CBSSports.com reported Joe Paterno had died last night on Twitter and on its own website. Here was the Tweet with a link to the article: “
@CBSSports: Joe Paterno has died at the age of 85 – http://bit.ly/JOEPATERNO”
Immediately the report, which didn’t initially cite any sources at all, swept across the Twitter universe.
There was just one problem.
Joe Paterno wasn’t dead.
In an amazing turn of events, Paterno’s own sons turned to Twitter to refute the CBS report:
“I appreciate the support & prayers,” Jay Paterno Tweeted, “Joe is continuing to fight.” Scott Paterno, another son, also Tweeted: “CBS report is wrong – Dad is alive but in serious condition. We continue to ask for your prayers and privacy during this time.”
Think about this for a moment, Joe Paterno’s sons had to take to Twitter to refute news that their father was dead in the final moments of his life.
Indeed, Paterno died this morning.
How did we get here? To a place where sons are forced to Tweet that their father is still alive from beside the hospital bed?
This isn’t a column about Joe Paterno’s death, others will write eloquently about the significance of his life, career, and ultimate failings in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but what I’m going to give you is a peek behind the curtain, an explanation for how one of the largest media companies in the world could have messed up so badly when it came to a simple question — was Joe Paterno alive or dead?
Late last night CBS issued an apology from managing editor Mark Swanson:
“Earlier Saturday night, CBSSports.com published an unsubstantiated report that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. That mistake was the result of a failure to verify the original report. CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations.
CBSSports.com extends its profound and sincere apology to the Paterno family and the Penn State community during their difficult time.”
By the time of CBS’s apology Twitter justice had been severe and swift. The hashtag #cbssportsreport trended internationally. Ordinarily that would be excellent, except, you know, the entire hashtag satarized and ridiculed CBS for gross negligence in reporting. It’s pretty funny. Go check out the venom for yourself.
If ESPN had made a similar error, most national media would have ripped the four-letter network to shreds. If Joe Schad had Tweeted out what CBS did his career would be over. Instead, most national media was silent in the wake of CBS’s tremendous error. The entire CBS Sports staff went underground for hours, presumably informed to say nothing until the bosses could respond. But what was interesting was the degree to which the general public savaged the company anyway. Last fall ESPN’s Bruce Feldman imbroglio led many to argue that fans fed off the anger of national writers to vent their anger at ESPN. But this was something more organic, a natural outgrowth of outrage from the ground up as opposed to from the top down.
Athletes, interestingly, were not immune from ripping CBS. NBA player Stephen Curry took to Twitter to write to his 260k followers:
@StephenCurry30: That was a bigger mistake by @CBSSports than a missed 2″ putt to win the Masters…ya just can’t do that”
But how did this happen? How did the network of Walter Cronkite come to report that the winningest coach of all time in college football was dead while he was still alive?
That’s the real story here.
Initially CBS attempted to blame a student newspaper, Onward State, for its error, but this was a thin cover. While CBS may have become aware of Paterno’s purported death from this site, it didn’t attribute the news to the site in its initial post or in its Twitter message which it sent out to 60,000 followers and which millions would ultimately come to see.
CBS’s apology rings hollow because it would never have linked that original report if multiple outlets had verified the death rapidly.
Because CBS Sports was engaged in a clear and blatant Internet sport — search whoring.
Search whoring has taken over an awful lot of sports media — and the Internet at large — in the modern era. If you climb to the top of Google’s search results for “Joe Paterno death” millions of people will click on your article both immediately and for years to come. Plus, you slingshot to the top of the Google News results which brings millions more hits and also serves to supplement, you guessed it, your Google search standing.
People ask, why rush to be first with a death report?
And the answer is easy, because being first — even if your reporting isn’t original in the least, which CBS’s wasn’t here — makes it rain pageviews.
The reason why CBS wanted its story out so rapidly was because millions of people would and did visit the site to click on that article. An article, by the way, that would have never attributed the location of the original source of the news. As far as millions of readers would know, CBS had broken the story itself. As the story grew CBS would have embedded links to its own obituary, to columns about what Paterno’s legacy was, being first wouldn’t just redound to CBS’s benefit for years in search, it would also lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of additional page views via the embedded links in the original post.
