Do scoops still matter in a digital world?

13 04 2009

Funny, I hadn’t thought about this at all.

When I was a newspaper reporter in the last era (through 1995) getting the scoop drove the industry. Nearly anyone who worked there would tell you that the real downfall of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began the day the St. Louis Globe-Democrat folded. Oh, we still prided ourselves on scooping the broadcasters, but it wasn’t the same. I will always remember the outrage I felt when a TV reporter got wind of an investigation I was working on and went on the air the night before we published with a 30-second story about “questions being raised” regarding a developer’s relationship with local officials. His story had nothing, but I had lost my scoop, and the satisfaction for the weeks of work I had devoted to the story evaporated.

When print dominated journalism, the paper with the scoop could bask in it a full 24 hours, relishing how the competition was writhing while struggling to catch up. You accelerated your efforts to get a great second-day story that scooped them again.

In the mid-1990s it shook the industry when the first major dailies started “scooping themselves” by publishing stories on their Web sites before they could get the dead-tree edition on the streets. Now it’s routine and expected. The result? A scoop may last minutes at most.

The loss of this motivator could have sweeping consequences on the practice of what is left of journalism, perhaps not all bad. The egos of reporters lusting for the big scoop surely led to many an ethical lapse or unbalanced treatment of a story. Perhaps now that there is little reward for being first, the  motive will be getting it right or getting an angle or insight no one yet has considered. That would be a good thing.