The Reliability of Consequence

Early Thursday, Eastern Time Zone, on a social network.

Mind status: Lost.

Location: Up in here.

Who made it happen: Y’all [glares at center of nation].

This is a post about journalism, about headlines, about newspaper design, and about consequences. I want to discuss the sports cover of Thursday’s Oklahoman.

(To catch up: Kevin Durant, one of the accepted two greatest basketball players on the planet and this season’s presumed MVP, plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who on Thursday trailed the Memphis Grizzlies 3-2 in their first-round playoff series and had lost twice at home — and have since evened the series. Thursday’s Oklahoman sports cover featured columnist Berry Tramel wondering where Durant’s MVP form had gone in the face of lockdown defense from Memphis’s Tony Allen and uncharacteristic woes from the foul line. The headline that ran over the story and a photo of Durant read: Mr. Unreliable. A few hours later online, and the next day in print, Oklahoman sports editor Mike Sherman first said the headline missed the mark, then apologized on behalf of his section for the headline. The state and the NBA-loving portion of America — both in the face of more important issues (to-wit and to-also-wit) — immediately misplaced their minds. That’s enough catching up. The story is SEO-friendly if you wish to know more.)

Let’s do this, from the top.

Some admissions

First, I’m not trying to tell you what to think about the headline. You can like it. You can hate it. Those feelings are not pertinent to this discussion. Moreover, this isn’t a “why and how” piece, so if you are reading in hopes of seeing The Oklahoman sports desk put on the spot, my apologies.

Second, I worked for The Oklahoman from 2000-05, and Mike Sherman’s influence on my career is such that he lands in that circle everyone has of people to whom you owe everything, and he’s a friend. Please consider that, as it’s unfair of me to write and not disclose.

I don’t want to try to find a page’s place in the world, and I don’t want to break down all possibilities, largely because look at those links! My aim here is simply critical thinking at about how something can at once be right, wrong, trivial and all-consuming, journalistically speaking at least.

The page itself

The micro view: Immediately, “Mr. Unreliable,” along with a photo of Durant getting blocked, force issues on deadline, but they’re the kind of issues forced every night, with every story:

• Does the headline work with the story? Sherman was emphatic in his subsequent writings that it did not, that it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable with Tramel’s column. Now, everyone can draw their own conclusions there. The column called Durant unreliable, but only at the free throw line, and the column lamented Durant’s struggles in the series versus his MVP-caliber season. Forget a yes or no (for now), just do not lose sight of this question and this discussion in light of the fallout.

• Does the headline work with the page? For most of Thursday morning, the “Mr. Unreliable” part remained online in the column’s headline. That was not causing the uproar. It’s also not one that appeared on page 6 or 7 in and around an ad stack. It’s placement as the front page display headline, along with a photo of Durant is a crucial ingredient for the mind-losing cocktail that followed.

• Durant is at the center.

Play this out here. Imagine Tramel’s column was instead about referee Joey Crawford, whose odd officiating no doubt altered the course of Game 5, which OKC lost. And imagine all the other context is the same: Tramel only touches on Crawford as an unreliable referee specifically one time, and he then says that Crawford was a better ref during the season, and we expect better from him. Hardly an indictment of Crawford, but an accurate summation of his performance in the playoffs.

Now, imagine the front page of Thursday’s Oklahoman has the headline, “Mr. Unreliable” over a photo of Crawford.

Are we even bothering with the identical debate over whether the headline works with the story or addressing the question about whether it works with the page?

It’s a hypothetical world, but we know the answer. The paper is a local, and possibly national, hero for a day.

trendingThe macro view: But it’s exactly that DURANT is at the center that veers the big-picture consequences of this page down their own path. Know this about Durant:

• Very quietly, as LeBron James’ Decision played out in 2010, Durant signed a contract extension to stay with the Thunder.

• That extension is up in two years.

• There will be a massive bidding war across the NBA for Durant when that happens.

• When it comes to sports, Oklahoma is a football state, and its highest-profile program (The University of Oklahoma’s football team) would largely prefer not living past infancy to acknowledging the state of Texas exists (beyond pilfered recruits). Durant is a former University of Texas player now captivating the state in a foreign sport, and in his mid-20s he is already assured of a place alongside Selmon, Sims, Sanders and Switzer in the state’s sporting pantheon. That’s uncharted waters for a basketball-playin’ Longhorn.

