Yahoo!, newspapers, second-rate hacks and getting beat

There's no better feeling as a reporter than getting a scoop. I remember March of 2003, when I was covering St. Bonaventure basketball and the infamous welding scandal broke. I was the first reporter to interview Jamil Terrell's junior college coach, and I was the first reporter to report that he had informed St. Bonaventure coaches and officials that Terrell's welding certificate would not normally make him eligible by NCAA rules. I remember reading the Buffalo News the next morning and not seeing quotes from Gerald Cox and smiling.

There's no worse feeling as a reporter than getting scooped.

It happened to me twice in my final year in Binghamton. First, Pete Thamel wrote an expose of the troubling signs surrounding the Binghamton University basketball team, which I was covering at the time. I remember waiting for weeks for that story to come out (I know Pete professionally, and had seen him at a few BU games), talking to sources, trying to figure out what he was going to report. I remember the sinking feeling reading the story, the scramble the next day trying to write the me-too story, the chewing out I got from my boss.

A few months later, Adam Rubin broke the story that then-New York Mets official Tony Bernazard had challenged members of the Binghamton Mets to a fight in the clubhouse. I had been in the clubhouse that night (it was closed for the fight-challenging portion of the evening) and around the team for a week before the story broke, and I hadn't heard one thing about it. Of all my professional embarrassments, getting beat on this story is my biggest one. Again, the sinking feeling, the next-day scramble, the chewing-out.


In light of the awesome Yahoo story this week on the University of Miami (seriously, how amazing is that?), I can't help but think about the beat guys at the Miami papers. About how it must have felt to them to see that story, broken under their noses.

There's an excellent thread on about the journalism of this story, how newspapers couldn't have done a story like this, how the Miami Herald could get beat so bad when they had a snippet of the story a year ago. Chris Jones, one of my favorite writers, had a related Twitter rant:

"And we wonder why newspapers are dying: because too often, they can't or won't do the heavy lifting anymore...
Leaving it to someone else to come in and steal the story out from under them. That's bad for journalism, and it's bad for business. When young writers ask me where I find my ideas for features, I tell them: newspapers. So often they find the gold but don't dig it up. Steal from newspapers. Strip mine them, the way their owners have. In every issue, there will be a vein untapped. The last blood left. There remain great stories in newspapers, and great writers working for them. But many stories are left half-done or undone. TAKE 'EM."
You can look at the following as either an excuse or an explanation. It either explains why I was unable to get the big story, or it's an excuse offered a second-rate hack who got beat. But let's take the story that Thamel dusted me on - and I give all credit to him for this. There are no sour grapes, no bitterness. He beat me.

At the time, I was covering a Division-I men's basketball team, home and away. I was covering a D-I women's basketball team, in fact an entire D-I program (I was responsible for keeping up with all the sports). I was covering a local community college, a local Christian college, writing a weekly column about local athletes playing college ball elsewhere and helping cover all our high school sports. All of that meant I was in the office for between 6-8 hours a night three to four nights a week, taking results over the phone. Oh yeah, I was blogging as well. And the furloughs. Don't forget the furloughs. And since it was Gannett, I had to work 37.5 hours, on the dot. Any overtime had to be approved in advance. (We won't even get into the management policy of not using anonymous sources unless approved by the higher-ups).

You may consider it an excuse. You may consider it an explanation. I'm not asking for sympathy, not looking for a "there, there" pat on the back. But where, in that schedule, do I find the time to dig out an investigative story? Where do I find the time to compete with Thamel, who has the resources and time of the New York Times behind him, and who is 10 times better at the job than I could have ever hoped to be?

--- There's a writer I really like by the name of Merlin Mann. He writes a lot about time and attention issues. He has a line I like about priorities: If something's a priority, what would you allow to die for it? The point is, if something is really a priority (as opposed to, say, just something on your to-do list), you will sacrifice for it. You will sacrifice almost anything for it.

This is an issue newspapers are facing these days. It's easy to say that reporters and newspapers should dedicate more time and resources to investigative stories and less time to the mundane, day-to-day stories about who's battling to be the starting tight end. But as was pointed out on that thread, the mundane, day-to-day stories about who's battling to be the starting tight end are important to fans. They like reading that stuff, they want to read that stuff, and reporters should provide that information. Plus, it's hard to ignore the fact that in this new era, what matters is page views - and the day-to-day stories can provide page views.

I'm not a fan of framing this solely as a "why can't newspapers do this" debate. To me, that denigrates what Robinson did. Journalism is journalism, no matter what platform. This wasn't a great piece of online journalism, it was a great piece of journalism.

I don't think it's just a time issue, either. This comes back to the excuse/explanation I offered earlier - "man, I just don't have the time to do this kind of work." I think that degrades the work Charles Robinson did on this story. If I played basketball every day for 30 years, I'd never be as good as Michael Jordan. If I worked on this story for 11 months, it wouldn't be half as good as Robinson's, because he's a better reporter than I am.

But at the same time to ignore the time issue or to brush it aside as the excuses offered by second-rate hacks ignores the reality of the news business these days. It's easy for us in the academy or the blogosphere to say this, but for the beat reporters, these time concerns are real.

In a perfect world, this wouldn't be an either-or situation. In a perfect world, there would be the ability to follow the investigative leads and do the day-to-day stuff.

It's not a perfect world. Sadly, newspapers have to make a choice. Resources are limited. Time is limited. Reporters are doing more (writing stories, blogging, tweeting, inexplicably doing videos for their websites). When you're grinding on a beat, and your boss expects you to be grinding on your beat and filling space and doing the work of the guy who got laid off and the woman who's on furlough, it's hard to convince yourself, your boss or anyone at the paper to give you time and money to look into a lead that may be the next investigative bombshell but may go nowhere.

There's no better feeling than scooping the competition. There's no worse feeling that getting scooped.

Unless it's the feeling of being scooped and feeling like you never had a chance in the first place.