The value of scoops vs. collaboration

Steve Baker laments that he could not blog to the world about the gigantic Business Week cover story on math that he has been working on for months. It frustrated him not being able to talk about what was consuming his days because Steve is now living the transparent lifestyle. I know, because Steve told me about it over lunch but swore me to secrecy until the thing was out. And knowing Steve, I’m sure it also frustrated him that he could not tap the knowledge and generosity of his readers and fellow bloggers — and there are, no doubt, plenty of amazing mathematicians among them who could have enriched the story and even enlarged the audience. (And I’m not one of them.)

So I’m about to say something patently naive but I say it to raise a question:

Is it better for Steve and Business Week to have held back their story from public view until it was packaged and polished and delivered in print, or to have sought out the best advice on it from an informed public by seeking collaboration via Steve’s blog as the story was being formed? Which produces a better product and a better business?

Of course, the magazine vets would say that they could not possibly let the world know about such a megastory because then the competitors would steal the scoop. How silly of me even to ask. But what competitors: US Weekly? And if Fortune came along and did its mondomath story, at least colleagues in the business would know it was a ratty thing to do, stealing from Steve’s blog, indicating they didn’t have ideas of their own.

If publications shared what they were working on and if the practice succeeded in improving stories — and, indeed, in drumming up excitement for them — then they’d all end up doing this and all would fear being stolen from. Honor among hacks.

: The bigger question is whether there is value left in the scoop. As good as it is, will that math story really drive extra newsstand sales (no matter how much Steve tried to get them to sex it up)?

Or is the essence of a magazine — and its strength in a world where content has been dethroned by connections — that it is about an ongoing relationship with a public that shares interests? Obviously — except for the aforementioned US and other outlets of bodily fluids journalism — I’d vote for the latter. Perhaps it is better to create the means for that community of shared interests, needs, and expertise to improve stories and gain and share knowledge. Perhaps it is better to make magazines less of a product and more of a process, less of a subscription to a thing and more of a membership to a community. Stop me before I go too far. Oh, too late.

: Now let’s ask, what is the value of the scoop in the more timely media of newspaper and broadcast? Do scoops really drive the business? Or do they stoke the ego? Here, too, I’ll vote for the latter. Now you could argue that in this marketplace, where Google kills brands and levels the content playing field, it’s more necessary than ever to have the scoops and exclus and stars that separate you from the pack. Except I’m not sure they do separate you. My wife reads newspapers and magazines far more loyally and diligently than I do and she remembers every fascinating thing she finds … except she never remembers where she reads the stories she repeats because that matters only to me, not to her. My mother used to quote stories to me that she’d read in the Chicago Tribune, when we all lived there — even when I had written them. Bylines and scoops and exclus are not worth as much as we assume they are.

: I just came back from the Online Publishers Association confab, where I spoke at the end, and I said that we waste too much resource and money on ego: on having our own movie critic, though the movies are the same everywhere and the opinions that matter are those of the audience; on having our own golf writer go to the tournament far away, though the score is the same as the one reported hours before on TV; on sending our own political pundits to the political conventions, when nothing happens there.

And perhaps holding back stories like that Business Week cover also carries a price. Perhaps involving the public of interested and expert people will bring more knowledge to the story and to the community gathering around that formerly print brand. And perhaps that community will help market itself, linking to the discussion and the story to tell people who wouldn’t have otherwise cared that Business Week has a story about math that will interest them; perhaps that’s the real newsstand bump you want.

As the news industry faces huge business challenges and the urgent need to find new efficiencies, one of the questions it has to ask is what the real value — and cost — of scoops, exclus, stars, and secrecy are. Or to put it another way: How much are we investing in institutional — and often, personal — ego that should be invested in better information and stronger relationships?

: LATER: Little did I know that this also applies to the Philippine energy sector.

  • I’m not sure your question is all that naive considering what I just did.

    I read the first paragraph of your blog entry. Given ‘math’ is at the core of two portfolio companies, I zipped over to business week, set the article in printer friendly format, grabbed it to read later, and returned to your blog entry. 3 clicks, a cut -n- paste, and I’m back here.

    The packaging? Ads? Polish? Ready for “print?” Didn’t matter to me.

    While I don’t know what the right answer is, I suspect far more people do what I did which means, Biz week, etc, need to think about the business in a truly new way and your comments appear to be a good start.

  • Ego in the journalism biz?

    What a preposterous accusation!


    The “scoop” really is worthless or minimally very over-rated. I could break a big sports story on my blog and get a million hits, but the next day everyone will still hit for their sports news. Even breaking a huge story wouldn’t guarantee me the million hits if other more popular sites picked up the story and ran with it themselves. But this is all obvious.

    I recently heard a bunch of puerile sportswriters in Boston try to excuse their aggressive and nasty reporting with, “….well it’s a competitive biz….so being first is important…”

    Show me the survey proving that customers rank the “scoop” over content, entertainment value, price, etc.

    Then again, not much of the Big Media business is consumer-centric.

    Neither the content nor their business practices have ever been truly empirically driven.

  • Jeff, The funny thing to me is how the story could even be a “secret,” in any sense of the word, given how many people I interviewed all over the place. What’s more, I think I’d be flattering myself to think our competitors would dive into something as big and unwieldy as math just to cut me off at the pass. So it might have made sense to open-source it.

    That said, if I had kept blog readers stringing along for months and months on the story, they might have gotten fed up and said, enough math already! I certainly felt that way more than once.

