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Thursday, March 31, 2022

What is the Value of Non-Emergency "Breaking News"?

Two basketball-related stories caught my attention today. One story noted that ESPN has reportedly agreed to pay Adrian Wojnarowski $10 million a year to retain his services; his major role with the network is to report breaking news. The other story listed individuals who, "sources say," have been selected for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's 2022 class; the official announcement will, per tradition, be made this weekend during the Final Four festivities.

Those two stories brought to mind something that has puzzled me for a long time: What is the value of non-emergency "breaking news"? The value of emergency breaking news is obvious: if a tornado, hurricane, military invasion, or terrorist attack is imminent or just beginning, it is important to report such news as quickly as possible.

Wojnarowski proved himself to be a solid writer/commentator before ESPN hired him, but ESPN does not use his writing/commentating skills very much: he has become best known for his "Woj bombs," his much-admired ability to break a story a day, an hour, or even a minute before that story becomes publicly available knowledge to everyone. Forgive the sarcasm, but what is the great value in finding out non-emergency news a short time before such news is the subject of a press release? 

Take the Hall of Fame story as an example. Anyone who missed the "breaking news" today would find out this weekend when the Hall of Fame makes the official announcement. Not only that, but it has often happened that non-emergency "breaking news" turns out to be wrong. Prior to LeBron James announcing to the world that he would take his talents to South Beach, how many "breaking news" stories incorrectly reported that James was going to New York or some other destination? Even if all of the "breaking news" stories had been accurate, what is the value of knowing where James is going shortly before James tells everyone? 

You may counter by asking, "What harm does such reporting cause?" 

One "harm" is that a journalist's first and most important obligation is accuracy; reporting what "sources say" before a story has actually happened carries an inherent risk of being wrong. Even if that risk is small, there is no corresponding reward to balance that risk; consumers are better served by 100% accurate reporting than by reporting that is less than 100% accurate but sometimes "breaks" non-emergency stories shortly before those stories can be reported with 100% accuracy.

A second "harm" is that no one is giving out information to "news breakers" out of the kindness of their hearts; the price that Wojnarowski and other "news breakers" invariably pay--whether or not they admit it--is the promise (overt or implied) to give favorable coverage to the "source" at some future time when that "source" needs some public relations help. Since the "sources" who are doing all of the "saying" are anonymous, the public has no way to know which "sources" are owed favors by which "news breakers." I am not accusing Wojnarowski or anyone else of any specific wrongdoing, because I have no way of knowing if he or any other "news breaker" has committed any specific wrongdoing--but that is the point: the inherent nature of the "news breaking" process is suspect, and ripe with opportunities for various types of corruption. When Wojnarowski or any other "news breaker" provides commentary about teams, GMs, coaches, or players, we have no way of knowing the extent to which his commentary is influenced by which people have agreed to be his sources or refused to be his sources. More broadly, when ESPN's coverage appears to be slanted for or against a player or a team we have no way of knowing the extent to which this apparent slant is related to sources providing or refusing to provide information to the network's $10 million "news breaker."

I don't need or want to know non-emergency news before it happens; I would prefer to have accurate, unbiased coverage of news when it happens, along with objective, informed commentary about the news.

Since "breaking news" of non-emergency stories is demonstrably not valuable while also coming at the cost of corruption, why are such "news breakers" provided such outlandishly large compensation? I understand why play by play announcers and in-game analysts are highly-paid; it takes a special skill to be a smooth play by play announcer (which is painfully evident when you have the misfortune of watching or listening to a play by play announcer who lacks that special skill), and an expert in-game analyst like Hubie Brown or Jeff Van Gundy points out strategic nuances that average fans might otherwise miss. The NBA is a multi-billion dollar business, so it makes sense that TV networks are willing and able to pay millions of dollars to their play by play announcers and in-game analysts--but it does not make sense that networks and news organizations pay so much for "breaking news" of non-emergency stories. ESPN and ESPN's viewers would be better off if the network got rid of "Screamin' A" Smith--who is reportedly paid even more than Wojnarowski--and changed Wojnarowski's role from "news breaker" to commentator. Instead of Wojnarowski proving "Woj bombs" of what "sources say" will happen, I would prefer to wait until something happens and then hear his objective take on what happened. Objective commentary about actual news is much better than hearing "Screamin' A" bloviate about what Wojnarowski's "sources say" will happen. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:19 PM



At Friday, April 01, 2022 5:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We live in a capitalist society where salary is not determined by whether or not a certain salary "makes sense," but by profit. Networks pay so much for non-emergency breaking news stories because they have determined that it helps their bottom line. Period.

