the voice that emanated from our @MercSharks handle – as somewhat of a virtual hockey party host. Many columnists sitting courtside also seem to be embracing this new form of live, in-game engagement. Should that be part of what we do as journalists? Today, anything to engage and learn more about our customer base – and to make ourselves more human to them in the process – is time well spent. As Jolly puts it, "We’re in an era where we need to be building a brand (you) within a brand (your news organization). Letting people know about you is a way of letting them know about your organization and that helps everyone."
- Staying ahead of the curve: Those ugly words journalists so hate – think "promotion" or "branding" – are becoming less ugly as media companies continue to hemorrhage cash and human capital. What would Farmer tell Twitter naysayers? "If you don’t like change, you’re going to hate irrelevance." In fact, he said he sat down with Times Sports Editor Randy Harvey earlier this year and had the Twitter talk. "We had a very interesting discussion about branding and how I should think of myself as Sam Farmer, NFL writer, more than Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer. He suggested Twitter as a way not only to help build my personal brand but to direct people back to our site for our stories, video, etc." Twitter was a no-brainer for Maiocco, who was blogging about his beat far earlier than most. "We all have to adapt and make the best use of everything at our disposal. I know I can’t afford to get lazy and sit on the sideline, thinking this is just a fad." And, as Jolly says, even if Twitter turns out to be just a fad, "any fad that attracts interest from millions of people is worth exploring." If the sports leader of the vaunted Gray Lady finds it worth his time and energy, then maybe others should too. "Here’s how I look at Twitter," says Jolly. "It’s an opportunity to communicate directly with people who have said they want to hear from me. Isn’t that what we, as journalists, want to do?"