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January 21, 2011 at 9:45 AM

The definition of a “scoop” in media world not what it used to be

There has been quite a bit of buzz in baseball fan and media circles about this interesting Beyond the Boxscore chart on which baseball reporters get the most scoops. I have to say, this is an ambitious undertaking. We’ve all speculated before about which writers tend to break the most news, but I’ve never seen it quantified to this degree.
Reading through the comments after this item, on Beyond the Boxscore and other blogs, the one common thread of discussion seems to be readers wondering just how much these “scoops” are valued within our industry.
I’ll attempt to try to answer that question here, since I haven’t seen any other media members do so. Obviously, my name wasn’t on the list of top-ranked guys, but that’s OK. I won’t hold a grudge and I’ll still try to give the honest answer.
First off, the definition of a “scoop” has certainly changed in the 20 years I’ve worked full-time in daily newspapers. When I began my career in May 1991, the internet didn’t exist for mass consumption and nobody back then could even envision something like Twitter. Back then, a “scoop” was considered a piece of news that would cause people to take notice the next day when your paper was published — since newspapers were mostly a next-day thing (other than afternoon editions, but that’s another story).
Back then, if your competitor had something in the paper that wasn’t in yours, they owned the “scoop” for an entire day until your paper could follow up the next morning.
Needless to say, this caused quite a bit of consternation for the paper that didn’t have the story. In fact, my very first full-time job in newspapers was as the night police reporter at The Gazette in Montreal, a 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. gig where I’d not only follow homicide investigators out to the latest dead body, but also attempt to “match” any big scoops our rival papers might have.
You did this by scanning the early editions of those papers when they hit the stands about midnight — we employed news assistants to run out and buy up copies — and then trying to do your best to nail the story down yourself by the time your final 2 a.m. deadline hit. Those deadlines were for the versions of the paper that got sent to the immediate city itself, as opposed to outlying suburbs where the earlier deadline editions went. Most of our readers lived in the city, so matching any scoops by 2 a.m. was a big deal.
Back in 1991, in our four-newspaper town, La Presse reported in big bold headlines on the front page that the Olympic Stadium — where a 50-ton concrete beam had just collapsed — could not be inspected and fixed in time for the Expos baseball team to play any of their remaining September games there. The Expos would, in fact, have to play their remaining games on the road for a few weeks.
This was a big deal. I was years away from becoming a sports writer, but our baseball beat guy and political reporters had missed the story and thus it became my problem. I can still remember, in vivid detail, tracking down the home phone number of the president of the Olympic Installations Board — which ran the stadium — and rousting him out of bed, in my best French, at 12:45 a.m. to get him to confirm that the Expos could no longer play there. He took it all in good humor, which I appreciate to this day. And he politely gave me the story. Within a half hour, I had our paper’s front-page, bold banner headline with the story. And we didn’t have to credit our rivals. The next day, none of the radio or TV stations bothered to note that La Presse beat us by an hour in the early editions of the paper. I got a nice memo from my bosses thanking me for saving our butts.
But that was my job. Scoops were a big deal in those days.
Nowadays, not so much.

