SBD/July 14, 2014/Media

LeBron Goes Home: Lee Jenkins Details How He Got The Exclusive Scoop

Only six SI staffers saw the piece before it went live on Friday
SI's Lee Jenkins co-wrote LeBron James' essay announcing his return to the Cavaliers and detailed how he got the story. He said he interviewed James "for about an hour" on Thursday. Jenkins: "Then it was just basically sewing together his words and then sending it to him for his approval and changes that he had." He said the piece was "not that different" from other first-person stories from Jason Collins announcing he is gay and Jabari Parker making it known he planned to enter the NBA Draft after his freshman year at Duke. He noted James having a "chance to say it in his language (is) what he wanted to do." Jenkins said he talked to James' camp a few months ago "about Collins and Parker -- what we did, how we handled that and that first-person approach." Jenkins: "They considered that and they said they liked that" (SI.com, 7/12). AD AGE's Michael Sebastian reported Jenkins several months ago "mentioned to his editors that he wanted to pursue a big story about the next phase" of James' career. Jenkins on July 5 e-mailed his editors explaining getting the exclusive on James' return to Cleveland "was a possibility." Jenkins "didn't mention" James' name in the e-mail "out of caution." He then traveled last Wednesday to Las Vegas, where he met with James on Thursday night "before writing the essay with him." Jenkins "emailed the essay to his editors around mid-morning on Friday." SI Managing Editor Chris Stone said, "Everyone reading it was learning the news for the first time." Sebastian noted the magazine "alerted its technology team that a big story would soon publish." Stone said that "only six Sports Illustrated staffers saw the piece before it went live" (ADAGE.com, 7/11).

BEHIND THE SCENES: Stone said the magazine opted to break the story online as opposed to in print because that would have meant they "would have had to hold the story until next Wednesday, and LeBron had to make up his mind." Stone: "He couldn’t hold up the free agency process for any longer on behalf of Sports Illustrated." He said it is a "fair assessment" to call the James story the biggest story SI.com has ever broken "considering the context of the appetite for this story that’s existed this week, and the tension and the urgency around it." Stone: "It's always going to benefit any media entity to have a story of this magnitude. We’re proud" (ADWEEK.com, 7/11). Time Inc. Sports Group Editor Paul Fichtenbaum described the traffic surge following the publication of the essay as "the biggest spike in viewers in a decade." He added, "The initial rush was over the top." Fichtenbaum said that SI "didn’t attempt to build an advertising package around its scoop." He said, "We didn’t program any advertising around it. Part of what we did was keep the circle of people who knew to a bare minimum" (WSJ.com, 7/11). Stone said, "The story was going to spread like a wildfire on its own. It didn't need us to pretty it up or hype it up ahead of time. We were always mindful of the fact that the reason they came to Lee in the first place is their belief that he wouldn't turn it into a circus" (CLEVELAND.com, 7/11).

JOURNALISM OR PR? 
In N.Y., Richard Sandomir wrote SI presented the news “as a 952-word statement on its website from the King, not a full-blown news story with context and breadth.” News value aside, the approach “cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades.” And while James’ words “may have been all that the sports world wanted to hear, the magazine should have pressed for a story that carried more journalistic heft.” However, for the magazine’s editors, there “are no regrets that Jenkins delivered major news in James’s words.” Stone said, “This is excellent journalism. In cases like this, it’s beneficial to let the subject tell the story in his own words.” Sandomir wrote the impact of James’ words about going back to the Cavs, and of “getting them out first, will probably outlast the manner in which they were rendered” (N.Y. TIMES, 7/12). In Miami, Dan Le Batard wrote if you were in the PR business, which SI “usually isn’t, this is exactly the way you massage all of this to get the worship and mythology that purifies the polarizing image of a global icon who rented Miami for championships.” Get the “premier and most reputable sports publication in America to tell the tale about going home for you.” Those “kids in the entourage of LeBron James are smart” (MIAMI HERALD, 7/13). Columnist Kevin Blackistone said, "This was old media, this was Sports Illustrated, this was the written word. This was not ESPN, it was not social media, it was not on television" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 7/11).
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