Rob Lowe Tweets End to Manning's Career: How Social Media Shapes Sports Stories

on January 25 2012 10:48 AM
A Twitter page is displayed on a laptop computer in Los Angeles
Twitter has huge effects on sports media stories, especially the way that they develop. REUTERS

Rob Lowe reporting on Twitter that Peyton Manning was retiring is clearly among the weirdest sports stories early in 2012, but it also showcases the power -- both good and bad -- of Twitter.

Lowe, the Parks and Recreation star, tweeted this on Jan. 18th: Hearing my fave, #18 Peyton Manning will not return to #NFL. Wow. #Colts.

Lowe is apparently good friends with Colts owner Jim Irsay, but the story was quickly denied by Manning's agent, Tom Condon, and his father, Archie Manning. Even Peyton had fun with the the situation in a recent interview with The Indianapolis Star.

I never thought 'Sodapop Curtis' would announce my retirement, Manning said, referring to Lowe's character in the 1983 movie The Outsiders. I always thought I would be the one to announce it. I'm a huge fan of the movie, but that caught me way off guard. I can't explain it.

Most have laughed off the situation, but it actually provided a good look into how Twitter affects the development of stories, particularly sports stories. The majority of reporters took the opportunity to make Lowe jokes in response to the tweet, but many were still forced to try to either confirm or deny the Manning retirement story.

It was just another example of how a story both broke and finished on the social media giant. Twitter has drastically changed how stories are reported and how they evolve for a multitude of reasons.

Outkick the Coverage's Clay Travis wrote an epic love letter about Twitter in late December, but there was one point that he made that was incredibly simple, but particularly poignant -- News breaks on Twitter. Travis noted that from Osama bin Laden being killed to the new coach at UCLA, I find out first about the news from my Twitter feed.

Travis is just one of many that feel that way about Twitter. Xavier men's basketball director of basketball administer Mario Mercurio loves the social media outlet because it allows you to create your own USA Today.

Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch calls it his RSS feed and that it has made me a far better news consumer.

How a Story Evolves Through Twitter

The Rob Lowe story was over and done with on Twitter within hours, but other stories have evolved dramatically through it. One of the best recent examples is how consumers reacted to the Penn State scandal.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News first broke the story on Nov. 4th about former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky facing charges for sexually abusing young children. The Central Pa.-based newspaper had the list of the charges, including all the now-famous graphic details, and posted the story in its entirety on its Web site.

The story quickly blew up on Twitter, as many reacted with complete outrage that Sandusky, who was the founder of a charity organization that helped children in need, sexually molested young boys over the course of a 15-year period.

In those early moments of the Penn State story you saw people generally in uniform that were outraged at what they were hearing, Deitsch said.

But that initial outrage began to evolve.

It moved from simple outrage at what Sandusky had done to outrage that Penn State hadn't done anything to stop the accused sex offender, despite the former coach being accused of sexual assault multiple times. Soon the narrative moved from the disgustingness of Sandusky's acts to calling on Penn State to fire everyone from the university president to iconic football coach Joe Paterno.

By Nov. 9th, the school had fired Paterno for not doing enough to stop Sandusky and was embroiled in one of the worst sports scandals of all-time. Public relations experts called it one of the worst PR disasters of all-time; in part because of the slow responses shown by the school administration.

The outrage in the slow response was in some way fueled by the immediacy of Twitter and how journalists around the world called upon the school to cut ties with all of its failed leaders.

Everyone is commenting instantaneously when every little piece breaks and it shapes the perception of the coverage, Deitsch said of the impact of Twitter. When news started to break it was such a massive outpouring of opinion on Twitter.  The story got shaped on Twitter that Penn State wasn't responding quickly enough.

Some could attribute the quickness in how that story evolved to the ramifications of a 24/7 news cycle, but it's much more than that. As Deitsch noted earlier, Twitter evolves stories in a different way from traditional news outlets because of the instantaneous nature of it. All it takes is one tweet calling upon Penn State to fire Joe Paterno before the story takes a clear turn down a different path.

