ESPN faces challenges in Twitter Era

Brian Windhorst remembers the day the Miami Heat cried -- and how Twitter changed his story.

Windhorst, an ESPN.com NBA writer, is a fan of Twitter, the 6-year-old service that marries the speed and brevity of text messaging with the reach of social media. Before joining ESPN.com, while covering the Cavaliers for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, he bought his own smartphone so he could start tweeting, and has built a following of more than 70,000 people.

Windhorst uses Twitter to promote his stories, of course. He also tweets 140-character bits of news, stats and observations during Heat games, and keeps tabs on what people tweet in response. That’s not just good PR: Windhorst’s followers sometimes see things he’s missed, and react in ways he didn’t expect.

Which brings us back to those tears.

In March 2011, LeBron James' miss in the last seconds of a game against the Chicago Bulls sent the Heat to their fourth straight loss. As he tweeted bits from the postgame news conference, Windhorst figured he’d construct his story around James’ miss. But when he noted that coach Erik Spoelstra had said there were players crying in the locker room, his Twitter feed lit up.

"I’d never seen such a reaction," he told the Poynter Review Project. "That told me that should be the lead."

But that’s not the only way Twitter has changed ESPN and other media companies. For reporters such as Windhorst, other aspects of the Twitter age are less pleasant, putting pressure on some to do their jobs in real time without the safeguards of the traditional news cycle. And along with new opportunities, ESPN’s executives face potentially profound disruptions to their business.

Twitter is changing how ESPN’s reporters and personalities break news and talk to fans, the relationship they have with their employer, and how ESPN manages its brand. This isn’t the stuff of some hazy digital future. Those changes are happening right now, and are threatening to outrun both ESPN’s policies and its assumptions about itself.

The Reporter’s Dilemma

Twitter has become a magnet for venture-capital money and a media phenomenon: This spring, Twitter said it had more than 140 million active users producing more than 340 million tweets a day.

According to comScore Media Metrix, unique visitors to Twitter.com via desktops and laptops rose to 41.6 million in May, up 54 percent from a year earlier. Mobile Twitter use was comparable, but mobile users spent far more time on Twitter -- 77.4 minutes a month, compared with 24.6 minutes for computer users.

To be sure, Twitter’s reach is still dwarfed by that of Facebook and the larger Web, to say nothing of TV. In February, a Pew Research Center poll found that just 15 percent of adults online use Twitter, essentially the same percentage as a year before. But Pew also found that 31 percent of Internet users ages 18-24 used Twitter, an increase from 18 percent a year earlier. The sports fans among those users are ESPN's future.

Meanwhile, fans who have embraced Twitter have seen it remake their habits. They now expect sports news and information in real time, and can spend all day reliving last night’s game or speculating on tonight’s. It is "always-on" fandom, with bits of news and chatter filling up the hours or days between each game.

Sports-talk radio started us down this path decades ago, but the Web allows fans to seek news whenever they have a few minutes of downtime, or while they should be doing something else. Twitter has made the search both efficient and addictive, creating an endless flow of new information that can always be tapped.

As a result, the news cycle has been jammed on permanent fast-forward. Once, stories were reported and written with an eye on the next day's newspaper or that night’s sports report. When news organizations went digital, the news cycle sped up, moving the goalposts to the time required to publish a story to a Web site. Twitter moved them again, to how quickly a tweet can be composed and posted. That’s created what Rob King, senior vice president for print and digital content at ESPN, calls "a second-by-second news cycle."

But that speed is straining the traditional safeguards for how professional reporters gather, assess and publish information.

"It wasn’t that long ago that when you got a piece of information you thought was a good story -- even if it was breaking news -- you could develop it more," Windhorst said. "That’s no longer the case. Now when there’s new information, the story is often reported with much less cultivation, and isn’t as well-rounded out as in the past. And I’m not talking about the 1970s. I’m talking about 2004."

Eventually, new standards and expectations will emerge for how we report and read developing stories at Twitter speed, but we’re not there yet. Until then, reporters are stuck: Readers want information faster than ever, but they assess reporters as if the rules of the old news cycle still apply.

