Wick Communications

So much for transparency

In journalism on 4 Aug 2011 at 2:39 pm

The New York Times periodically publishes something called “The Story Behind the Story” and pushes it via email to subscribers. I got one this week that raised two relevant points for me and I thought I would share them here.

The first is that reporting of the type accomplished by Times reporters every day takes skill and dexterity that is simply beyond the scope of the vast majority of citizen journalists who some think will one day take our collective place. That is evident in the story behind the story of the Times scoop that the rape case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was disintegrating in the hands of prosecutors.

It’s clear that Times reporters (that is lead reporter Willy Rashbaum in the photo) had unique court sourcing built over the course of years of pounding the beat in New York. Equally important, the newspaper of record spared no expense chasing the story. The report, put together by metro editor Carolyn Ryan, says that the newspaper sent its West Africa bureau chief 10 hours over rutted roads to find friends and family of the accuser. That information formed important background in the story. That kind of reporting will always be beyond the scope of independent bloggers. …

Secondly, the Times apparently does not cotton to the currently popular notion that it should share its inner workings with the world even as it is working to unravel a story. Ryan says that shortly before deadline she leaned her head in the office of Executive Editor Bill Keller to say they had the story that the rape case with international ramifications was falling apart.

Here’s Ryan:

To avoid tipping off our competitors, especially our ferocious tabloid rivals, I told Bill I was not including the story on our daily news budget, which is widely distributed around the building and to our news service clients. I also did not talk about the story at our 4 p.m. news meeting, when the senior editors gather to select stories for Page 1.

But Bill let us know that if we could nail down the story and the sourcing, it would go on the front page.

A couple hours later, the team had nailed the story. Law enforcement no longer trusted the truthfulness of the accuser. Ryan again:

We broke the news online shortly after 9 p.m. At 9:13 p.m., a news alert went out to our e-mail subscribers with a link to the story: “Strauss-Kahn Prosecution Said to Be Near Collapse.”

Within minutes, Twitter lit up with people commenting on and re-tweeting the story. Requests for interviews with our reporters, from NPR to the BBC, flowed in. Insomniacs in France noticed the news and it spread quickly there, with French media calling the Times report a “thunderbolt.”

Such thunderbolts may seem relics for a time when the mainstream media controlled the climate. Lately, many innovative newsrooms have made news for broadcasting their newsroom meetings and inviting every Tom, Dick and Harry in to hang out in the newsroom. It’s all supposed to be very hip. Were the Times to do that, its scoop would have been “stolen” and pasted on blogs from Poughkeepsie to Paris.

There is absolutely a need to be more transparent with our journalism and internal practices. We should invite more scrutiny and let our readers know how we do our jobs. But I like the stormy weather that only a crack newspaper staff can generate. I’m a fan of thunderbolts and lightning.



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