Has the Pressure to Deliver Led to Some Sloppy Reporting on Cameron Newton?

L’Affaire Newton, barely six days old, has been nothing short of fascinating – from a media point of view. You’ve got fans heckling media members. You’ve got a new hire at Fox Sports committing a mistake straight out of Journalism 101: Coming out one day with a polarizing, eviscerating column that lets everyone know where you stand on an issue … and then three days later coming back with a flimsy, one-sourced story that led everyone to question his motives. ESPN, which clearly had been investigating the Newton case for months, initially looked like the big winner … until some of its reporting was punctured yesterday by Greg Doyel of CBS Sports. The Newton saga is a big hot mess where the Heisman front-runner is guilty until proven innocent. You know who is partially to blame? Yahoo Sports.

Damn those investigative hounds. They blew up Jim Calhoun and UConn, which could result in severe punishment. They’ve absolutely destroyed the dirty North Carolina football program. And their biggest scalp is that of Reggie Bush and USC.

Those bombshells have put pressure on their media rivals to deliver. As recently as 10-15 years ago, if you had a newspaper job covering sports, you were set for life (sometimes known as “dead wood”). Then, all the elite reporters/columnists from newspapers made the leap online where … for the early part of 00s, they, too, were relatively safe (with a bonus: They were making double or triple the salary).

That’s not really the case anymore. Unlike the good ‘ol newspapers days, the new online model mostly involves 2-3 year contracts, where you constantly have to prove yourself.

Things are incredibly heated right now in the online battle for eyeballs among the big media outlets (ESPN, Yahoo, Fox, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, NY Times). Writing columns and features and breaking some news isn’t enough anymore – you’ve also got to deliver with radio interviews (promote the brand!), dabble in social media (get that twitter count up!) and don’t forget the big-picture investigative home runs, too. Oh, and while you’re doing this, you probably should be up-to-speed on what the blogs (this site, Deadspin, Sports by Brooks, etc, none of which have to adhere to strict journalistic standards) and message boards are doing, because you never know when they’ll produce something of news value (for instance … Did Mr. SEC find the Florida leak?).

Now, your contract is up. In these tight economic times, even cash cows like ESPN are looking to trim the budget wherever possible. That $250k salary of yours? Well, have you produced anything blockbuster like your competition? Has your body of work justified the enormous salary? If the answer’s no, you could be asked to take a significant pay cut.

Back to Newton. Keep contracts in the back of your mind … could this pressure possibly have led to some of the sloppy reporting on Cam Newton? We say ‘sloppy’ because … well, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence (his quotes in the SI story, his Dad’s church being rebuilt, etc). And is anyone else surprised that these outlets that are hammering Newton without hard evidence have given a massive platform to jilted lovers (Mississippi State and Florida) looking to trash a kid? Regardless of where the leaks are coming from, they both look like fools. Mississippi State knew about Newton’s cheating at Florida – if it matters so much, why still recruit him while he was at a junior college?

Listen – nobody’s under the impression that Newton is a saint. Did his family take money? Wouldn’t surprise us. Did he cheat academically at Florida? Wouldn’t surprise us. Let’s face it, everyone’s cheating to an extent – but some get caught and others don’t. But the SEC has found nothing. The NCAA has supposedly been on the case for weeks. If neither finds anything, and the “authorities” find nothing … how bad did all these media outlets damage this kid with circumstantial evidence? Sure, Joe Schad delivered solid reporting this morning … but where’s the paper trail?

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