"Now you’re writing running stories on Twitter," ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said. "It can make you look like you’re vacillating or changing your mind, when in fact you’re reporting."

Add to that the pressure of knowing competitors may tweet news first -- and at least within media circles, the certainty that people are keeping score.

Take March’s Tim Tebow trade, Schefter said. The Denver Broncos agreed to trade the quarterback to the New York Jets, but when the deal apparently fell apart, they tried to work out a trade to the Jacksonville Jaguars instead, only to reverse course and return to the Jets. At one point, Schefter recalled, a credible person involved in the deal told him that Tebow was headed to Jacksonville. Rather than tweet that, Schefter waited to check in with other people -- and another credible source told him to hold off.

"The story had changed so much that day, I thought it was really important for me to double- and triple-check it," he said. "I could have put on Twitter that Tim Tebow was being traded to Jacksonville. Had I done that, I would have been remembered as the guy who got the Tim Tebow story wrong."

Talking Back

Twitter is a two-way street; users can ask each other questions, comment on each other’s tweets or -- as always with the Web -- just fling poorly spelled invective at a far-off target.

The volume of such mentions can be overwhelming, but some ESPN personalities brave the flood, using Twitter as a way to answer questions, offer thanks and sometimes call out haters. Some ESPNers are guarded on Twitter, while others freely banter with followers and share their personal lives as well as links to their work.

ESPN columnist and analyst Jemele Hill is a regular tweeter, sometimes topping 200 tweets a week. What does she offer her 118,000-plus followers? A mix of news, word of her upcoming TV appearances, game predictions and even career advice. Hill frequently retweets followers’ jokes, chats with them and occasionally returns fire at critics. She’ll also share pictures of herself with a toddler cousin, or beach shots from a Jamaica vacation.

Hill said she jumped into Twitter without guidelines, but noted that she has always engaged with readers. The difference is that before Twitter, such exchanges took place over email, out of public view.

In Hill’s eyes, if you’re authentic on Twitter, there’s no reason to be afraid.

"My Twitter personality is all me," she said, adding that "people interacting with you have to feel like it’s really you, and not some social-media version of you . . . The way I think about my Twitter feed is, 'Everybody’s a VIP.' "

But, she adds: "I wouldn’t tweet something I wouldn’t say on TV or in a column. If I get fired for anything at ESPN, it’s not going to be Twitter; 140 characters is not worth losing your job over."

Brands Big and Little

The tension between personal and institutional brands was a recurring theme in Poynter’s conversations with ESPN tweeters. Reporters and analysts said Twitter had helped them gain more public exposure for themselves and their work -- and understood that ESPN’s brand name was a big reason their follower counts kept climbing.

"I hate the word 'brand,' I really do," Windhorst said. "But [Twitter] helps the people who consume your news get to know you a little better, and feel an attachment to you."

But that brings up unsettled questions for ESPN: Who owns a reporter’s Twitter account? Must reporters surrender their accounts if they change employers? After all, Hill’s followers have value both to her and to ESPN. If Hill moves to another employer, are her followers hers to keep? Or should they be ESPN’s?

King said ESPN asks employees engaged in social media "to be mindful of how they use that space," but indicated ESPN doesn’t claim to own those accounts, striking individual understandings when such questions arise.

Windhorst abandoned his Plain Dealer account when he came to ESPN, as did baseball writer Adam Rubin when he moved from the New York Daily News to ESPNNewYork.com. (Both of those accounts were associated with their beats rather than their names, however.) On the other hand, Michelle Beadle changed her screen name but kept her account (and her more than half a million followers) when she moved from ESPN to NBC. Pat Forde did the same with his nearly 100,000 followers when he went to Yahoo! Sports. And Darren Rovell -– one of sports media’s most active and influential tweeters -- is returning to ESPN from CNBC, and bringing his 220,000-plus followers with him.

Legal precedent is only beginning to emerge. The most high-profile legal case concerning ownership of a Twitter account pits California writer Noah Kravitz against mobile-phone site Phonedog.com, his former employer. Eight months after the two parted ways, Phonedog sued Kravitz, calling the writer’s Twitter followers a customer list and seeking damages for the loss of that list.