Some have decried the impact that Twitter has on the journalism narrative, but it still provides far more benefits than negatives. One of the greatest things about Twitter is that it allowed users throughout the world to become familiar with the Patriot-News and become comfortable using that outlet as their primary source for Sandusky scandal information.

Twitter Helps Newspapers Survive in the Digital Age

While Twitter unquestionably shaped the story narrative of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Harrisburg Patriot-News clearly owned the coverage better than any other traditional news outlet. The newspaper was out in front of the story from the very beginning and managed to provide breaking news for weeks about the proceedings of the case.

Some could argue that The Patriot-News gained so much attention from its work due to its high quality, which certainly played a part, but it also was extremely effective at leveraging social media outlets like Twitter to help advance the story.

Crime reporter Sara Ganim, who was the primary reporter on the Sandusky case, saw her Twitter following explode after her initial story as journalists like Deitsch encouraged their followers to pay attention to what she was doing.

Ganim's strong usage of social media to help push the story helped the Patriot-News experience massive traffic gains, according to Editor David Newhouse.

In this story our page views have gone up anywhere from two to three times normal, while our unique visitors have gone up three to five times normal, Newhouse said. The biggest impact from the stories has been on the Web. We are getting linked from dozens of sites from around the country for news on (the Sandusky) story.

The newspaper saw some jumps in its single copy newspaper purchases, but mostly saw its major jumps in its Web traffic. Those jumps in Web traffic could help the organization charge more for advertising -- showing the importance in getting major stories onto the Web before the newspaper is printed.

We have very quietly been digital first for several years now, he said. By that we mean every single thing that we report on -- with the exception of an exclusive -- is put on our Web site before the paper comes out. Further we put it on our Web site as soon as the reporter has even a part of the story.

That type of mentality isn't exactly revolutionary, but one that many newspapers across the country have still not fully embraced. It also helped the Patriot-News capitalize on the institutional trust it built through the scandal to get readers to continue to read the newspaper's Web site.

Newhouse, when interviewed in late 2011, said that any major traffic bump like the Sandusky stuff leads to a permanent increase in traffic. At the time his organization was simply trying to stay on top of the story on any way that it could and that clearly paid off with the attention paid to the newspaper's coverage of Joe Paterno's death on Sunday.

Paterno, 85, passed away after a battle with lung cancer and one of the best places for information regarding his death, funeral, and memorial service has proven to be the Patriot-News.

One of the most talked about columns about Paterno's death -- on Twitter of course -- was Patriot-News columnist David Jones' Joe Paterno and how I knew him. The piece was incredibly powerful and unique -- a key component to a piece garnering interest -- but it might have never been distributed as much as it was through social media had the Patriot-News not established itself as a social media savvy organization in the previous months.

The newspaper undoubtedly saw another huge traffic boost from the strong Paterno content, while also making sure that it got into the hands of the right social media influencers. It is critical for newspapers to get their content into the social media realm, according to SI's Deitsch.

I think no matter the size of the organization, you have to be on the social media space, he said. It's one of the great avenues of our time to reach potential readers. Social media won't replace reporting - ultimately you have to go out and report stories - but you also have to be in the space.

There are certainly some potential downfalls of putting too much an emphasis on social media. 247Sports CEO Shannon Terry said in a November sports media conference that he worried about his reporters trying to become Twitter gods by focusing more on their Twitter followers count than doing their job. At that same conference, SI.com managing editor Paul Fichtenbaum said that there was no safety net with social media.

Even with the potential downfalls attached to social media, particularly Twitter, Yahoo Sports' NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski is a huge proponent of media organizations utilizing social media.

His rationale? You don't beat ESPN with conventional warfare.

The same goes for newspapers like the Patriot-News. It is extremely important for all organizations to harness the powers of social media, but even more so for smaller papers that don't have the name recognition of The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Patriot-News editor Newhouse readily admits that fact, but said coverage like the Sandusky scandal -- strong on digital and social media -- puts them on the radar of readers around the country.

NOTE: This is the second installment of a four part series on how social media affects sports. In Part One, we wrote about How Social Media Affects College Athletics. In Part Three, we will profile a social media coach of professional athletes.

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