Online scoops  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2006

Online scoops   

In the era of convergence, the notion that newspapers would be “scooping themselves” by posting exclusives first is passé. But are there exceptions to this rule?

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     


On the night of May 28, beer magnate and onetime Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Coors was driving home after a wedding reception when he allegedly ran a stop sign around the corner from his home in Golden, Colorado. Police pulled him over in his driveway, gave him a blood-alcohol test and later arrested him on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Weeks later, a tipster leaked the news to the Denver Post. The Post's response to the information underscores the dramatic changes sweeping the journalism industry: It decided to run the exclusive first on its Web site (denverpost.com) on July 13 instead of waiting until the next morning's paper.

It's not so long ago that such a decision would have been deemed heresy. The Post, traditionalists would have exclaimed, had foolishly "scooped itself."

But in today's crowded and competitive media landscape, with newspaper companies repositioning themselves as information conglomerates that disseminate news via everything from ink-on-paper to the Internet to PDAs to cell phones, the move made perfect sense. (See "Adapt or Die," June/July.)

It's also a reminder that the definitions of "scoop" and "exclusive" are evolving in the era of convergence. The Internet makes it much more dicey to hold a news story until your next edition; chances are greater than ever that someone will beat you to it. So investigative, enterprise and project stories have become the primary exclusives to be held for the print version.

Post Editor Gregory L. Moore says increased competition from mainstream journalists as well as bloggers means that breaking news generally belongs on the Web. "My definition of a scoop has changed in the sense of how long you think you have a story exclusively," he says. "If you have a story for an hour, you need to make the most of that hour."

In the case of the Coors story, not everyone in the Post newsroom agreed with the decision to publish first online. Others saw it as the logical way to go.

"I had no problem with it, but I know my immediate editor, who got the tip..was disappointed in that decision," says Felisa Cardona, the reporter who wrote the story. "I think he felt like, 'We're going to have this because of my tip, and nobody else is going to have it except us until tomorrow.'.. But I just feel like everybody knows we got the story first."

Carlos Illescas, who got the Coors tip and was Cardona's editor, says he wanted to hold the story for at least a few more hours and post it later in the day. The Post put the story on its Web site at about 11 a.m., allowing other news organizations to run with it — some even implying it was their own "scoop," he says.

Illescas says he wasn't angry at the decision and that he supports the practice of posting breaking news on the Web. But "this was a little different. I knew it wasn't going to get out," he says, pointing out that his source gave him the information several weeks after Coors' arrest.

"I understand where we're going" with the Internet, he adds. "I just don't quite buy into that death-of-the-newspaper thing."

Says Jonathan Dube, a vice president of the Online News Association and publisher of CyberJournalist.net: "In this day and age, it would be foolish for any newspaper company to just think of itself as a 'newspaper' company and not a media company. The notion that a company like the Denver Post could 'scoop' itself is ridiculous and narrow-minded."

Moore says his newsroom is trying to be smarter about which stories appear first in print. "We'll hold onto [exclusives] occasionally because we believe it's important to have fresh information in the paper," he says. Example: In its September 8 issue, the Post broke the news that one of Colorado's most prominent citizens, former Post Publisher Donald R. Seawell, was stepping down as chairman of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which he had founded. "We knew we had that alone, and so it went into the paper," Moore says.

John Temple, editor of the rival Rocky Mountain News, says he'd be amazed that anyone would find it unusual to break the Coors story on the Web. "That's how you practice journalism in a competitive world, and I don't say market because I'm not just competing in the Denver market," he says.

Which is not to say that the News has abandoned exclusive news reports in its print product. But they tend to involve enterprise work, often with a strong data-analysis component, Temple says.

In August, for example, when News reporters analyzed the reading and math scores of local school children, they found that the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students was narrowing. Because the paper had done its own data analysis, there was little chance of being scooped by a competitor. This was a deeper examination of the statistics that followed the initial release of the scores. "That's the kind of story I can see holding for the newspaper," Temple says.

And at the Post, even though the initial Coors story went on the Web, Cardona was hardly handing it to her competitors. "I hadn't nailed down the details of his arrest yet," she says. So there was still plenty of fresh information for the print version: Was Coors put in handcuffs? Did he get special treatment?

Mike Shannon, managing editor of Oklahoma City's Oklahoman, generally agrees that breaking news goes on the Internet while project-type stories are the true exclusives and should go first into the paper. "If it's something that some of our guys dredged through records to find and there's not much chance of anybody else getting it, then we hold it," he says.

He agrees with the Post's decision to break the Coors story online: "The same tipster could tip somebody else. We kind of wrestle with this on a daily basis," Shannon says. "Our general rule of thumb is that we tend to publish on the Internet anything of a breaking nature. With projects, we use the Internet as a supporting resource for what we can't get into the paper."