At Friday, April 01, 2022 5:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me add that profit is the same reason why a clueless loudmouth like Stephen A. Smith has a prominent gig that pays millions upon millions of dollars instead of people like you. Someone like Smith would attract more viewers. It is not "fair" but that's life. Corporations are going to do whatever is in their best interest, and you cannot blame them.

At Friday, April 01, 2022 8:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I understand how a capitalist economy functions, but it is also important to remember two factors: (1) Not every decision is based purely on financial implications, and (2) sometimes the financial implications of a decision are miscalculated. These two factors can be interconnected.

For example, sometimes an organization will overpay an employee to prevent that employee from going to another organization (teams do this with players, and media outlets do this with reporters). You could argue that the organization does not believe that it is overpaying because it has done a great cost/benefit analysis of paying one individual X amount of dollars versus letting that individual walk and paying another individual a lesser amount of dollars, but I suspect that these situations are not calculated quite so accurately and logically; for one thing, there is a buddy-buddy network in most fields such that people like to reward their friends with jobs, perks, etc. Also, ESPN may believe that "Screamin' A" Smith is worth $12 million a year based on ratings or advertising dollars but that does not mean their calculation is correct. ESPN's ratings have been going down for a while, and the network has let go of many talented people instead of getting rid of "Screamin' A" or at least forcing him to take a pay cut. That may be capitalism at work, or it may be a misreading of the market, or it may be that ESPN has other, non-financial reasons for who it hires and who it lets go.

At Tuesday, April 05, 2022 3:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a lot of things we don't see eye-to-eye on basketball-wise, David, but you nailed it with this. If Wojnarowski had a history of getting "scoops" long before they came to pass, it would be one thing. But he doesn't. (Ethan Sherwood Strauss has done a good job documenting his failures with this, particularly with LeBron going into his "decision" summer, where he basically named every team other than the Heat as a contender for LeBron.)

As it is, Wojnarowski (and Shams) race to get information from agents that will be officially released in, at most, a half hour. I don't know whose experience watching the NBA draft is significantly enhanced by knowing the picks five minutes before they're officially announced, but I'm not one of them.

Worst of all, when he was writing columns his "coverage" would be greatly slanted by which agents would talk to him and which ones wouldn't. You can look up documentation on this (again, Ethan Sherwood Strauss has done great work in this area.) For an example, LeBron James' camp and Daryl Morey's camp would never speak to him, so he'd blast them at every opportunity. You take a good number of shots at both James and Morey, and while I disagree with many of them, at least I know you come by it honestly.

At Tuesday, April 05, 2022 3:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ironically enough, it was "Screamin' A," who is paid to be entertaining on television instead of actually breaking news, who was the first one to break the story that Lebron was joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami several days before "the decision" happened, which is a bigger scoop than Wojnarowski can ever claim.

At Wednesday, April 06, 2022 12:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you. I appreciate that you recognize that, even if we disagree about certain issues, my positions are based on my honest opinions and not some form of score-settling based on access granted or denied.

I am not sure if Wojnarowski is settling more or fewer scores than the other news-breakers, but I am sure that the whole news-breaking model lends itself to corruption (and the perception of corruption, which also is damaging to the league and to the journalism profession). If "Screamin' A" knew LeBron's destination before others did then that is most likely because he is close to LeBron's camp, which presents a similar kind of issue to the one that I am raising regarding Wojnarowski and the other news-breakers, including Shams Charania, Chris Haynes, etc; there are good reasons to believe that each of those news-breakers has special connections with agents and other people to the extent that those connections influence how the news-breakers slant their stories. As you said, I don't need or want Woj telling me who a team is going to pick in the draft five minutes before that pick is officially announced. The whole thing is both silly and also a big business; Woj is getting paid more in one year to "break news" five minutes before it happens than most people will make for a lifetime of hard (and more important) work.

At Wednesday, April 06, 2022 4:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing is that Woj and Shams don't really even write stories anymore -- they're basically professional tweeters. And honestly, that's for the best, because the "analysis" anyone remotely in the know could glean from those articles were which GMs and agents were talking to Woj.

At Wednesday, April 06, 2022 11:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Even if Woj and Shams do not write that many full-bodied stories now, there is still no way for the consumer to know how the coverage/commentary provided by their employers is impacted by which "insiders" provide (or refuse to provide) info. I find the whole process unnecessary (I don't need to know non-emergency "breaking news" five minutes before it happens) and unseemly (to the extent that the process in any way impacts how players, coaches, and teams are portrayed based on how Woj, Shams, and their employers feel about those players, coaches, and teams).


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