Scooping the Competition in the Digital Age

One of the books that had a big impact on me during my larval stage as a journalist was Dan Rather’s The Camera Never Blinks. The memoir was of Rather’s experiences as a truly trailblazing and courageous TV reporter, not Rather the lightning-rod anchor with the southern-fried election night phraseology.

Here is local Houston reporter Rather clinging to a tree in the winds of Hurricane Carla and getting the attention of CBS News; here’s Dallas bureau chief Rather getting a priest at Parkland Hospital to confirm that President Kennedy had died; here’s White House reporter Rather getting snarky (before snarky was cool) with President Nixon during a live press conference.

Getting It First

All of it was compelling reading, but what really stuck with me were his words “get it right, get it first, get it fast.” This was Rather’s mantra for getting the Big Story, and it seemed like grand advice for a reporter still learning his craft. Work your sources, break a story, get two independent confirmations, then bust it back to the station to get it on the air. Before you know it, your competition will be madder than a nest full of hornets under Grandma’s favorite pecan tree.

That last sentence was not a Ratherism, but you know what? It should have been.

Fast-forward to the Internet years, which can find Matt Drudge and the gossip Web site and average citizens with cell phone cameras scooping everybody, including mainstream journalists. Does “get it right, get it first, get it fast” have any relevance in a 24/7 online news environment? Does the term “scoop” even need to be redefined in the age of Google News?

Can You Be First on the Internet?

Scoops still happen, say two people who worked their way up the traditional journalism path before shifting into new media initiatives — and their importance in the media game is magnified by technology.

“If anything, the Web brings back the traditional notion of what a scoop really is,” says former news producer Steve Safran, senior vice president, Web 2.0, for Audience Research and Development, which provides consultation and research for local media companies. “In the same way that the term ‘breaking news’ has lost all meaning and ‘exclusive’ has lost all meaning, the word ‘scoop’ has lost its meaning.” Yes, reporters are still digging and breaking stories about bad drugs and bad politicians, and that hard journalistic work still has relevance.

“The fact that Google News updates all the time gives you more exposure if you have the scoop. The fact that you have all these social networks and people are Twittering — if you break the story, put it on Twittter, put it on Facebook so that everybody knows you have it. Link like crazy, but it has to be a damn big story.”

Chip Mahaney was a managing editor in Dallas and news director in Richmond before becoming director of digital media for E.W. Scripps. For Mahaney, no matter what the platform or who’s doing the reporting — or how much information is now available in the media echo chamber — getting there before the other guys do still counts. “‘First’ will always be a key currency in news,” Mahaney wrote to me in a Facebook message (naturally.) “Scoops will always be important. And it’s not just because that’s one way journalists keep score with each other. In breaking news situations — severe weather, for instance — there’s a life-and-death need for accurate, instant information. Viewers/users/readers do remember who served them best in dire situations.

“In terms of deeper reporting and investigations, competition provides a powerful incentive for better journalism, including scoops. As long as there are many independent voices in the media, I don’t see these longstanding values diminishing.”

Get It First, Get It Right, Get It Digitally

The new media universe, in my view, has resulted in an increased chance for errors. More and more, getting it fast = getting it wrong, but thanks to the explosion of news, an initial error can get lost in a flurry of updates and filings from a greater number of media outlets. And online delivery of news means a quicker fix for those errors. Simply update with corrections and your credibility hopefully lives to see another day, unlike a mistake in a newspaper or TV story where the damage can be more lasting.

Safran admits that getting it right has become a casualty of the 24-7 media universe, “but the meaning of right has changed. I hate to sound Clintonesque on this, but take a case like Sept. 11, where there’s an enormous amount of information coming in, some of which turns out not to be the case. As long as you’re transparent about it, saying this is what we understand right now, here’s what we hear, here’s what we can confirm, and that’s when news judgment really comes in.”

The recent wildfires in Southern California are a good example of local stations’ putting all their efforts into a big story and reporting it on several platforms; TV, radio, newspaper, online, with some of those overlapping. “Scoops” get buried by constant updates.

“All the people out there are part of the collaboration on the news effort,” says Safran.

But is it a scoop when a Web site breaks the news of a celebrity divorce or a pop star’s latest example of bad behavior? It is if it’s picked up by the traditional media and becomes a 30-second voiceover read by an anchor in the fourth segment of an hour-long noon show — right before the toss to weather.

“Who gets to determine what’s newsworthy?” says Safran. “The people get to determine what’s newsworthy.” For some journalists who don’t see the digital light, that may qualify as the ultimate scoop; they’ve been beaten in the news judgment game by their own customers.

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