• This is to say, Oklahoma is possessive of its Durant right now, and if you were to classify its reaction to anything that might make Durant consider moving elsewhere when that contract is up as “bristling,” then sir, my headline for you is Mr. Understatement.

• And here is where we circle back to page design. Once again, this is a far grayer area than the national perception wishes it to be. The question isn’t, “Do we nix this headline because Durant might hate us over it?” no matter how badly fans think otherwise.

The question is, “If we decide the page works, are we prepared to deal with the big-picture fallout?” (Or, alternatively, “Is the fallout worth it for this page, on this day?”)

On mark-missing and apologies

On the initial blog post, Mike Sherman’s exact words to me (well, text message) were, “That blog post was my idea and mine alone, and you can take that to the bank.” So for those wondering if it was instructed from a big boss, or demanded by the Thunder, there’s your answer. The ramifications, though, carry on in all different directions like spokes on a wheel with “Mr. Unreliable” spinning around the center:

Consequences for the sports desk: Did Sherman throw his copy editors and designers under the bus? In the big-picture context, no. He kept the tone consistent at “we” and certainly didn’t call names in either of his apologies. And it’s a tricky situation to be in: Apologizing for work you did not do nor support while at the same time being considerate of the people who you rely (hahaha) on to get your product out. In that regard, nobody was singled out or made to be a villain, and in many ways, the editor put on the villain outfit for the team.

In an industry context, it’s a bit different. This is going to be brought up to Oklahoman desk members for a good while, in informal settings such as message boards or post-workshop drinks at APSE, SND or ACES, or in formal settings (job interviews? evaluations? plenty of situations exist). So it’s not going away, and it’s never fun going through life having done work your bosses publicly chided, whether you were called out or otherwise.

It never gets brought up in the heat of the moment, when you’re making snap deadline decisions, but of equal importance to the micro and macro journalistic decisions we make on deadline is the reality hanging out just below the surface: Every night, we can risk a career-altering decision no matter our intentions. That’s important, too, and it’s why this sports cover and its fallout can’t be boiled down to the simple “pour scalding water on it” level the outcry would otherwise suggest.

Consequences of perception:

Friday's Oklahoman sports cover after the Thunder, behind Kevin Durant's play, evened the series with Memphis 3-3.

Friday’s Oklahoman sports cover after the Thunder, behind Kevin Durant’s play, evened the series with Memphis 3-3.

• The Oklahoman by all accounts has a very good sports section in all formats, and Tramel is one of its anchors. He’s now in a position as a writer where he has to defend a headline he didn’t write, and if you have ever been in that position, you know you feel helpless and sound ridiculous, because people who do not and will not understand how a desk works just think you are passing the buck, or blaming someone else.

• The sports editor is now in a position as having gone on record with highly flattering statements about Durant. (“Will Rogers would be proud” for one).  Care about those right now as you wish, but they certainly set out a bold stance if ever an event arises in which Durant turns out to not be close to perfect. Durant has a big decision to make in two years, and if at the end of it, Oklahoma City feels burned, angry, and cheated, such statements can turn into a ghost. Oh right lol that could never happen my bad.

Point is, neither of these were the intention behind that original headline and sports page. They’re consequences.

• Oh, and Durant went off Thursday night and the Thunder destroyed the Grizzlies to force a Game 7. Not many fans woke up Friday and thanked The Oklahoman for calling Durant out when he needed it most or giving their own team bulletin board material. Of course as journalists, that’s just part of the deal, but it’s part of the narrative now, especially if the Thunder win, or get close to, a championship.

This has been a long piece. And long pieces that don’t act as debates and try to convince you to think one thing can be hollow. I hope this hasn’t come across that way. The goal here was to break down how something we do 365 nights a year in this industry can suddenly turn very complex. (We didn’t touch on things like the reaction of Kevin Durant’s mother, which was harsh, or who would have or wouldn’t have “apologized” which is in and of itself a two-hour panel at an APSE convention.)

What I hope gets taken away here is that the world can lose its mind when we do our jobs. History, on some level, gets re-written when that “editorial release and typeset” button in CCI gets punched. We don’t work in the only industry in which routine, daily parts of our livelihoods (such as writing tomorrow’s headline) double as powder kegs, but we do begin every shift with a new match and a new bottle of kerosene.

tl;dr: All of the above came from those two words, and that’s the reason deadline design and editorial decision-making have never operated and will never operate in a vacuum.

As a footnote: Berry Tramel (again, to disclose, friend and former colleague) posted a first-person account of his day at his blog.