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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: MU, Big Ten expansion news: the big catch everyone's chasing

By Tom Warhover
May 14, 2010 | 11:15 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

There was blood in the water Monday.

No bodies. Just blood.

The info-sharks bit anyway.

Picture sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) in the old "Jaws" movie, shoveling a slick of fish guts and blood over the boat, watching it spread as the boat trolls the seas.

Now picture the Big Ten.

For the second week, a single source led to a frenzy of news and speculation that added little to the collective knowledge.

For those whose whole world doesn’t revolve around the issue, a synopsis: The Big Ten announced late last year that it was studying expansion.

Speculation about Missouri swimming away from the Big 12 immediately began.

Which brings us to Monday.

“The Big Ten Conference has extended initial offers to join the league to four universities including Missouri and Nebraska from the Big 12, according to multiple sources close to the negotiations.”

Kevin Kietzman wrote that lead in the 810 Blog on the Kansas City radio station’s website.
 
I first saw the news in an e-mail referencing a Twitter post. The thing spread Internet-fast.

Great story, if true.

Newspapers across Big 12 and Big Ten markets — a huge chunk of the country — picked up the story, in a sort of backdoor way.

The Missourian’s response was fairly typical.

The sports desk didn’t just parrot the report. Reporters took a couple of hours trying to determine the veracity of the Kietzman blog.

When the button to publish was pressed, it was by way of a denial story. “The Missouri athletics department is denying a report by a Kansas City sports radio station that MU has been extended an offer to join the Big Ten conference,” the lede said.

Another variation, from The Indianapolis Star: “Notre Dame has not received an offer to join the Big Ten Conference, according to people familiar with the situation, disputing a report today from a Kansas City radio station.”

Or the Omaha World-Herald: “Nebraska officials shot down talk Monday that the Big Ten Conference has offered an initial invitation to join that league.”

You could find essentially the same story in Orlando or Newark, in Chicago or Minneapolis.

The denials allowed the newspapers to report this tantalizing radio blog bit, even if the “news” here was the litany of official types saying there was no news.

So it would appear that Kietzman got it wrong. Or that his sources were misinformed. Or that he should have used the future verb tense, as in “will extend offers.”

One editing decision Monday — whether to confirm the 810 Blog post — was easy. Missourian editors scrambled several reporters and made multiple calls to sources in the MU athletic and administrative offices.

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The other — whether to publish — is always more difficult.

Immediacy is one of the core Missourian strategies. Getting you the news quickly is important. The definition of quick compresses with each new technological advance. Days and hours are now minutes and seconds.

Speed smacks into the value of  independent verification. You should be able to assume a certain level of vetting before a piece of news falls under the Missourian banner.

Publishing reports by other news outlets comes down to a few critical questions:

•    How much do I trust this publication?
•    How sound are its sources? (Anonymity makes this nearly impossible to judge.)
•    Can I independently verify or deny it?
•    How widespread is the report? In this case, would many Missourian readers be left with the impression that the supposed Big Ten offers were accepted fact?

That last question led to Monday’s decision.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Vahe Gregorian points out that the will-it-or-won't-it drama has played out before — almost 17 years before.

That's not as long as "Jaws"; did you know the movie celebrates its 35th anniversary this year?

This most recent release of "Big Ten, The Expansion" may not run for more than another month or two before officialdom makes things, um, official.

But don’t be surprised if another blog post churns up the waters again.