Pam Fine, managing editor of the Indianapolis Star, says part of the decision-making depends on whether there are two major newspapers in town. Indianapolis has just one large daily, so there's less fear that it will be scooped if it holds a story.

Even so, the Star, like other papers, still publishes most breaking news online, and in general defines its newspaper-first exclusives as "enterprise or investigative stories that truly break new ground," Fine says. "And those stories would have to be 1A, above-the-fold kinds of stories."

Two examples: In September, the Star developed a piece revealing that the newly appointed head of the city's juvenile detention center had earned his master's degree from a diploma mill. It came together late in the day and was held for the newspaper. Several days later, the Star learned that the local prosecutor was investigating alleged corruption in the coroner's office; this, too, ran first in the paper.

"If we were in a more competitive market, we would certainly put that online" first, Fine says. "I wonder if most people, because they're in one-newspaper markets, are, like we are, still putting 99 percent on the Web but still holding their best scoops, their best enterprise, for the paper," she adds. "It's because we still want the paper to be valuable, because the paper still pays the bills at most of our publications."

A literal textbook example of the converged newsroom can be found in Tampa, where the Tampa Tribune; the local NBC affiliate, WFLA-TV; Spanish-language CENTROtampa.com; and TBO.com combine forces on a daily basis. (The operation is profiled in the journalism text "Editing Today," which follows one Tribune reporter as she prepares a story for the newspaper, Internet and TV.) Rusty Coats, general manager of TBO.com, says his marching orders are to place a story on the "first available platform." If a story breaks at, say, 2 p.m., it goes out first on the Web site, then on television at 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., and the newspaper gets it the next day.

But the print side shouldn't feel slighted. "Online breaking stories are very iterative — you print what you know when you know it and then you add to it," Coats says. "The things that make print wonderful are enterprise and analysis and depth."

So when Tribune reporters are writing about a possible hurricane in the region, for example, "the guts of it are monumentally different" than the initial Web versions, he says.

The evolving landscape has meant major changes for TV stations as well as print media. Byron Grandy, news director for KMGH-TV, Denver's ABC affiliate, says debates like the one over the Coors story are happening in his newsroom, too. "If we get a story at 10 a.m., we put it on the Web and then every other TV station gets it, too," he says. "The next thing you know, you've basically given up what may have been" an exclusive.

There are times when the newsroom discussions become passionate — say, when the station gets a big story in the early afternoon, hours before the next news broadcast. "That's when you ask yourself, do you want to give everybody else the same heads-up and the same three hours?" Grandy says. "I'm sure this discussion is going on in newsrooms all over the country."

But ultimately, he says, journalists need to remember that it's the consumers who are in control, going to whatever news sources will give them the information they want. "I think to try to slow that down is impossible," Grandy says.

Cardona agrees. At 33, she does all of her newspaper reading online — and knows that if one site doesn't have the update she wants, she can find others that will.

Says Dube: "Debates over whether to publish [exclusive] news online happen far more now than they used to, though still not enough. Years ago, it was a rare event when a publication would break a major exclusive news story online. Now it's commonplace. But there are still a lot of editors out there who believe that they should hold exclusive information for the print edition."

Coats says most of the reporters in his converged newsroom, like Cardona, accept the system as reality: You post the stories when you get them. "As journalists, we're kind of a curmudgeonly group," he says. "Some react to change very well... But around the country you'll find a handful of the 'over my dead body' types" when it comes to posting scoops.

Interestingly, that group isn't made up entirely of older reporters. People assume, Coats says, that younger reporters adapt more readily to writing for the Web. But "some of our most aggressive online people are in their 50s, and some of our least online gung-ho people are in their 20s. It may be a reflection of where they went to college, or whether they went into journalism to get into long-form journalism."

Lori Schwab, executive director of the Online News Association, says the "this is the way we've always done it" mentality is on the wane. "I haven't recently found many grumblers," she says. And most major newspapers have long accepted that they frequently must break stories on the Internet — but that shouldn't keep aggressive, enterprising reporters from getting exclusives.

"It's just the people who get the exclusives who are changing," Schwab says, citing as an example thesmokinggun.com and its story that poked factual holes into the best-selling memoir of author James Frey (see Full Court Press, February/March). "They still got credit for breaking the story, because everybody else credited them."

The Coors story, Dube says, also illustrates that point. If the Post had held the story for the next day, "then it might have lost the scoop and another publication might have beaten it and gotten credit for it. Because it posted the news online, the Post got credit and great publicity; its traffic likely increased; and the Post's readers were well served."

As for Coors, on August 25 the apologetic beer baron pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to community service.

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