Lindsay Jones in the press box at Super Bowl XLIV.
My name is Lindsay Jones, and I am a Twitter-holic.
OK, I admit it. I didn’t take to this Twitter revolution right away. Soon after I joined The Denver Post in the summer of 2008 to be the beat reporter for the Denver Broncos, my editor asked me to tweet as part of my routine at training camp. Twitter wasn’t well known back then, and I remember wondering why anyone would possibly want to receive a 140-character message from training camp or during a nationally televised game.
I did it anyway, and boy, was I wrong.
By the next spring, Twitter—along with other social media—was playing a huge role in my coverage. Tweets were now as big a part of my job as filing stories for the paper, just as they were for my NFL sports writing colleagues. Twitter has completely changed the way we cover football, as I’m sure it has changed all other sports beats.
The Denver Post’s Broncos Twitter account was launched during my first training camp with the team. Since then close to 14,000 tweets have been sent—the majority from me. Nearly all relate directly or indirectly to the Broncos and the NFL, a combination of breaking news from me or my Post partners, analysis (particularly during games), and some back and forth with the public. Some are auto tweets from our Broncos and NFL print and online news stories, columns and analysis.
These days breaking sports news is virally disseminated via Twitter. With everything being so competitive—and speedy—on the NFL beat, this puts slow thumbs at a distinct disadvantage. It also presents challenges for news organizations like ours. We are having constant discussions about how best to get breaking news to our readers while integrating our social media strategy with what we publish in print and online.
We break news first on Twitter—in Facebook posts, too—with the understanding that the beat reporter also files this news to our website. This way the link we send out gives our readers instant access to a story that takes them deeper than 140 characters allows—and we draw sought-after eyeballs to the Post’s website.
Now here’s how this approach gives my editors heartburn. What I tweet goes from my keyboard to the masses—with no filter. Of course, all the Broncos beat writers have to operate under some strange rules—ones we don’t like—that the league and team place on us. The Broncos prohibit any cell phone activity on the practice field. No calls. No texts. No Twitter. No Facebook. Pull that phone out of your pocket and you risk expulsion from the practice field. So when something newsworthy happens on the practice field, it is a race to get outside the gate to be the first to post something. If you’ve never seen a herd of sportswriters run, well, it’s not a pretty sight.
Such an unsightly occasion happened one day in August during the first full week of training camp when the team’s star pass rusher, Elvis Dumervil, was injured during practice. I saw him pull out of a one-on-one drill so I hurried to the other side of the practice field where I could see him walk into the locker room. I was hoping to get some sense of what had happened to him—some color I could add. I knew no comment from the coaches or from Dumervil would be forthcoming.
So there I was half-running, half-walking to outside of the practice gates and into the adjacent media room. I didn’t want to be too obvious lest the herd would start to follow me. Once there I sent a tweet that said something like “Broncos OLB Elvis Dumervil left practice Wednesday evening with an apparent shoulder or chest injury.” That I had to leave the field to do this is a bit ridiculous; the practice was open to the public, and none of them seemed concerned about team rules forbidding them from posting words and pictures nor was the Broncos staff concerned about enforcing those rules. Fans could simply post what they wanted from where they were sitting on the grass.
I posted what I’d seen and what I knew immediately to The Denver Post’s All Things Broncos blog and from there it went to our main Web page. In subsequent tweets I told followers what Dumervil was doing when he was injured and discussed possible ramifications, depending on the severity of his injury. The next morning we learned it was very bad. Dumervil had a torn pectoral muscle that would keep him out for the duration of the season. It was devastating for the team to lose the man who last year was best in the league at tackling the quarterback.
That news also went out as soon as I heard it—virtually in real time. That’s easy—a thumb here, a thumb there, and the news is out.
Speed and Accuracy
What’s much tougher—and exponentially more complicated for those working with the values of traditional journalism—is when I learn news from off-the-record sources, which is increasingly common across the league. This is when I find the immediacy to be tricky because rumors often masquerade as news and are transmitted without regard for whether they have been verified. There is a noticeable lack of accountability that seems to reside in the emerging Twitter territory as those who aren’t part of a news organization can use this reporting tool recklessly.
My approach is this: I am a journalist first, reporting for a newspaper. My standards for sending something out on Twitter or Facebook remain the same as if I was going to publish the news in the print edition. As much as possible, I adhere to the same reporting rules with social media when it comes to breaking news. Do I have a reliable source? Is this information on the record? Am I absolutely sure the information is accurate?
