News reporters are hard-wired to find out new and interesting things before anyone else. For many that's a one-line job description. But what makes a scoop in 2012? And does it still matter if journalists beat each to report news first, in an age where news and information are disseminated, shared and repeated endlessly within seconds of publishing?
Earlier this month, a Reuters reporter tweeted that a Disney executive had stepped down. The same reporter was upset that other hacks online weren't crediting this scoop.
But a New York Times' reporter claimed that it was in fact he who broke the story on Twitter. The difference between the two tweets? 26 seconds. The two sides then descended into bickering over who should credit whom.
Poynter has a timeline of the full scrap (and I've discussed this incident in the TheMediaBriefing daily newsletters - sign up to get similar early morning thoughts on things like this). What does this say about journalism and publishing?
As New York University academic Jay Rosen puts it:
Getting it first is (almost) never about the users. But it's always about the journalists. bit.ly/AawwxQ— Jay Rosen(@jayrosen_nyu) January 22, 2012
Being first isn't the same as being the best
Genuine exclusives still matter and we need reporters with resources and courage to ask difficult questions, in general and specialist news.
But to report something that isn't that hard to obtain a few seconds before a rival has little value to advertisers or readers. News of the Disney executive stepping down as mentioned above was emailed to thousands of people at Disney - it's hardly an exclusive.
Rosen argues there are four kinds of scoops:
1. The enterprise scoop: something genuinely new and interesting, involving an original idea and a lot of effort. Nick Davies's investigations into News Corp's payments on phone hacking would be a good example.
2. The ego scoop: Reporting something first that is destined to soon become public knowledge.
I'm reminded here of football transfer news, much of which turns out to be false rumour-mongering or announced shortly after (or, if it's in print, before) the story is published.
3. The trader scoop: Market-specific, time-sensitive information that can affect the decisions of, for example, finance professionals in real-time. Former Reuters head of mobile Ilicco Elia made this point to me yesterday:
@psmith beating competition by 26secs absolutely helps your business in the right context. that's probably equiv. to 2 trader-years— ilicco elia (@ilicco) April 29, 2012
4. The thought scoop: When a journalist understands, recognises and explains a trend - giving new insight to a changing situation. I'm reminded of The Economist which so often makes waves with its strident free market views on business and politics, coining phrases and defining trends as it goes.
Speed does matter - but so does quality
But hang on - speed does matter. In a digital age people want to have confidence that their favoured news site will have the latest news.
But the success of general interest news sites is increasingly based on their ability to report events as they happen, whether sport, politics or armed sieges. The liveblog isn't a particularly new innovation but its contribution to pageviews - if you ask Guardian.co.uk or Telegraph.co.uk web managers, for example - is vast and growing quickly.
The trader point Rosen makes is crucial - millions of dollars could be riding on Reuters' or Bloomberg's ability to stand up a story. That's why investors and traders pay Reuters hefty sums to access real-time news and data.
Whether general news reporters need to act in such a time-sensitive manner, I'm not sure. I fear the people who really care about competition are journalists themselves.
Journalists will be well aware that titles within the same group are fiercely competing instead of sharing resources - News of the World (RIP) vs The Sun, Daily Telegraph vs Sunday Telegraph, BBC Newsnight vs BBC News at 10 and so on. All in the name of "beating" rivals in your own office, without stopping to think whether this is good for the readers and advertisers.
There's a serious point to this and it's not just about better journalism. In a smaller, less profitable, less well-resourced media industry can we afford not to put audience and commercial clients ahead of ego and industrial tradition?