Social media are sources, not threats

When athletes started blogging a few years back, a common reaction from media members was to mock. Another common reaction, held somewhere deep in their souls, but rarely expressed on the page: They were worried. Worried that if athletes started saying things directly to fans and ignoring the traditional media channels, their jobs would become disposable.

Twitter has only heightened these insecurities. Most athletes don't have time to sit down at a computer and bang out a couple of hundred words; it's far easier to type 140 characters or less on a cell phone and publish to Twitter. As such, far more athletes are micro-blogging on the service these days than going the traditional blogging route. Fans are interacting with them round the clock on there, Lance Armstrong is announcing his son's birth on there, NFL teams are telling their followers who they drafted on Twitter before Roger Goodell steps up to the podium.

If blogging was the first tiny leak in the we-need-a-reporter dam, Twitter has come along, and knocked the whole thing down. Or has it?

Not likely. In fact, these new mediums have only served to give more fodder for reporters. Let's take one example: Charlie Villanueva tweeted at halftime of a Milwaukee Bucks game this season. A blogger picked up on that, it eventually switched over to mainstream media, and reporters asked his coach, Scott Skiles, if he was cool with it. He was not cool with it.

This sprung a larger question: What were NBA coaches' policies on Twitter? Soon, reporters for other teams were posing that very question. Jerry Sloan's answer was particularly funny.

Shaquille O'Neal is another example. His Suns didn't make the playoffs, but how often has Shaq been written and blogged about during these NBA playoffs regarding his Twitter exploits? He recently tweeted that he was rooting for Kobe Bryant to win his fourth title. Several media outlets wrote about this, and when a few panelists on "Around The Horn" didn't believe Shaq, he tweeted this during the show: "They said on 'Around the Horn' that I'm playing when I say I want Kobe to win his 4th ring. Here it goes again: I'm serious, I want Kobe to win."

These two examples are just a small segment of the service's worth to reporters. There are plenty more issues out there, from college recruiting to where an athlete currently is and what he's up to.

And that leads to another important aspect of a reporter's job in this social media age: keeping track of all these updates, filtering out the fat, and getting to the meat.

It's near impossible for fans to keep up with every athlete's online brand. It's difficult for reporters to keep up, too. Besides the sheer volume of pages to watch on a daily basis, discerning who is real and who isn't can be a challenge. (Though the news that Twitter is starting verified accounts should solve the latter issue.)

But if NBA-centric reporters are doing their best to follow NBA athletes' Twitter accounts, blogs and Facebook pages, when something of worth comes up, they should report it. We still need people watching this stuff, we need storytellers framing it in a larger context, we still need gatekeepers telling us what's relevant and necessary. And heck, some of these athletes are more interesting online than in the locker room. Reporters need to recognize that.

Remember: Even though Twitter is the newest media darling right now, most fans aren't getting their news from it. It's usually not until what's happening on Twitter gets reported on a blog or news Web site, in a newspaper, or on TV that it really becomes a story people are talking about.

And it works for the media, too. Reporters with active, engaging Twitter accounts (and blogs) are of great worth to fans. It's the perfect place to drop one- or two-line breaking news items before a full story gets worked on, or to even drop bits of information that would have otherwise been left on the cutting-room floor.

So the next time you hear a mainstream media member mock an athlete for joining the "Twitter craze," tell them to perk their ears up. They may just be missing out on the next big story.