The decline of big media scoops


New York Times columnist David Carr’s piece this week about the decline of big, traditional media outlets breaking news was hardly, well news. But it is interesting that the issue is being raised in one of the oldest papers in the country and he raises some interesting points.

His opening anecdote about New York centric web site Gawker breaking the story of Toronto mayor Rob Ford possibly smoking crack on video and becoming the talk of the Canadian town points out the power of blogs. It also highlights how they’re able to bend journalism standards in pursuit of a story.

The Toronto Star, which had been looking into the story, immediately published its own take after the news broke, but Gawker then initiated a crowdsourced effort to buy the cellphone video. (The site reached its $200,000 goal, but by then the people who had claimed to have the video had gone to ground. John Cook, the editor of Gawker, says he still holds out a slim hope that the video will surface. Gawker will donate the money to an addiction recovery program in Canada if it doesn’t.)

The story got new life on Thursday morning, when law enforcement officials staged a huge raid in the area where the mayor is said to have been taped, and they made a number of arrests. All anybody could talk about was how it might affect the mayor. Mr. Ford has repeatedly denied that such a tape exists or that he uses crack cocaine.

By traditional news standards, what Gawker did was transgressive every which way: it called a sitting mayor of the fourth-largest city in North America a crackhead based on a video that it said it had seen but did not possess. It also asked its readers to chip in to pay for its version of journalism. (“Oh, you mean like The New York Times does every day with its paywall?” quipped Mr. Cook.)

But even though Gawker was working the far edge of journalistic practices, the rest of the press in Toronto was compelled to follow because the story was out there and taking on a life of its own.

It is not a totally new phenomenon. Any number of big stories have started out as untouchable in suspect news outlets like The National Enquirer, but eventually broke into the mainstream. But now information increasingly finds its own digital path, and if the news is big enough, it will be seen by all, regardless of who first puts it out in the world.

When I worked at Bloomberg, we often monitored and followed up on reports on blogs like Dealbreaker, Seeking Alpha and Business Insider. Many times the whole story wasn’t true, but there were parts of it that were and we spent hours chasing down facts.

And it’s hard to compete with platforms that can offer opinion, analysis and facts culled from various sites all in one place. Sources see this and can pick their outlets much easier. Carr makes a similar point.

The business disruption in the media world caused by the Internet has been well documented. But a monopoly on scoops, long a cherished franchise for established and muscular news organizations, is disappearing. Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen.

Sources and news subjects simply have far more options now. In politics, for instance, people who have had rocky relationships with the news media can just fire up a video camera, upload to the Web and set up their own little news channel. Sarah Palin did it when she retired, as did Michele Bachmann more recently. Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman, announced his candidacy for mayor of New York by releasing a video in the dead of night.

If an abuse of power akin to Watergate happened today, it might not take the might and muscle of The Washington Post to get the story. The Mitt Romney “47 percent” video, arguably a turning point in the last presidential campaign, came out on the Web site of Mother Jones, a relatively small liberal magazine.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism annual State of the News Media 2013 report highlights similar trends.

Efforts by political and corporate entities to get their messages into news coverage are nothing new. What is different now—adding up the data and industry developments—is that news organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever.

While traditional newsrooms have shrunk, however, there are other new players producing content that could advance citizens’ knowledge about public issues. They are covering subject areas that would have once been covered more regularly and deeply by beat reporters at traditional news outlets—areas such as health, science and education. The Kaiser Family Foundation was an early entrant with Kaiser Health News. Now others, such as, supported by the American Institute of Physics and others, and the Food and Environment Reporting Network with funding from nonprofit foundations are beginning to emerge. In the last year, more news outlets have begun to carry this content with direct attribution to the source. The Washington Post, for example, regularly carries articles bylined by Kaiser Health News and runs stories with a lead-in identifying the source.

For news organizations, distinguishing between high-quality information of public value and agenda-driven news has become an increasingly complicated task, made no easier in an era of economic churn.

All that means that consumers have many more choices and will likely have a harder time wading through all the noise to find the real facts. New media is important and pushing traditional media to stay on its toes is critical. For the sake of everyone, let’s hope that people realize the value of both types of news outlets.