LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers was something well beyond a huge sports story; it was an immaculately executed public relations coup that added probably hundreds of millions of dollars to the economic impact of the single most valuable player in American sports. And dangling off the end of it is a footnote in the form of a curious question: Who deserves the credit for breaking the news? Was it Sports Illustrated, which ran the first-person essay in which James announced he'd be heading back to Cleveland? Or was it Chris Sheridan, a veteran reporter who two days earlier had staked his reputation on James's return?
There were days when reporters broke sports news in newspapers, with competitors remaining unaware until they woke up and grabbed the paper off their front stoop like everybody else. Sports radio and 24-hour sports television networks broke that pattern, and turned information brokerage into an even more intensely competitive business. Within the industry, at least, reputations are made (and occasionally dashed) on who gets the news first.
It's a strange thing for so much effort to be expended on beating teams to announcements they'll inevitably make, but so it is, and the battleground has long since shifted to Twitter. Instead of the pack catching up to a new item 24 hours later, or 24 minutes later, they're now more likely to catch up 24 seconds later. A breaking-news tweet about a trade, signing, or firing is inevitably followed up by a barrage of confirmations from other reporters, with the comic effect of making clear just how reliant insiders are on the same few sources, to whom they're all talking.
But on one of the biggest sports stories of the year, that isn't what happened at all.
A little after noon on Friday, LeBron James's essay (as told to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins) announcing his return to Ohio went live. Forty-one hours earlier, Chris Sheridan—who founded Sheridan Hoops after six years at ESPN and 18 at the Associated Press—had reported that "LeBron James is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers," citing a "league source."
Instead of the usual stream of corroborations from other reporters, though, Sheridan's report was followed by near-unanimous contradiction.
Sheridan's post went live around 15 minutes after LeBron James wrapped up a meeting with Pat Riley in Las Vegas. It claimed that James met with Riley "to deliver the news, and Riley did his best to try and get James to reconsider." But within 20 minutes, ESPN's Brian Windhorst, Ramona Shelburne, and Chris Broussard, TNT's David Aldridge, USA Today's Sam Amick, and CBS's Ken Berger all tweeted that James had either not told Riley of his decision, or hadn't even made one yet. Amick later reported that James didn't make a decision until Thursday morning—12 hours after he supposedly delivered the news to Riley, according to Sheridan. And Windhorst reported that James didn't tell Riley until Friday morning—a full 36 hours after it happened, per Sheridan. In fact, according to Windhorst, the Heat left their Wednesday meeting with James "feeling good about their chances to retain him."
In addition to reporting, apparently incorrectly, that James had informed Riley of his decision in Las Vegas, Sheridan wrote that the announcement would be made on LeBronJames.com. It wasn't, though a small picture of James in a Cavaliers jersey was put up a half hour after Sports Illustrated posted its story.
Chris Sheridan got the end result right, in other words, but along the way he got enough wrong that you have to wonder about the reporting process.
As you would expect, Sheridan—who went on the radio Thursday morning and talked down his rivals ("A lot of the national media guys … they're all talking to the same guy")—disputes this telling of events. When I asked him about it Saturday, he maintained that the Miami Heat "leaked some misinformation." When I asked why the decision wasn't announced on LeBron James's website, he didn't have a compelling answer. "It's a little bit curious to me how that came down and how the LeBronJames.com part of it got taken out of the mix," Sheridan said, noting that the website crashed multiple times Thursday. When I asked what had changed between his reporting Wednesday night and the reveal on Friday, he said he wasn't sure. It is unclear why anything should've changed, though. According to Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone, James's people reached out to Lee Jenkins with the as-told-to idea way back on Saturday, July 5.
Sheridan's Wednesday night newsbreak was met with a heavy dose of skepticism, perhaps because his isn't the first, or fifth, name that comes to mind when you think of the NBA's biggest newsbreakers. He feels the skepticism was "understandable, but not justified." When I asked him what he meant, he said that it was natural for people to be skeptical of a vaguely sourced report, but that "people in the industry who know me were not surprised and didn't doubt me." (This actually isn't what I found when speaking with people who know Sheridan, but let's assume that it's true for the sake of argument.)
"They know my credentials," Sheridan said, "and they know my history and they know that I really value my integrity and my reputation."
Despite Sheridan's insistence that he was 100 percent sure of his reporting, he certainly did seem eager to prove his scoop (and to get credit for it). On Wednesday night, for instance, he retweeted an announcement of James's forthcoming signing from a fake Chris Broussard Twitter account, only to quickly delete it after his followers pointed out that he'd been duped. Sheridan seemingly didn't notice or didn't care that the fake account said it would be announced on SportsCenter—not LeBronJames.com, as he'd previously reported.
The next morning, Sheridan retweeted a tweet from Grantland's Matt Borcas, which said that a "web developer friend" had discovered that there were recently built pages on LeBronJames.com that used the Cavaliers color palette. Of course reporters' semi-irresponsible use of Twitter is an ongoing comic trope in criticism of NBA reporting, but still, Sheridan didn't do any reporting to find out if this was true, simply retweeting it as a tidbit buttressing his claims. When a Washington Post web developer, a Sporting News web developer, and a host of others tried to substantiate the finding, they came up empty, as would have been expected. (This theory never even really made sense, as any competent web developer can build pages on the back end without revealing them publicly.) There are still no new pages with a Cavaliers color scheme up on LeBronJames.com.
