It was hard to miss the Jan. 21 front-page headline in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "Steelers pick Grimm, source says."
The Steelers immediately denied they had elevated Russ Grimm to head coach, and the team officially announced the hiring of Mike Tomlin a day later. Nine days after that, no source at the Trib will talk to City Paper about what led to the blunder.
Executive Sports Editor Kevin Smith referred calls to Editor Frank Craig, who isn't speaking. The article's author, Mike Prisuta, did not respond to requests for comment, although he discussed the incident on WDVE-FM, which broadcasts Steelers games. The story has since been removed from the Trib's Web site.
The 542-word Trib story contained no direct, attributable quotes from anybody -- not even a "no comment" from the parties involved. It cited only a "source in Pittsburgh," whose connection to the negotiations was not identified, as the source for the report that Grimm had been hired. An unnamed "NFL source" was also cited as the source for Prisuta's claim that "Tomlin had not heard from the Steelers and no contract negotiations had taken place."
Steelers' President Art Rooney II told CBSSportsline.com on Jan. 23 that no formal offer was ever made to Grimm, explaining that team reps did talk about an offer and contract numbers with both Grimm and Tomlin on Jan. 20. "We did tell Russ nothing would be final until Sunday," Rooney explained to the online sports site. "I feel bad if he got the wrong impression."
CBSSportsline's Clark Judge also reported that three sources "close to the team" told him that the offer was made to Grimm and later rescinded. Grimm quickly joined the Arizona Cardinals as an offensive line coach
By Jan. 24, the Trib reported: "During a telephone call with Arizona reporters yesterday, Grimm declined to go into detail about what happened with the Steelers. But he did say he didn't think he had the head coaching job after talking with Rooney II on Saturday [Jan. 20]."
"Traditional journalistic practice is always to get a second source," notes Duquesne University journalism professor Robert Bellamy, who studies sports journalism. He blames the Trib's position as the smaller paper in a competitive market for the non-scoop scoop.
"It's no secret they are by far the number-two paper in the market," Bellamy says, "and while it was still wrong not to have that important second source, I understand the commercial pressures they face." The Trib, he says "is trying hard to establish itself as a true Pittsburgh paper" -- and like newspapers everywhere, it feels "pressure ... trying to compete against the Internet, radio and television."
Indeed, Mike Silver of SI.com (the online home of Sports Illustrated) beat both dailies with a Jan. 20 story naming Tomlin as the next Steelers coach. The day Prisuta's story came out, his rival at the Post-Gazette, Ed Bouchette, ran a story in which the Rooneys denied having made any decision.
Bouchette did not answer a request for comment, but wrote about Silver's story on a Jan. 23 P-G online chat: "The confusion happened because the Steelers had not yet chosen their coach. Believe me, there were some national people mighty nervous on Sunday morning [Jan. 21]. They had not offered the job to Tomlin. Some people who picked the right man three days before the Steelers picked him feel real relieved the Steelers went and did it on Sunday afternoon."
"Sadly, we see stories like this all of the time because of the rapidity and speed of our new media combined with the attitude and training of our reporters to be first, to not get scooped above all else," Bellamy says of the Trib's mistaken headline. "However, a lot of those traditions and practices are being overlooked or dismissed altogether, because what sets a news agenda now can easily be what appears on a Web page or a blog."
Bellamy calls the Trib's gaffe "a huge journalistic mistake" -- but says it will hurt the paper more with the Steelers than with the public. Fans remain hungry for Steelers news whether they're playing or not -- and possibly whether the news is accurate or not.
Even so, Bellamy concludes, "Being accurate and responsible is a whole hell of a lot more important than being first."