Today, most scoops don’t last longer than a few minutes until somebody else repeats them on Twitter. Or on their own newspaper blog or online edition. And thus, the lifespan of a newspaper’s embarassment over missing a story usually doesn’t last long enough for the people running the paper to even figure out they were beat.
At the 2001 winter meetings in Boston, our Toronto Star baseball columnist and myself hit the town at night and had a grand old time. The next morning, we were woken by an angry phone call at 7 a.m. — accompanied by the obvious pounding headache — because we’d missed the fact that shortstop Alex Gonzalez was about to be traded to the Cubs for Felix Heredia. Our rival paper, and its esteemed writer Bob Elliott, had scooped us. That’s the last time I’ve ever tried to party at the winter meetings, believe me.
Nowadays, Elliott’s “scoop” would be forgotten about in minutes. It wouldn’t even register. It’s not like the trade had occured. It was just one of those “on the verge of being traded” stories that now forms any one of three dozen tweets you’ll see in an hour any winter meetings day.
So, no. Our industry doesn’t care much about those types of scoops anymore.
Sure, a reporter takes pride in getting things first. And yes, you do see a small amount of a short-term traffic boost to your internet site. The other day, after King 5 broke the scoop that Milton Bradley had been arrested for something (they didn’t know what), I filled in the blanks a few minutes later and got a traffic spike. But really, so what? I don’t get paid by the “hit” and within an hour or two, nobody cared much about who had what and when.
Reporters like Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, however, do have a little more riding on their ability to generate such scoops. They are paid comparatively more money than others in their field to be on-call 24/7 and break the latest “trade scoop” to the world. That’s their gig. They establish credibility at doing this stuff and their online websites thus get more traffic over the long haul because of the reputations they’ve formed in that realm. They have no print product to worry about. The online, instant stuff is their biggest concern.
They do have a vast network of resources — general managers, players, scouts, owners — to draw upon. And they don’t have to concern themselves with getting bogged down in the day-to-day nitty, gritty of covering teams or grading those sources on their performance. Their job is to get the scoop. And they do it by manning the phones every minute of every hour.
Readers don’t go online to read Rosenthal and Heyman for the latest in-depth, investigative feature about their particular teams. But for breaking stuff around the game of baseball, those guys are really good at it. And they’ve both done the newspaper thing — beat writing, column writing — extremely well in the past. This is just a different gig for them. And one their websites care dearly about.
Newspapers? Sure, they love to be first. But these days, more and more emphasis is being placed on getting it right.
I have yet to receive a single phone call of complaint from the Seattle Times for something that a competitor had five minutes before me. At times, when we beat our competitors on stuff — like getting the only Miguel Olivo interview confirming that he’d be the full-time catcher for the Mariners (mandatory chest-thumping here, please look away) — we don’t get any congratulatory praise. It works both ways. Scoops ain’t what they used to be.
But get it wrong? Yes, we’ll hear about it.
When I wrote, erroneously, two years ago that Ken Griffey Jr. was about to sign with the Atlanta Braves, based on what a source had told me, I immediately apologized and corrected things once it became apparent that the story was wrong. That kind of stuff, I do get embarassed about. And it doesn’t happen often. Yes, mistakes do happen. But they just can’t happen too often or you lose credibility. I don’t need an editor at the paper to remind me of that. Most people in our business have their own self-policing system and will beat themselves up more than most realize.
Again, though, with Twitter, things are blurred. A guy who writes that the Yankees are on the verge of acquiring Cliff Lee from the Mariners one night, then has to tweet that the Rangers are the ones acquiring the pitcher, isn’t necessarily wrong. The instant nature of Twitter means that it captures life as life was truly meant to unfold. People change their minds. Teams change their minds. Something “on the verge” of happening one minute isn’t always going to take place the next.
So, in that case, the language of the Twitter “scoop” becomes important. Because if you write that a deal is done, that’s different from saying it’s “on the verge” of being done.
And in those cases, I believe the readers themselves have to be more discerning. Not everything that looks like a “fact” on Twitter actually constitutes one. I see people locally getting credited for “scoops” on merely for re-tweeting the team’s press release 10 seconds faster than the next person. Those types of “scoops” we actually don’t give a hoot about as reporters. In fact, the Mariners actually make it a policy to release any team-generated news to the people who work at or the team rightsholder radio station, 710 ESPN Seattle, before they give it to any of the newspapers in town. That’s their right to do, handling the paying partners first when it comes to press releases. And they only give them a few minutes lead time at most.
But that’s why none of us cares about Twitter scoops on stuff the team puts out.
On other stuff we self-generate, sure, there’s a short-term satisfaction at getting something first that we all take home. And there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s work. It makes you better at what you do. But no, our bosses don’t really care much if the story is matched within minutes.
The one thing newspapers are starting to care more and more about once again, as we come full circle in accepting and dealing with technology advances in modern media, are the true “scoops” that have lasting impact. The kind of stuff that lingers for a day or more without getting matched. This can be an in-depth feature on a player, an investigative report, or some type of jarring, breaking news from sources so good that a competitor won’t match it even with 24 hours to do so.
Obviously, these types of scoops are rare indeed. And often, they’ll be discussed for months and years to come. Yeah, they take hard work. And no, they don’t fall out of trees. But those are the ones that draw praise from our employers and our peers. And you don’t have to take my word for it.
Go to the website for the Associated Press Sports Editors contest — the biggest sports writing awards that exist in this country (Pulitzer Prizes don’t have a sports category) — and you’ll see all kinds of categories. None of them are for scoops. They are all for the best investigative, feature writing, and explanatory stories. There are some for game stories and for breaking news (doesn’t have to be a “scoop”). And getting the news first does matter in those categories, but there has to be more to it than that. The news has to be in-context, in-depth and well-written.
Other contests, like Best of the West (for Western U.S. papers) have included online and blog writing categories for years. But nothing for scoops, specifically.
So, there’s the short answer. Yes, newspapers still care about getting news first. But it’s the bigger news — the kind that lasts longer than a few minutes — that they truly care about. In some ways, that hasn’t changed since I broke into the business 20 years ago. The scoops most prized, in the newspaper world, are the ones with a lasting impact and shelf life.



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