BY GARRETT HINCHEY
On Friday, LeBron James shocked the NBA world by choosing to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers; in the process, he spurned the Miami Heat, the team he left the Cavaliers for four years ago.
But, of course, you knew that, unless you’ve been living under a rock. The sheer scope of LeBron’s decision was phenomenal. Mainstream news media cut away from stories about the Middle East and the fallout from the Manitoba floods to broadcast James’ choice. Cleveland media shrieked and cried on air. In Canada, the story led off CBC’s flagship national news program, The National.
Four years ago, when LeBron chose to leave for Miami, he did so through a one-hour television special in partnership with ESPN. Obnoxiously titled “The Decision,” the special was almost universally panned. Critics derided its self-indulgent nature and the callous method with which James explained he’d be “taking his talents to South Beach,” which became a meme almost instantly.
The way LeBron broke the news this time could not have been more contrasting. Instead of a televised interview, he penned a first-person essay with the help of Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins.The piece was published on Friday afternoon with nary a peep beforehand—a seeming impossibility in 2014, given the Twitter-fication of news media, particularly basketball.
As I’m sure you can guess, reaction to the decision this time around was uniformly positive. Sure, you could pin some of that on the news itself. In the first case, he left, and this time, he was coming home. The narrative practically writes itself.
But I’d argue that the way he delivered the news was just as important—if not more so—to the public reaction.
You see, we all have a deep-seated desire for brands (and yes, LeBron is a brand) to want our approval. “The Decision” was, quite literally, a proclamation; we were told when to be in front of our television sets, and by god, we’d do it, because this news was so big we couldn’t miss it. It even had a branded name. We were supposed to feel privileged to hear what James had to say.
This time, the message was far more humble. LeBron was going to explain his side of things, and we could consume it on our own time, and, most importantly, without being talked down to.
In my mind, this is a function of medium above all else. When we’re watching television, we remember sound bytes. They’re replayed over and over, echoing into the public consciousness. It’s telling that the first thing everyone remembers about “The Decision” is the South Beach line, and not the fact that all the advertising revenue from the special was donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, or how LeBron came to the choice he made.
In some ways, it didn’t matter what his choice actually was, as long as there was a payoff. Do you know what happened in the second half hour of “The Decision”? I didn’t think so. I don’t either.
Print, though, is much harder to meme-ify. When we read print, what lasts in our minds is how we felt when we read it. LeBron’s admission of past mistakes and his humble plea for forgiveness to the state of Ohio made us feel good. That’s what sticks. The medium allowed not just the news itself, but the context behind it, to shine through and be digested, instead of being parsed through hot takes and viral videos. It opened the door for conversation and reflection, instead of reaction.
In a lot of ways, breaking news through print has become a dinosaur of the Internet age. There are newspapers and magazines still, sure, but they pale in comparison to the instant gratification that comes with Twitter, television, and radio bytes. This isn’t a coincidence; giving little information opens the door for “analysis,” which creates a heck of a lot more work for the media types that make these decisions in the first place. With print, the context is right there.
This is amplified even more so in a first-person essay. After all, the questions have already been answered—and why wouldn’t you finish the piece? It’s all right there for you, without any commercials to sit through (however charitable they may be). Your reaction is emotional, instead of visceral, and arrives after some thought, instead of instantly. Digestion is part and parcel with reading.
In the process of humbling himself, LeBron (and his marketing team) demonstrated why breaking news through print will never be obsolete. As journalists, we want to invoke emotion in our audience. We want them to focus on the package, not the bytes—the signal, not the noise. Many people’s opinions of James are still tainted by “The Decision.” But when those people read his essay, I bet they’ll at least think about why he made his choice, instead of focusing solely on the choice itself.
That’s a triumph for print media and journalists everywhere. The lesson? Don’t always be swayed by the public’s incessant need for news now. Sometimes, these things need a slow burn in order to reach that perfect temperature. ♦