Craig Calcaterra

I write about baseball for NBC Sports.com. I write about other things here.
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The LeBron James news dominated sports media for the past several days. Everyone — even people who don’t much care about basketball — was interested in it at least on some level. Even if it was only to joke, snark and/or join in some fun collective happening.

And then the news came — bam! — straight from the horse’s mouth, in the form of a first person essay from James “as told to Lee Jenkins” of Sports Illustrated. We had the story and now the important business of analyzing it — or, if you don’t much care about basketball, the important business of making Twitter jokes about it — was at hand.

But there are some who weren’t as interested in analyzing it, joking about it or just reveling in the fun collective happening. There are some who are using all of this as an occasion to wring their hands about journalistic integrity.

Here’s Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, who takes issue with Sports Illustrated and Jenkins allowing James to publish a brief essay about going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers:

News value aside, the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades.

And while James’s words may have been all that the sports world wanted to hear, the magazine should have pressed for a story that carried more journalistic heft.

Sandomir spoke with Jenkins, who explained that this wasn’t a press release. Rather, it became an essay when Jenkins stitched together James’ words from a lengthy interview into this statement. That doesn’t satisfy him:

But Jenkins has proved quite deft — at Sports Illustrated and before that at The New York Times — at stitching quotes into a broader third-person narrative that serves the reader even better … why not let Jenkins tell the story without handing James the platform for his unfiltered statement?

This is crazy. It’s an instance where Sandomir and the Times — who I think are fantastic most of the time, by the way — are fetishizing the business of Serious Journalism at the expense of understanding what sports fans actually care about, appreciating how informed sports fans already are and asserting that the reporter’s highest and best function is to get between fans and the news as opposed to delivering it to them.

Question: what, apart from the name of the team LeBron James chose and his reason for choosing it, do people interested in this story either not know or actually care about? What sort of “journalistic heft” does Sandomir think should have been added to this to “serve the reader” better? Jenkins prefacing the actual news with "James, 29, from Akron, has played for Miami since the 2010-11 season," would not have added journalistic integrity here. It would have been byline-justifying filler.

Everyone tuning in to this story knows what’s happening. Sports Illustrated and Jenkins provided them with the one thing they didn’t know: where James was going and why. If there is any concern about larger context here, it can and will be addressed by SI sidebars, bullet-pointed, fact-based graphics and, most importantly, an in-depth story from Jenkins about his conversations with James which provides deeper context. All of which, I assume, have either already been published or will soon be.

But Sandomir here is missing more than just the value Sports Illustrated provided by putting out a direct and immediate first-person account of this story. He’s missing the way in which modern sports news breaks and the manner in which readers consume news in this day and age. He’s missing the difference between the dissemination of basic information and the product of actual journalism.

News — especially sports news — has long revolved around the scoop. Yes, all reporters and editors will tell you that it’s important to get it right, not to just get it first, but getting it first is an obsession that drives reporting. Cultivating your sources and becoming that guy who everyone expects to break the news. To be Adrian Wojnarowski for basketball news. Jay Glazer for football. Ken Rosenthal for baseball. These dudes are brands of their own, quite famous and, I assume, quite wealthy as a result. 

But, as I have been saying for three years now, readers don’t care who got this news. They just care about the news itself. The Wojnarowskis of the world will tweet it out and, within minutes, it’s retweeted and blogged halfway around the world. Good retweeters and bloggers will credit the Wojnarowskis, but not everyone does. In very short order, that scoop has become a simple commodity — a fact in the ether — not a unique journalistic product. At least not in the minds of the people consuming it.

No, not all stories are like this. In-depth reporting about institutions, changing dynamics and trends or substantive interviews with newsmakers cannot be easily gutted and commodified like this. Those sorts of stories — stories like Sandomir’s New York Times’ colleague Tyler Kepner often writes — stand on their own and contain reader-serving journalistic heft, the sort of which Sandomir wants to see.

But the LeBron James story doesn’t. It’s a big event, sure, but at bottom it’s functionally equivalent to a team issuing a statement that it placed a player on the disabled list. That day’s starting lineup. A simple bit of data. A commodity. And just as sports teams and leagues are increasingly bypassing the press in order to release that sort of commodity news directly to fans via their Twitter feeds or in-house news operations, LeBron James could have very easily tweeted that he was heading back to Cleveland to his 13.6 million followers. Or, like he did back in 2010, could’ve said it on some TV show cum P.R. festival he created for himself. Indeed, it’s amazing to me that Sports Illustrated even got what it got here and they should be credited for getting that much. I didn’t need more than that yesterday. I’m more than happy — hell, very, very eager — to wait for Jenkins’ in-depth followup to all of this. I bet it’ll be incredible. 

Sports Illustrated gets it. They know that, no matter how much “journalistic heft” they had put in to this story, it would not have mattered too much to them due to everyone taking what they’re dropping and running with it. I mean, just look where we are now, less than 24 hours after the story broke. Here’s the top Google result for “Sports Illustrated LeBron James”:

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Yup, that’s Sandomir’s story criticizing SI’s story in the top slot. Which, it’s probably worth noting, doesn’t even link back to Sports Illustrated.

Good thing Lee Jenkins didn’t waste too much time weaving third-person narratives and serving readers in that piece. No one would’ve seen it.

UPDATE: Seems like whoever puts together the New York Times’ very own sports front is making my point for me: it’s nothing but a blown-up agate transactions blurb. It’s beautiful. No need for more “journalistic heft.” It says all it needs to say.

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