In September, I weighed these concerns when I received a direct message on Twitter asking if I’d heard a rumor that a Broncos player had committed suicide. I immediately called my sources, and within minutes I had confirmed with an off-the-record source that Kenny McKinley, a second-year wide receiver, had killed himself.
I knew this was not the type of sourcing that would pass muster with my bosses for the newspaper. But while I was seeking additional confirmation, a competitor in the Denver market went with the story via Twitter, citing “sources.” My initial reaction as a reporter was that wrenching feeling of “I just got beat.” As a human being, I was fine that I had paused. Had this been a case of a sprained ankle or a free agent signing, I might have gone with what I had sooner. But there was no way—not even a tiny chance—that I was going to race to be first with the story of a player’s suicide without an on-the-record source.
When the Post got confirmation from the local sheriff’s department, we went with the story, both on Twitter and as a full news story on our website. As the story developed, I updated Twitter and wrote for the Web until about midnight; at that point I filed my last blog post of the day sharing personal thoughts about McKinley.
It’s Game Day
Perhaps the best case for Twitter and other social media is the ability they give reporters like me to com
bine breaking news elements with analysis—and this happens most often on game day. Thinking back two years ago, this is one of those things that I never could have anticipated.
At a late October Broncos game, I sent 108 tweets. That’s pretty standard output for game day. From the time I arrived at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium—about three hours before kickoff—until I shut down my computer that evening, I was in constant tweet mode. In between, I filed several blog posts, wrote an early story for the Web, watched the game, went to the home and visiting locker rooms for interviews, filed an 18-inch sidebar and a handful of notes, along with a variety of other “candy” elements.
Back to the tweets. I sent word about what I call “newsy elements”—the release of the inactive list of players, a moment that fantasy football fans live and die by each week; in-game injury updates; and a minor amount of play-by-play. The majority of those tweets were my reactions to—pretty much instantaneous—and analysis—a little less spur of the moment—of what was happening on the field. Of my 12,000-plus followers, many watch the game so I don’t feel any need to tweet as a play-by-play person might do.
My tweets highlight behind-the-scenes insights about what is happening on the field before and after the play, what’s happening on the sidelines, or what the atmosphere of the stadium is like, along with the information I’ve gleaned from being around the team as it prepared for the game. Often that includes why a play worked or didn’t, or I might tweet about why a certain player is being used or isn’t.
It’s at these moments that I can develop my voice on Twitter, though as a beat writer I am often straddling the line between news and opinion. Even if I am wary of moving too far into the realm of opinion, those on the receiving end are not. During the preseason, I was called profane names, told I was too snarky and negative about the Broncos, and informed that I clearly had an agenda against backup quarterback Tim Tebow. Of course, I was also told I was overly positive about the Broncos and that I am obviously a big fan of Tebow. I must be doing something right.
The most amazing effect of social media is being connected directly with readers unlike what was ever possible before. Having a direct line to the fans often changes the tenor of my reporting since what they write clues me in to what they care about and want to read. Just a few seasons ago, a Broncos fan would watch the game and scream at his TV; if he was really upset, he might send an e-mail or fire off a letter to the editor. Now fans watch the game with their computers or smartphones on their lap and they fire off rants, 140 characters at a time, to my Twitter account.
My words have angered plenty of folks, but I’ve also amassed a fairly loyal following. While it can be infuriating to get the same questions constantly—“Is [head coach at the time] Josh McDaniels’s job in trouble? When will Tim Tebow play? Exactly how many carries will [running back] Knowshon Moreno get today?”—during the games I have entertaining and informative dialogues, sometimes to the point where just keeping up is a challenge.
Conversations I have with fans are also an invaluable resource for my stories. This year I have posed questions and used the results as an informal poll in print. I’ve found people to interview and used followers as on-the-record sources for fan-based stories on a range of topics. When I’m going on a road trip, I ask for suggestions for restaurants and running routes. For my recent trip to London, where the Broncos played the San Francisco 49ers, I was able to connect with Broncos fans from England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Kuwait, all within a matter of hours, after sending a tweet asking international fans to let me know if they were coming to the game.
I don’t get much sleep. My thumbs get tired. And I’ve figured out that if I am going to half-walk, half-run to tweet breaking news, I need to wear sneakers. I also need to keep a low profile. Sometimes it seems that the eyes of fellow reporters aren’t on the field but scanning the sidelines—accounting for reporters lest one disappear from view. Years ago it was the rush to be first to the phone booth; now the goal is to find a place of one’s own to tweet.
Lindsay Jones covers the Denver Broncos for The Denver Post. She tweets @PostBroncos.