For a site like CBS Sports, one without a fire hose connection to a major portal site, search results are even more important than they are to other competing sites. Yahoo, ESPN, and Fox can all afford to wait to report because the portals they are affiliated with Yahoo and MSN/Fox or the size of their independent site, ESPN, all guarantee that tens of millions of hits will come regardless of when the news breaks. Search is still significant to these sites, but less so. On the other hand CBS has to be more aggressive, its site doesn’t do the site traffic of the major portals.
It has to “win” search.
It has to be first to steal a march on its competitors.
Clearly, CBS wants you to believe this is its story, but its lie is even more transparently designed to cascade pageviews — CBS actually modified the bit.ly URL so that it said “Joe Paterno” instead of the string of letters and numbers like a typical bit.ly url has.
CBS’s attempt to gain search value and pageviews on Google and Twitter was so naked they actually modified their own wrong story to give it greater search prominence!
As this story unfurls, some will argue that an individual at CBS needs to be fired — the student managing editor at Onward State resigned — but I think it’s too easy to make one individual the scapegoat here. This isn’t a single individual story, CBS’s error is emblematic of the present status of sports media.
The sad truth is if you eliminated 90% of all sports links on the web today, consumers would actually be better informed than they are now. It’s almost impossible to use Google to search for reliable and original sports information these days. Want to know who the first was to report news? It’s impossible to tell from Google search. The sad result of Google’s algorithm, in the world of sports, is that you can’t even find the original reporting when you do a Google search these days. That’s why I’m a Twitter true believer. It’s infinitely more useful for me than Google.
There is still tremendous room for original reporting and cogent analysis in the sports universe — hell, CBS employs the best college sports writers in the country as a group — but the vast majority of current online sports offerings is regurgitated stories that are search whored for site traffic.
Google exists as a way to collate information, but if your article gets more views via search than when it was initially written, it’s nothing more than a leech. Ultimately, advertisers are going to have to get smarter. Buying based on the number of page views your product is displayed upon is a worthless task, as vapid and valueless as attempting to hold sand in an open palm. There are entire sports media businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars that are almost entirely predicated on search optimization. We don’t need writers for that, we just need robots. At some point web advertisers will realize that engagement with the product and not exposure is the goal.
That what really matters isn’t the quantity of the clicks, it’s the quality.
But right now the sports media — and the Internet at large — works from a quantity playbook.
And quantity playbooks lead to mistakes like CBS’s.
Here’s a perfect metaphor for the current, flawed pageview system that led to CBS’s error.
Go back and take a look anew at the apology of CBS Sports’s managing editor, Mark Swanson.
Notice anything odd?
CBS is running ads on the apology from the managing editor!
Make a tremendous error, get rewarded with tons of page views regardless of whether Paterno is actually alive or dead, apologize, and rack up more page views for the apology. An advertiser is paying for this. (Note, CBS will probably pull down those ads once this column is read, but they’ve already gotten 12 hours worth of apology ads).
Welcome to the 21st century web, where you can search far and wide for an original thought, but you can’t find it at anywhere.
Mark Twain, another man who was reported dead before his time, had it wrong, there are actually three certainties in life, “Death, taxes, and top google search results make you rich.”
(To forestall, the you aren’t perfect either, Clay emails: At OKTC we make our share of mistakes — there are probably misspelled words in here thanks to our lack of spell check — but so far we haven’t reported anyone dead who is actually still alive. That’s primarily because we don’t headline whore, grab someone else’s story and turn it into a metric to grab pageviews via Google search optimization. What’s the point of having a site if you just have the same stories that fifteen other sites do as well? In six months of the site’s existence, other than a couple of YouTube video links that we put up for humor — the runaway golf cart still makes me die laughing — everything we’ve featured has been original stories, opinion, humor or analysis that we’ve featured first. None of our stories are designed for search optimization. That was CBS’s true error here, a naked grab for Google and Twitter supremacy.)