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ESPN’s ‘Don’t Break News On Twitter’ Mandate Short-Sighted

ESPN has a history of both breaking news and of less than social-media-friendly practices. In 2009, the network took heat for its guidelines that at the time banned talent from sports related commentary on social networks.

Obviously, a lot can change in two years and as the medium developed, so did ESPN and other sports reporters social media savvy. Today, those reporters are looked to precisely for their news and commentary on social networks.

Well, maybe not so much has changed. Last week, an updated set of social networking guidelines started circulating. And while some of the points are to-be-expected and valid:

Think before your tweet. … If you wouldn’t say it on the air or write it in a column, don’t post it on any social network.

Others seem to be keeping staff on too tight of a leash, and at least one item in the policy comes across incredibly short-sighted to anyone who produces news or follows those producers on social media.

Do not break news on Twitter. We want to serve fans in the social sphere, but the first priority is to ESPN news and information efforts. Public news (i.e. announced in news conferences) can be distributed with- out vetting. However, sourced or proprietary news 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.

I had to check the calendar to make sure this document was really date stamped August 2011.

This is a major “news” network — as much as sporting news is news, though let’s be honest much of it is speculation and opinion — forbidding its staff from breaking news on the medium best suited to doing so.

It’s understandable they want to drive eyeballs to their newscasts, ears to their radio programs and computer screens to their websites… but it’s not understandable how they fail to see that a robust social networking presence will do those things. No, you’re not monetizing the Twitter stream. But you’re building a brand of breaking sporting news and analysis when you allow and require reporters to share what they’re doing.

Mandy Jenkins on her blog Zombie Journalism has a few ideas why the ESPN execs might think this is necessary, including the possibility of losing an exclusive to another social media source. She’s probably on to something, as are others who’ve touched on this. But really? If that’s their motivation its even more flawed.

The real concern when it comes to losing an exclusive story to social media is that you had it and sat on it, while someone else dug it up and dished it out. I’ve seen firsthand how incredibly frustrating it can be to have a story ready to go and to not be able to share the news because its waiting out approvals and edits, and meanwhile, then to watch the news go out elsewhere and your exclusivity dissipate. Even when you can rightfully claim to have a deeper story or to have uncovered it first, you lose. You’re suddenly second string.

While this isn’t the first instance of someone advising against breaking news on Twitter, it was silly then and is now. When you consider that the first messages about a story/event is often the most re-tweeted and shared, why would a news org want to cede that prime spot to someone else? By stepping down and refusing to break news, you’re giving that window of opportunity to competitors, to agents, to athletes and to others to break the news themselves. Something tells me the vast majority of the 1.7 million followers of @ESPN follow the network’s activity because it’s a go-to source on top sporting news not because it’s the go-to aggregator of already reported news.

What say you sports fans/journalists? Is it better to read it first or only at ESPN.com or better to have a front-row seat to the breaking news?

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