Legal experts have said the reason Kravitz's Twitter account was opened is a key determining factor. But such questions may be impossible to answer: Is the purpose of Hill’s Twitter account to promote her ESPN work and grow her audience for the network, or help her to form closer connections with people who read and watch her? It’s pretty clearly both.

Moreover, many of today’s tweeters began their accounts as personal experiments, little regarded by their employers at the time. Reporters and analysts increasingly see their accounts as personal assets they’ve worked hard to build, simultaneously a clip file and a portable audience for their work. In an era of diminished job security, they will be loath to surrender so valuable an asset.

Why is this worth watching? Because it seems to us that ESPN has long been a reluctant sports-media starmaker, wary of big personalities taking attention away from the institutional brand. It’s been a tricky balancing act for the company and its personalities alike, with Chris Berman a rare veteran to walk that tightrope without falling off. In the digital age, the high-wire act is even trickier: The basic unit of digital content is an article or video, not a site or program. And when consumers feel as if they’re drowning in information noise, personality is a welcome bit of signal. Both those factors elevate personal brands, while fragmenting and diminishing institutional ones.

Consider, for example, the Twitter profile of Bill Simmons. The ESPN.com-columnist-turned-Grantland.com editor-in-chief has nearly 1.75 million followers, and neither his Twitter handle (sportsguy33) nor his Twitter home page makes any mention of his ESPN affiliation. Simmons is one of ESPN’s most valuable digital assets, yet he’s quite clearly his own brand. Where he has led, savvy reporters and analysts will want to follow.

The Value of Twitter

There’s little question Twitter has benefited ESPN’s more social-media savvy reporters and analysts. But a question that is more difficult to answer: How has Twitter benefited ESPN? What benefit does the network derive from a reporter’s rapport with his or her followers?

A better image, Hill suggested.

"There’s a perception that ESPN is a cold, ruthless factory and they’ve told their minions to never show any personality and always follow the corporate line," she said. "I think when readers get these glimpses of our personalities, they have a different perception of what happens at ESPN."

In King’s view, contributors’ Twitter presences are another way to "keep ESPN in the hearts and minds of our fans."

"Most of our on-air folks aren’t on air 24/7," he said. "The same is true for writers -- Wright Thompson doesn’t publish every day. The social space has gotten rid of all that downtime between times you’re able to connect with people you’re interested in. We want to serve fans and be connected to them, and some of the most important connections we establish are through our talent."

That said, Dave Coletti, ESPN’s vice president of digital media research and analytics, warned against focusing on social media "as if that is the full extent of conversations that occur."

Take those comments Windhorst mentioned. An article on ESPN.com might get thousands of comments, a volume Coletti said "can stack up to a lot of Twitter volume on any topic, but we haven’t been as oriented as an industry to look at it that way."

Twitter also defies rigorous audience measurements, a source of frustration for the analytically inclined Coletti. Among the things he’d like to understand better: Is there a causal link between buzz on Twitter and TV ratings? Is there a better way to measure how many people read a tweet? The vast majority of people passively consume digital media on Twitter instead of tweeting themselves or retweeting others’ words.

Absent such basic measurements, a lot of determining Twitter’s value is guesswork -- or, as Coletti put it wryly, "We have a very good understanding of what’s easy to understand."

One potentially valuable avenue for ESPN is fans’ use of Twitter as a "second screen" during games and other live events.

"Twitter is a live, real-time network and it just so happens that our content is live and real-time," said Ben Shields, ESPN’s director of social-media marketing.

Such live efforts have taken a number of forms. Reporters such as Windhorst and Rubin have become effective guides on the side during games. ESPN has used tweets to alert fans to classic sports events in the making and experimented with hashtags for sparking conversations and picking SportsCenter highlights -– efforts that get amplified, for free, when retweeted by fans. And ESPN and Twitter are now partners -- in May, the two struck a deal to produce “unique social experiences” around sporting events, with fans tweeting their best “game faces” during the NBA Finals.

All of these experiments bear watching. But both consumers and producers of tweets should keep in mind that Twitter isn’t a neutral platform, like email or text messaging or Web pages. It’s a private company, with its own goals and priorities -- which may not be the same as those of the media companies that use it. (See this take from technologist Dave Winer.)

