Guardian writer Ian Pryor set off a bit of an explosion this morning after posting the following to Twitter:
Major - and boy do I mean it - football exclusive coming up on guardian.co.uk sometime around 5.30.
Within fifteen minutes, #guardianexclusive was near the top of the Worldwide Trending Topics list (somehow managing to usurp 'Purp & Patron', surely a monumental achievement) and the speculation began in earnest. Had Ian Holloway resigned as manager of Blackpool? Had Manchester United been sold, with an announcement that Sir Alex Ferguson would resign at the end of the year to be replaced by Jose Mourinho to be made simultaneously? Were Everton to enter administration? And these were just the rumors that gained wider traction; seemingly everyone aware of the Guardian's impending announcement had a pet theory.
About half an hour before the story was set to go live, Prior clarified that the rumor was related to a major transfer, scuttling many of the theories and shifting the focus of the gossip. David Luiz to Chelsea or Luis Suarez to Liverpool would certainly qualify as fairly major stories, but the negotiations for both players have been out in the open for a while now. The Guardian breaking the news of Luiz or Suarez moving to England would be a nice exclusive to drop, but given the language used by Prior it seemed as though what was forthcoming would be a bit more out of left field, something really unexpected.
In the end, Prior's 'Major Exclusive' was indeed unexpected, though not for the reasons many would have hoped; Inter Milan are expected to bid £40m for Gareth Bale in the summer, with Real Madrid also thought be interested in acquiring the services of the 21 year-old Spurs winger. In defense of Prior and the Guardian, that's interesting, especially when the source is taken into account. Prior hasn't shown himself to be much of a hack based on his track record. Were Inter to make a bid of that magnitude and Spurs to accept it the fee would be the fifth largest ever paid-trailing only Ronaldo, Ibrahimovich, Kaká and Zidane-and dwarf the £29m Leeds received from Manchester United as payment for Rio Ferdinand, currently the record fee paid for a British player. Speculative and perhaps a bit too far out to make it anything more than interesting, but newsworthy at least.
The problem of course is in the way that the breaking of the news was handled. Prior's initial Tweet came over an hour and a half before the story was published (practically an eternity where Twitter is concerned) and was immediately re-Tweeted by the Guardian Sport account (over 37,000 followers) and plugged by the Guardian's main account half an hour before being posted (over 50,000 followers.) The Guardian's credibility was likely enough to create a serious buzz about the article, but the anticipation was enhanced as respected soccer journalists throughout England began passing the news of the impending major announcement it served only to add fuel to the fire.
It won't come as any surprise then that once the story was published the reaction of the Twitter using public was less than kind. A great deal of venomous abuse was almost instantaneously headed Prior's way with at least one individual going so far as to tell Prior "I hope you die" and though most were a bit more measured in their approach, much of what has been said about the way the build-up to the ultimately less-than-Earth-shattering story's release was less than pleasant. Kevin McCauley, manager of SBNation's Tottenham Hotspur blog Cartilage Free Captain, seems to have captured the general reaction quite well. Inter's interest in Bale isn't much of a secret, nor has the fact that a fairly massive sum of money will be necessary for any club to have a chance at prying him away from Tottenham. The tactics used by Prior and the Guardian to create anticipation around a story of this sort should be familiar to most soccer fans (or sports fans in general, really) that use Twitter; what makes it different in this case is that the outlet employing the strategy was the Guardian rather than one of the traditionally less than reliable sources of transfer rumors relating to European soccer. When the Guardian promises a major exclusive people expect just that. When they get something less they feel as though their trust has been violated.
To a certain extent that's completely understandable. Prior and the Guardian deserve a great deal of criticism for the way they chose to handle the release of this information and they've gotten just that. In many ways this is yet another example of major media outlets simultaneously understanding and completely misunderstanding the power of social media; the Guardian clearly recognizes the impact Twitter can have in terms of driving traffic and pageviews. What they seem to have trouble grasping in many cases is that the very nature of sites such as Twitter-with it's ability to not only spread information almost instantaneously to all parts of the globe but allow speculation and commentary to take place in the absence of real and substantive information as well- leads to teases like this quite often backfiring spectacularly. To many people this type of behavior comes off crass, cheap and transparent; oftentimes it is. In this case however my inkling is that this had a great deal more to do with Prior making a fairly massive miscalculation as to how the story would be received than any real intent at deception in the name of buzz. The tabloids don't have much to lose in the way of credibility. The Guardian certainly does. That doesn't absolve them from criticism, but it should shift its focus. When you're one of the most well-respected sources of information in an industry littered with publications pushing speculation woven from whole cloth, it's more important to be conservative and correct than it is to make the biggest possible splash.
At the same time, this should be a lesson to all of us as well. The struggles of traditional media to most effectively establish their presence in emerging technologies isn't exactly news. Missteps of far greater magnitude than this have accompanied every major shift in the way news is reported and digested throughout history. We should expect journalists to do better, but we should also do our best to be skeptical until we have as much information in front of us as possible. The desire for something big is understandable. Sports are entertainment after all, and huge stories are entertaining. This entire situation could have almost certainly been avoided had Prior's story come within fifteen minutes or so of his teaser. That he choose to give the internet license to have their way with it for nearly two hours was certainly a poor decision. At the same time, it's unlikely that a story of the magnitude most of us were expecting could be teased that far in advance without someone else getting hold of it. The general public's critical thinking skills are quite frankly appallingly bad. There were plenty of reasons to arrive at the conclusion that the promised bombshell would be massively underwhelming, but most of us chose to ignore them. We're eager to castigate journalists for getting our hopes up, but we also deserve a lot of the blame for allowing our imaginations to run wild.