From AJR, November 1999 issue
When Posting a Scoop Backfires
By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
I T WAS JUST BEFORE 9 on a Thursday night and Greg Stricharchuk, projects editor for Minneapolis' Star Tribune, was getting ready to break some news. The administrator in charge of sexual violence awareness training for athletes at the University of Minnesota had been quietly arrested for soliciting prostitution, and two of Stricharchuk's investigative reporters had obtained the police reports.
Stricharchuk was deep into editing and vetting the front-page exclusive with the Star Tribune's lawyers when the night editor made a suggestion. "He said, 'Maybe we should break this online,' " Stricharchuk recalls.
The idea wasn't new. Over the past few months the Star Tribune and its Twin City rival, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, had been fiercely competing to land stories on the University of Minnesota's troubled sports program (see "Body Slam,"May). The Star Tribune had been using its Web site (www.startribune.com) to post some stories the night before publication, gaining publicity for the site and a national audience for its scoops.
"We were experimenting a little more with online.... We were breaking stories online and copyrighting them,"Stricharchuk says. "Overall, it was a positive kind of experience."
So he gave the go-ahead to put the latest story on the Web site around 9 p.m. It was not until he read the competition the next morning that he realized he had made a mistake. The Pioneer Press had an unbylined story on the arrest on its August 20 front page, with many of the same details as in the Star Tribune. No credit was given to the bigger paper for breaking the story.
"When I read it, I was just heartbroken,"Stricharchuk says. "My immediate reaction was, they lifted it."
Not so, says Pioneer Press Editor Walker Lundy. That Thursday night, his paper's night crew had been making its regular checks of the competition. "We monitor TV news, radio news and online news. All three...all day,"Lundy says. The Pioneer Press' night desk spotted the University of Minnesota story on the Star Tribune's Web site in plenty of time to get a reporter on the story. The paper tracked down an officer in the Minneapolis Police Department to confirm most of the details of university administrator Rufus Simmons' arrest for soliciting prostitution in June, Lundy says.
"He didn't confirm every fact,"Lundy says. But there was enough for the Pioneer Press to gather reaction from key players and put together its own story.
The paper's editors saw no need to credit the competition for the original tip. "I think it would be wrong if we'd simply rewritten it,"Lundy says. But, if the Star Tribune was foolish enough to post its piece before deadline, the Pioneer Press had the right, and the responsibility, to chase down the story, he adds.
Chris Ison, a Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the Star Tribune's story with fellow reporter Paul McEnroe, wonders where some of the Pioneer Press' information came from. He claims some details in the competition's story were not attributed and appeared to be lifted from the Star TribuneŅan allegation Lundy denies.
Both sides agree the idea of publishing stories on their Web sites has made life a little more complicated. "It's almost like the information there is not as protected as if it had been on newsprint,"Stricharchuk says. "It was like, 'Well, that's a freebie' or something."
Steve Geimann, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee and telecom policy editor at Bloomberg News Service, says stories posted online fall under the same legal and ethical guidelines as those printed on paper.
If you simply use the Web site as a tip service and go out and get the story yourself, that is fair use under the copyright laws, he says. But, he adds, "You don't steal from the other guy."That goes for lifting words or the "spirit"of a competitor's story without attribution.
The Pioneer Press' biggest sin may have been not crediting the Star Tribune for the scoop.
In an era of 24-hour news cycles, sometimes the line gets blurry, Geimann adds. "In an online environment it does make you think about a lot of issues that don't come into play in a one-deadline-a-day newsroom or even a three- or four-deadlines-a-day newsroom."
The issue of when to break news so the competition does not steal it has been debated for decades by wire services and broadcast outlets. And as more and more newspapers launch their own Web sites, print operations are confronting the need for immediacy.
"It has to be a concern, because you don't want to give away your best stuff,"says Rich Jaroslovsky, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and a founder of the Online News Association for Net journalists.
Jaroslovsky says he does not recall ever losing a Wall Street Journal scoop to the competition because he published it too early on the interactive edition. But that is mainly because, unlike smaller Web sites, he has the luxury of having staff on duty 24 hours a day and a policy about when to post exclusives. "If we know we have a big story...we'll wait until 1 o'clock or 2 o'clock in the morning,"he says.
Back in Minneapolis, the experience with the University of Minnesota story has made the newsroom a little more cautious about venturing into cyberspace. "It's kind of a setback,"Stricharchuk says.
Just two weeks after posting the Rufus Simmons story on the Web site, Stricharchuk and Ison found themselves in the same position while working on the follow-up. As he was editing the piece the night before publication, Stricharchuk was again asked to consider whether he wanted to post the story online ahead of the press run. This time, the Star Tribune was more cautious.
"I think I made him hold it until 1 a.m.,"Ison says, "which doesn't make our online people happy."