Despite botching various details, Sheridan has tried to claim the credit he feels he is due at every chance. While defending his reporting on The Herd Thursday morning, he took a victory lap before the decision had even been announced. "When it comes out you're going to say Sheridan has it first, props to Sheridan," he said. In a post on his website, he writes, "ESPN refuses to acknowledge that this site broke the LeBron James to Cleveland story on Wednesday. I may have more to say on that in the coming days." (An ESPN spokesman says: "With such a big story like this, and so much information swirling from many sources, we weren't comfortable reporting it at that stage. Once Sports Illustrated broke it via the essay, we obviously attributed the story to them throughout the news cycle across our platforms.")
News organizations have been mixed in how they have credited the story. USA Today, AP and Cleveland.com all noted his reporting, but ESPN didn't and neither did this website, which annoyed him. "I read the Deadspin story and found it curious that they didn't mention my reporting," he said. "When something is out there for that long you'd think they get wind of it."
With news organizations conflicted over what to do, I reached out to a number of NBA reporters who have all broken news to find out what they thought. They did not provide the hoped-for clarity.
One national online writer felt Sheridan broke the story: "I don't think Sheridan loses credit based on being wrong about the details. What matters is he said LeBron chose Cleveland." A national newspaper columnist and former beat reporter disagreed that the details were unimportant: "Tough call. On this, it's impossible to really know. Sheridan gets partial credit, I think. But the missed detail is there." A national online writer thought Lee Jenkins getting "not only the where, but the why" was important, but added that, "I do believe we have to re-evaluate Chris." Another national online writer disagreed vehemently: "Don't give Sheridan any credit. LeBron set this up with Lee because they have a relationship."
One online beat reporter went beyond deciding whether Sheridan or Jenkins/James broke the story, assigning more partial credit than a math teacher.
Combination of Broussard (he had that string of tweets saying they were a serious contender on July 5th, I believe), Sheridan (for going all-in and sticking by his story) and Jenkins (for showing that his relationship with the primary source, James, was so strong that LeBron trusted him to handle the assignment). Heck, even Stephen A. deserves some credit for saying last summer that it was going to come down to Miami and Cleveland when LeBron opted out.
This reporter's point can be taken even further. If we're handing out partial credit, what about the Cleveland personal trainer who tweeted over a week ago that James would return? What about the Cleveland cupcake shop owner whose friend, supposedly tied to James, texted that the return was a done deal? What about rapper Q-Tip, whose inside sources knew James would leave Miami? What about Gawker's psychic clam?
The lines that once separated fact from opinion and sourcing from informed speculation have, if they ever truly existed, been blurred past the point of recognizability. But even more influential is the changing definition of what constitutes "news" and "breaking news," something Grantland's Bryan Curtis wrote about in depth last week. The NBA news business has become so transactional that reporters are tweeting out minute-by-minute updates on free agency negotiations, and yet still getting yelled at by fans to provide even more information.
Of course, reporters rushing to beat their competitors by 30 seconds—and demanding to get the credit when they do so—aren't stupid. They're simply responding to incentives. Sheridan has been interviewed by AP, MSNBC, and Cleveland.com since Friday. He told me that traffic to SheridanHoops.com for the past few days was "off the charts" and "kills what our best days ever were before," a big deal for a site that frequently gets fewer than 10,000 pageviews in a day, according to Quantcast. On July 6, three days before his reporting, Sheridan had 64,483 Twitter followers. As of this writing he has 105,619.
In stressing the gravity of the situation, Sheridan explained to me the importance of his being right. "If you get something like this wrong, your career is over," he said. "Your career is over. Nobody will ever believe you again." That may or may not have been true of Sheridan; for a reporter with more institutional backing, it almost certainly wouldn't have been. A couple of weeks ago, Ric Bucher reported that Kyle Lowry would be signing with the Miami Heat, before retracting his report and apologizing. His career seems to still be doing just fine. Last year Janis Carr of the Orange County Register had to retract her Dwight Howard reporting. Adrian Wojnarowski—the dean of the breaking news corps—reported in 2012 about Dwight Howard's "eventual signing" with the then-New Jersey Nets, and last year that Doc Rivers wouldn't join the Clippers. The point isn't to specifically criticize only Bucher, Carr, and Wojnarowski—give me a breaking-news reporter's archive and I can find mistakes in all of them—but to note that incorrect reports aren't in fact career-killing.
And why should they be? The substance of these "scoops" is virtually nil—when they're correct, they reveal something that the principals were planning on revealing anyway. They don't provide information that otherwise never would have been disclosed, like Zach Lowe's somehow getting ahold of a memo detailing league finances, or Tim Bontemps's legitimately surprising story that Jason Kidd was angling to leave Brooklyn when there had been no hint of discord, or even Woj's hilarious detail about J.R. Smith racking up a $3,000 room-service bill. Properly speaking, those stories are scoops, the basic unit of the journalist's job.
The straightforward transaction "scoops" are something else entirely—small coups, maybe, but not scoops. More often than not, they reflect a reporter's ability to make himself or herself useful to an executive or an agent or an athlete. In return for the use of his or her megaphone, the reporter gets the readers and, more importantly, the air of being a savvy insider—the sort of reputation that can lead to significant scoops. The transaction scoops are, themselves, a kind of transaction. LeBron James wasn't the only party to get some good PR last week.
In fact, the LeBron saga offered a clarifying moment for what Bryan Curtis calls the Trade Rumor Era. What Sports Illustrated won was the honor of being used by LeBron and his camp (a coup) to tell the story of why he decided to return to Cleveland (a scoop, of a kind). Sheridan certainly didn't provide anywhere near the analysis, explanation, or revelatory detail that James and Lee Jenkins did. And maybe that's why only a handful of outlets are crediting Sheridan today. He had a coup. Props to Sheridan (and the personal trainer and the cupcake-shop owner and the clam). What he didn't have was the scoop.
Photo via Getty.