For now, ESPN and other media companies see that bargain as a good or at least acceptable one, and it’s been full-speed ahead. But media companies may not always think that way -- and it may prove difficult or impossible to turn back.

Questions of Policy

ESPN’s social-media guidelines are available on the company’s Front Row PR site, and are fairly standard fare for media companies: Remember you’re always representing ESPN, your tweets may be simulcast on ESPN.com pages, and readers may see retweets as endorsements.

We found the biggest sticking point for reporters and analysts is also a source of considerable confusion. ESPN’s latest social-networking policy forbids breaking "sourced or proprietary news" on Twitter, saying that such information "must be vetted by the TV or Digital news desks. Once reported on an ESPN platform, that news can (and should) be distributed on Twitter and other social sites."

Some reporters we spoke to repeatedly cited that policy and expressed frustration with it, bemoaning busy times when a news item gets stuck behind other things the desk has to review, allowing competitors to tweet the news first.

But the breaking-news prohibition doesn’t seem to actually be the policy. King said once news is vetted, the goal is to publish it in whatever way gets it to the audience as quickly as possible, then "try to amplify it as quickly as possible beyond 140 characters, whether it’s radio, TV or a short version on the Web."

Furthermore, he noted, since early 2011, ESPN.com has had Twitter modules on numerous pages, a vehicle designed to ensure tweets are simultaneously published on ESPN’s Web platform.

We’re not sure where this confusion comes from, but ESPN should make it go away: Its reporters have a tough enough time confronting an accelerated news cycle without having to deal with uncertainty about which tools are available to them. King’s comments demonstrate ESPN’s goal is to decouple vetting from publication, which strikes us as the right tack. Now it needs to communicate that better.

More generally, we’d note that Twitter is remaking some consumers’ habits so quickly that policies governing it will struggle to keep up with reality -- as perhaps is the case here. Twitter users get their news in a very different way than they did a couple of years ago, and are beginning to watch sports differently as well. ESPN’s most-effective tweeters know this, and their own habits have evolved in response.

Given such rapid change, we think ESPN’s current social-media policy sends the wrong signal to its employees and undermines the value of its many worthy social-media experiments. Yes, newcomers to Twitter and other forms of social media need guidance that experienced hands don’t, but a wall of prohibitions that ends with the threat of suspension or dismissal is no way to encourage those newcomers to take their first steps.

Instead, we suggest a simpler and less daunting policy, pairing a couple of bedrock, common-sense cautions (say, that news must be vetted and ESPN editorial standards apply to tweets and other communications) with constructive suggestions for how to better connect and engage with fans, and closing with a clear signal of support for responsible social-media experimentation.

From there, we urge ESPN to tap into the wisdom of its Twitter stars and create forums for them to share internally what they’re learning, whether it’s lessons about the pitfalls of real-time reporting, tips for disarming critics, or advice on how to be entertaining in-game guides. Tomorrow’s best Twitter practices are emerging from those lessons, and regularly sharing observations and disseminating tips about what works would benefit ESPN’s Twitter newcomers and veterans alike.

Twitter is fundamentally odd -- a Tom Sawyer platform that’s convinced many influential people to paint its fence. Like Facebook, it’s gone from curiosity to essential media tool -- a news platform with such reach, depth and promise that ESPN and its rivals have had to find a place within it. The effect of such a platform is to erode some of the brand power of companies such as ESPN, diminishing it while elevating that of personal brands and the platform themselves.

That’s not what ESPN or any other media company would want. But the world has changed, and ESPN and its rivals are having to change with it. They will have to be more nimble, creative and brave, accepting that their brands are now passed around in pieces by far-flung employees, readers and even platforms, and that criticism will come from all points.

But this is not a zero-sum game: The downside of having fans, athletes and teams emerge as content creators is cacophony and conflicting information. ESPN has a ready-made role to play in such a situation, using its reporting talent to make sense of the noise and its influence to amplify valuable information. The more ESPN lets go as a brand and adapts, the more we believe its brand will retain its hard-won vitality and popularity -- and perhaps even surpass it.