Death of the scoop

Can a story be exclusive when someone reports on it being written? Is a scoop still a scoop when someone else publishes another version of it within the hour? Conal Hanna discusses the demise of the exclusive in digital media.

It’s the only word on the newspaper’s front page that warrants its own colour. “Exclusive”.

Be it printed in News Corp red or Fairfax blue, the term has long generated its own special mythology in the world of journalism.

It’s not just in print, of course. Whatever the medium, reporters strive daily to scoop their rivals. Editors continue to judge stories through a prism of what has been reported so far. Traditionally, and somewhat bizarrely, one only seemed to pay considerable attention to rivals working in the same medium. Morning radio has long cherry-picked the best stories from the newspapers each day, without any  questions being asked. Of course, that’s all changing as everyone converges on the medium that increasingly matters most: the internet.

On January 31 this year, The Daily Telegraph splashed – below the obligatory red “Exclusive” – with the headline, “Thorpe goes into rehab”. Meanwhile, The Sydney Morning Herald had a juicy story of its own about claims a female teacher had to resign from an elite Sydney school after having sex with a number of students. Both were exclusive to their respective publications, and both were ultimately controversial.

However newspaper subscribers may not even have had a chance to successfully peel the cling film off their morning editions before both stories had appeared on the ninemsn website, one being added at 1.58am, and the other at 5.27am.

Thorpe story screengrab

Which is not to single out ninemsn. This was but one example of the widespread, near universal, online practice of the “churn”. That is, the reporting of something being reported. By another reporter.

Those working in digital in the 1990s used to boast that on the internet, if you were wrong, you were not wrong for long. But one could equally say a story does not belong for long, such is the rapid spread of news in a world where curation has replaced commissioning as many editors’ primary responsibility.

Of course, spoilers are nothing new. Who could forget the story of Rebekah Brooks, at News of the World, dressing as a cleaner and hiding in the toilets at The Sunday Times in order to get an early edition of the paper’s exclusive serialisation of a biography in which Prince Charles admitted to cheating on Princess Diana? But redrawing a news book takes effort and expense. The difference in the online world is the ease with which someone can simply rewrite several paragraphs, put on a clicky headline and hit publish.

And often it’s the headline that makes the difference. Pity the sub at The New York Times who put the accurate, if somewhat prosaic, title “How companies learn your secrets” atop a Charles Duhigg long-form special, only to have it churned by Forbes where the headline was “How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Forbes version that went viral, racking up 2.5 million page views, and to this day comes up no. 1 on Google when you search out the yarn.

There are good churns and bad churns, of course. While the legal provision of fair use protects all but the greediest of churners, there is a certain etiquette to observe if one wants to do so responsibly. Most web-only publishers have long advocated a policy of naming and linking back to the original source of a story, although that is far from a universal practice among Australia’s mainstream media. One would also hope that a churner is adding value to a story – taking it further than the original by the inclusion of a new voice or unique thought. The reality, though, is that many publishers see them simply as a cheap defensive ploy, negating their opponents’ strengths.

It’s not all bad for investigative journalists, of course. Multiple Walkley Award-winners Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie recently lamented in their Press Freedom Australia Dinner address how difficult it can be to get a complex investigation to have any sort of sustained life on their own Age website, such is the constantly moving modern news cycle. Maybe having a genuine scoop lifted by your competitors at least guarantees it a wide run, if not a long one.

And of course there’s the ego side of the equation. If you’ve worked for three months on an exclusive story, only to have it lifted by a competitor in 20 minutes, it’s hard not to feel cheated.

But does the average reader care about journalists’ precious feelings?

Felix Salmon thinks not. Salmon, who recently announced he was leaving Reuters to work on the web for US cable network Fusion, caused a stir at an international journalism festival in Perugia last month, with the altogether memorable quote: “Breaking news is the most masturbatory thing journalists do. The reader couldn’t give a flying fuck who broke it.” At the time, he was answering a question about the rise of explanatory websites such as Vox and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, brands for whom context is king, rather than content.

Instinct, and most reader surveys I’ve seen, suggest that Salmon is largely right – most readers pay far, far more attention to the headline than the byline. But it’s important to heed that word “most”. Because in the metered paywall era in which Australian online news has begun to transition, there are two distinct groups of audience: readers and consumers, the latter being the precious subsection of your readers who are actually willing to shell out a few bucks each week for your publication. Those pursuing subscription models have to believe that breaking news is an important driver of this behaviour. And it seems a reasonable assumption.

The question is whether there are enough Australian readers in this category to help pay the considerable bills required to break news. Because if a media outlet churns some rivals’ stories among the mix of their own hard-earned exclusives, that’s one thing. The danger comes with the rise of the publications that don’t invest in reporting their own stories at all. This is infinitely cheaper, and may eventually kill the news-breakers’ business model. The irony, of course, being that if the ability to break news becomes seriously compromised, who are we all going to churn then?

Conal Hanna is digital editor for The Sydney Morning Herald