Robert Griffin III

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Peyton Manning’s retirement might have been the least surprising NFL news since the last time Johnny Manziel was spotted at a nightclub. He led his team to a Super Bowl win (in the most generous possible definition of “led”) after a season spent barely able to move, let alone play professional football. The question of his retirement had become less “if” and more “when.”

Nevertheless, when the news broke on Twitter early Sunday morning, everyone was very scrupulous in crediting ESPN Insider Chris Mortensen with the scoop. Mortensen is battling throat cancer and is currently taking a break from his ESPN work to receive treatment. Between that battle and Mort’s status as a generally good guy in the industry, many of his peers and competitors moved past “scrupulous” and all the way to “patronizing.”

But what is the actual value of “breaking” this sort of news? Not genuine behind-the-scenes drama or never-quite-happened backstory, but getting to be the one who tweets a newsbite 30 minutes or so before the team’s official account does, or before the player breaks it on Instagram?

I’m pretty aware of how managed it all can be—I’ve been on the other side of the button, told to hold back some specific bit of info until after some friendly source gets to run with it, and I’ve also felt the keen difference when someone breaks news that people in the organization didn’t want released or sometimes didn’t even know.

Chris Russell, currently a host and Pigskins insider on 106.7 the Fan and formerly an insider for ESPN 980, has spent an enormous amount of time trying to break news in this market. I asked him to explain why this is such a source of joy for people in his industry.

“I hated having to try and break news,” says Russell, who no longer views news-breaking as a crucial part of his current position. “Because while it was a rush and while I loved the euphoria of breaking news and getting credit for it—and I won’t lie about that—the fear of it being wrong or of it being right and then being changed on somebody else’s end, out of the source’s or my control, was paralyzing.”

This, to me, is more about the latter kind of break—actual guarded info that reporters are nobly setting free, which is the closest sports beat reporters get to feeling like All the President’s Men or Spotlight. But it does hint at the basic thrill that underlies even a tweet about a signing that’s going to be announced in five minutes.

“The advantage to breaking a story is very simple,” Russell says. “It’s self-gratification. It’s a pat on the back. It’s making sure that the audience knows—whatever your audience is—that you are a person that is on the inside.”

Therein lies the key: By being even slightly ahead, a reporter gets to say to their viewers/listeners/readers, “See? I am privy to things you are not. This is why you follow/watch/read me.”

It shows, Russell says (channeling that guy from The Great Gatsby), that “you are a person that has connections, and those connections are trusting you and willing to help you out.”

All of this is about what I expected, although it was refreshing to hear it laid out so plainly. What was less expected was the idea that the stories I was less impressed by, the ones just ahead of the official announcement, Russell liked those.

“I always wanted the quick press release or the quick confirmation, because I just wanted to be right,” he says. “I just wanted to know that I was right.”

Robert Griffin III was finally released on Monday. In a week, maybe less, some people will look back at this as a sad conclusion to a battered and disappointing stint in D.C. To others, it might feel like the removal of a cast that had long since become sweaty and putrid. To people outside of this area, it’s somewhere between another excuse to laugh at the Pigskins and a tantalizing opportunity to maybe improve their teams.

Almost no one will think of it as a story that ESPN’s Dianna Russini was first with on Twitter, but in some small way, that’s all it really was.

Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr / C.C.