The Kobe Bryant story: Do you want your news fast or right?

Scoops in the age of the internet…

For most of my career I have been proud to be associated with journalists….which reminds me of a story.

At one time Hearst newspapers did not allow their cartoonists to sign their work. When one of the cartoonists asked why the reporters could sign their work, but the cartoonists couldn’t, he was told that privilege was reserved for journalists.

When the cartoonist asked, “Isn’t a cartoonist a journalist?” here’s the answer he received:

“Is a barnacle a ship?”

I had my own metaphor for our relationship with our employers: cartoonists were like Key West. A fun island connected to the rest of the country by a long, narrow bridge easily wiped out in a storm.

So whether or not I was a journalist – a debatable point – I was proud to work for the newspapers that kept people informed and performed an important role in a democracy.

Cashing in

Many newspapers used to be family owned and were often enormously profitable. So let’s say some guy with money and a sense of civic duty decides to start the Horse’s Breath, Wyoming Chronicle and it does OK: it makes money and provides a public a service.

Now let’s say the old man who started the paper and believed in its mission croaks and his kids – who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the public’s right to know – realize they can cash in, sell the paper and walk away rich. Or someone decides to take the newspaper public, sell stock and now it has stockholders who want to see a profit on their investment.

Newspapers have to be profitable to survive, but now just being profitable may not be enough…the people in charge want the paper to continue to be enormously profitable and as times change that becomes more and more difficult.

If your interest in journalism is mainly financial you probably want to know what’s the least I can put in and still generate maximum returns. Making a profit is not enough; you need to make a big enough profit to keep the stockholders happy.

The Low-Hanging Fruit

First off, I kinda hate the phrase “low-hanging fruit” because it’s usually corporate-speak for “let’s do the easiest thing possible.” And if you’re in journalism and want to do the easiest thing possible it’s running wire stories, “curating” (a new word for stealing) stuff from somewhere else or doing the easiest stories you can find.

Anytime you see a news organization do a difficult, exhaustive investigative series you should give them credit; those stories are expensive and hard to do. That’s the fruit at the top of the tree and you have to do a lot of climbing to reach it and might fall out of the damn tree in the process.

Scoops – having the news before everybody else – is a good way to generate page clicks or readership, but they’re not what they used to be. In the old days when everyone got their news from a paper, having a scoop meant having an exclusive on that story for 24 hours.

These days it’s more like 24 seconds.

The news about Kobe

I was watching the NFL Pro Bowl when they broke in with the news about Kobe Bryant and the helicopter crash.

Apparently the story was first broken by TMZ.

But when I decided I wanted to hear more about the Kobe Bryant story, I did not go to TMZ and here’s why: Google “stories TMZ got wrong” and before you finish that phrase numerous options appear. I looked at one from the Elite Daily and found a list of stuff TMZ got wrong, including:

  • Lil Wayne’s death

  • Miley Cyrus’ death

  • Posting a false photo of Whitney Houston’s body

  • Posting a false photo of JFK

There were a lot more examples, but you get the gist; TMZ often has the news first, but do they have the news right?

So instead of going to TMZ I watched ESPN and CNN because I consider them more credible. But even credible sources of news screw up when they get in a rush to compete with their less credible competitors: I heard a reporter apologizing for reporting that all four of Kobe Bryant’s children had perished in the crash.

Kind of a big thing to screw up.

And as one official said; nobody should hear they lost a loved one off TV. Give the people in charge time to confirm the truth and notify the families before you decide to go with a half-baked rumor just because that half-baked rumor will generate viewers and give you a scoop.

This morning the New York Times had a story headlined: “In Haste to Confirm Kobe Bryant News, News Media Stumbles.” The internet is pushing news organizations to post stories as quickly as possible and when you do that mistakes are made.

Isn’t there an alternative?

The sales pitch newspapers don’t make, but ought to

These days, if you want the news you have more choices than a Baskin-Robbins customer. Too many choices and not knowing which one to believe isn’t the only problem we face.

I recently saw Barack Obama talking with David Letterman and the former president said we’re all living in our own news bubble: do an internet search on a subject and you’ll be given options based on your previous internet history. Liberals will be directed to liberal sources and conservatives will be directed to conservative sources so we call all have our biases confirmed.

We no longer have an agreed upon set of facts supplied by a credible source, but we could.

I have covered the Kansas City Royals since 2010 and it always bugs me when some sports-talk radio guy I’ve never seen at a game or in the clubhouse claim some expertise on the Royals.

I’d go back to the paper and say why don’t we point out that we have people at every game; we know the players, the manager, the general manager and the guy who cuts the grass before every game and we talk to them all the time. If you want to know about the Royals or city government or any other local subject that we cover, come to us.

For some reason newspapers always seemed reluctant to blow their own horn or put a dent in somebody else’s. Instead of playing to their strength, way too often newspapers have imitated the worst aspects of their competitors.

I’d like to think there’s a successful business model in saying we may not be the first to report a story, but when we do report our story will be complete and right and credible. Turn a newspaper’s weakness into a strength.

So we’re back where we started: do you want your news fast or right?

Fast you can have immediately, right takes a little longer.