Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.

Credit Others’ Work, Because You Should

The Ethics and Legalities of Plagiarism and Copyright

Problems with copyright and plagiarism  were tough enough in the early days of the Internet.  With social media, it has gotten even worse because the speed of production and transmission makes problems easier, both intentionally and unintentionally.

With so many folks empowered to practice something close to journalism, it’s important to go over what you have to do, and what you should do, in crediting other people’s work.

What You Have to Do: Law

Copyright can be a cool thing to help you, and anyone can copyright what they create.  All you have to do is register it with the Library of Congress (and pay $35).  Copyright is assumed from creation, even during the few months it takes to get it registered.

That gives you control over its use.  It doesn’t mean people have to pay you to use it, but it does give you the right to tell them to take it down if they don’t want to pay you. And they have to comply.

If even ESPN is using something created and copyrighted by a high school student, and using it without permission, the Worldwide Leader, like everyone, has to take it down.  No one has greater right to violate copyright, by size or reputation.

On the user end, you do need to be careful about copying and pasting copyrighted articles or photos without permission.  You can usually quote from a copyrighted work within an article (it’s called “fair use”), as long as you don’t take too much.

But if you post a photo or put an article on your blog, be aware that many companies trace their work to protect against unauthorized use. Often, a quick e-mail in advance will get permission, particularly if your blog or publication is personal or has a non-profit mission. And such e-mails look so pro.

What You Should Do: Ethics

The principle is simple: always give others credit for the work they create, and never present someone else’s work as your own or allow a reader or viewer to make that mistake. And laziness is no excuse.

That friend who said something funny on Twitter? Quote tweet it.

That photo that you can download and put on your own Facebook page? Let your friends know who took it.

Among the professionals, and those who are passionate about what they create, nothing earns the label of “jerk” like someone who plagiarize other people’s stuff without giving credit.

Those of us to who are passionate about the idea of creation — particularly the craft of writing — take this seriously because creation is such an important thing to us.  That’s why, whether in the fields of journalism or education — both of which traffic in information and ideas — plagiarism is a moral offense that must be published.

The person who created it might not know it was stolen, and the audience doesn’t know and we might rationalize that they don’t care.

But when something is lifted without credit, it’s like the thief does not respect the concept of creativity and that there is a person behind those words or that image, a person who put effort into creating the quality that gets an audience’s attention.

If you jump past that, you are showing a callousness toward the creative process that, in fact, demeans you as a member of a creative community.  Perhaps that’s why people who do that are referred to as “jerks” — the creativity of a better insult would be lost on the target.

I have often said that poor ethics comes from treating people as the means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.  In dealing with created work, don’t just think about that useful info you are rushing to put into your own work; think about the person behind it.

Develop the habit of giving credit where it’s due, and allow that to develop in you the respect that is also due to the creator, and to the process.

 

 

 

The Truth About Krispy Kreme

donuts

They’re awesome, particularly chocolate frosted.

But that’s not the truth I want to talk about.  Instead, now that it has been officially confirmed that Krispy Kreme is opening a location in Auburn, I’m referencing a tweet I posted a month ago:

Doughnuts and journalists have a long and storied relationship.  An old-school joke asks, “What’s the hardest thing when a copy desk staffer dies? Prying the doughnut out of his cold dead hands.”

Journalistically speaking, the story was a fun experience, and it provided the basis for some fun lessons on how to source and when to tweet:

Protecting a Source

I originally caught wind of the Krispy Kreme story through a friend who told me how excited her husband was that we would be getting the purveyor of hot doughnuts.  She had heard the news from a family member, whom I also knew.

So I contacted the family member, and he (only clue you will get) confirmed that, indeed, Krispy Kreme was planning to locate in Auburn.  So I started from there.

Even though we are not dealing with the identity of CIA agents or U.S. policy in Iraq, I will not tell you who my source was.  He was not authorized to announce it, and while neither of us would have gotten thrown in jail, it is still information worth keeping confidential.

The worst thing any journalist can do is burn a source. First, it shows dishonesty toward the source.  Second, you are costing yourself good future sources.  Any source with worthwhile information is probably doing to do his/her homework on you, and can easily tell if you have revealed another source’s identity.

When to Tweet

I had the information from one source, and it was a reliable source.  But I did not want to move too quickly, particularly on this topic.

In January 2014, someone set up a fake Instagram account and announced that Krispy Kreme would be coming to Auburn.  It got a lot of excited tweets, followed by some crestfallen follow-up tweets after the national office exposed the fake.

Krispy Kreme did send a retro bus with free donuts later that week.  I actually got a heads-up on that news from a friend at Auburn, via e-mail.  Even then, I was afraid to announce the bus’s visit via Twitter, and sent him a nervous e-mail to make sure it was true.

It was and the bus came — no, not freshly made, but I still ate a couple.  But KK fans in Auburn returned to yearning and trips to Columbus/Montgomery.

Thus, I had no interest in putting out a Krispy Kreme tweet that was not true.  I called around to some folks in the City of Auburn for confirmation, but could not get a second source to confirm.

Then, I saw some authentic paperwork related to the new site (again, no help on the source).  In my mind, that represented a second reliable, independent source.  I talked to a couple of journalism colleagues, and they liked the information too, as well as the prospects of those hot, fresh doughnuts.

Even so, for about three days, I held off on the tweet, mainly because of the previous reaction.  I called around to my city sources again, but no help.

Finally, by June 17, I had to decide to go with what I had.  To be honest, one big factor in my decision was that I had tired of the internal back-and-forth.  I just wanted to get it over with, and decided the information was good enough.

The point is: fear of getting it wrong is always the right response for a journalist.  We need to be as positive as possible before giving out the news.  To throw something out there and then shrug when it’s wrong — as often as it happens — is the wrong response.  We are only as credible as our information, and we should guard both zealously.

So, I clicked on “Tweet” for the above. It got great response, as I expected, along with pleas that I not mess with folks’ hearts.  I assured them that I would never tweet the info if I did not feel it was solid. Still …

What If It’s Not True?

I will admit that I spent a nervous couple of days, fearing a denial by the Krispy Kreme main office.  The longer I waited, the better I felt.

But another doubt emerged: What if Krispy Kreme pulled the plans on the new site? Or what if all of the redevelopment near Auburn Mall took so long that it delayed our doughnuts?

As I checked various sources online and on social media, I came to a nervous discovery: The Krispy Kreme corporate account was following me.  It was not a recent follow after the news; they started following me during the January 2014 debacle.

So that made me feel better, because they had known about it pretty quickly and had said nothing.  It also made me wonder: If I had remembered that before the tweet, would I still have done it?  I don’t have to worry about the answer to that question, but I am glad I didn’t remember.

But, of course, the Facebook post by Elizabeth White of WTVM in Columbus confirmed everything, and I allowed myself a little bit of gloating to hide my relief.

So now, I guess there is nothing to do but let the construction process take its time, and then join the rush.

I will see you there, and we can raise a hot glazed or a chocolate-frosted to a fun story with a happy ending.