  • afsvfan

    businessweek should copy the fortune 500 list in businessweek to see if
    fortune notices.

    businessweek can also copy wikipedia entries and see if anyone notices.

    math stories are boring….if they tell it in a boring way. ipod news is
    more exciting to average people.

    cnn had lots of people exclusives in the katrina flood .. and now cnn
    doesn’t care to give updates on all those people they put on the tv .

  • Dave Morgan

    I’m with you all the way on this one Jeff. Magazine readers buy the package, not just the content; particulalry in non-dailiers. This was not breaking news. Letting blog readers in on the story early would have helped the story and its promotion. It would have been a win-win.

  • I think Steve Baker showed that he gets it, which is more than can be said about so many other journalists. It was smart to post about this on his blog. He couldn’t talk about it before the story came out, but he sure as hell is generating buzz now through the blogosphere by bringing up a great issue. This makes his blog and his magazine more relevant, and in touch.

    It amazes me how many newspaper articles you read without a place to post a comment or even email the author. This is medieval. Journalists will have to collaborate with their readers in the future. It has already started -look at Ohmynews. Refusing to do it will put you at a disadvantage. This does not mean surrendering standards. Journalists can add value by adding their own expertise and crafting great writing.

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  • It’s what some reporters at the International Herald Tribune are doing, started by Thomas Crampton. They’ve set up a blog invting people to comment on technology issues. Interesting comments may be reprinted in the technology pages of their newspaper – onlne and print. Worth a look.

  • A loose parallel to this situation is what Shel Israel & Robert Scoble did with their book. They’ve both been clear that the book is better for all the outside input they received. Though Baker, Israel & Scoble all have large audiences from a blogosphere standpoint, they are small by comparison to the audience they’d like their end product to reach so I really doubt “open-sourcing” it would have negatively affected their ultimate readership. Quite to the contrary as you point out (i.e., the potential for buzz by opening up). Having read & subscribed to a boatload of magazines over the years, I never would have listed “scoops” and “exclusives” as on my top 10 list of why I read/subscribed.

  • What about the “ambush” story. If a reporter is getting info by playing one source against another premature revelation of what is afoot may cause others to clam up.

    Sometimes keeping what one is working on secret seems like the best way to uncover the details.

  • Yes, Robert, thanks, that’s the obvious caveat I forgot to give: Of course, if a story can be ruined by being revealed, then it won’t be revealed. And that holds not just for collaborative efforts such as I suggest here but also for making news meetings public, as CBS and others are trying.

  • FYJ

    With all due respect, there’s no scoop in that piece. Baker’s tied together developments in different parts of the business world to show a pattern or a trend that readers might not have been aware of, but I didn’t see anything in the story that was a secret before Baker got to it.

    A scoop is when you find out your city’s major-league baseball team is on the verge of picking up and moving, or a major company is about to go bust (or start a massive hiring spree), or the mayor’s up to his neck in kickbacks — when you uncover important facts that had not previously been public. You keep those secret until you can publish them because the fact they’re not publicly known constitutes your whole competitive advantage. If you run a daily paper, all you want is to be first by one day; if you put the information out for free on the afternoon you learn about it, and let the other guy match it in time for tomorrow’s paper, you’re giving up one major reason why people buy your newspaper instead of the other guy’s.

    Even if consumers aren’t as focused on particular scoops and exclusives as the journalists are, such things must play a role in readers’/viewers’ choice of media outlet. If you’re at all interested in the news, you’re going to be aware of it when your morning paper includes nothing you didn’t hear on the radio on the drive home yesterday.

    In the case of the math story, the competition isn’t likely to try to match it. The thing BusinessWeek is selling is less having spotted the pattern, and more the depth of the reporting and the quality of the writing, both of which can presumably be improved by “open-sourcing” the story.

  • I’m’ using “scoop” broadly because big media outlets tend to treat most of their stories as if they were scoops.

  • Hi Jeff:

    This discussion is treating the story as a finished product. But that is not how information works. Each bit of information helps grow new information. So when Business Week releases a story isn’t as important as when Business Week or its author or it audience walks away from a story. If this package were considered as Business Week story release 1.0, then there would be plenty of room to get readers interested in helping develop the next rendition of this story into 2.0.

    Let’s stop treating stories as corpses that get sent to the morgue, but as living pieces of information that can still grow and be transformed into other forms of knowledge. Of course, that already happens informally with anything worthwhile that is written. It becomes part of a greater knowledge pool, which then helps produce new ideas.

    The question for places like Business Week is: Does it make sense to help formalize the process? Does Business Week want to write the definite story with help of its audience over a longer period of time or just release the story –the kernel idea — and let it develop as it may?

  • Marina Architect

    Clearly, breaking news and off-record insight of an insider is what excites people and builds loyalty. No question that’s what gets your feed subscribed.

    Investigative journalism that requires 6 weeks of research definitely benefits from open source community involvement. Look at Chris Anderson, Scoble and others who have written books and blogged simultaneously.

    If you are worried about someone running with your idea, then you are in the closed mindspace. Despite the lack of explicit hierarchy, an implicit consensus cred exists. People credit those who originate ideas.

    In fact, let people build on your ideas and potentially improve them without your subsequnet contribution: hat the life of the modern man/woman.

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  • Can’t speak for anyone else, but comments like the prior one by Publishing 2.0 really chafe me.

    There are other ways to generate web traffic to one’s site. Cluttering up these message threads with “I am talking about it too” posts reeks more of spam than anything else.

    Just my humble opinion.

  • I think Jeff may be pleased with the new site Josh Marshall is starting,

    He has solicited contributions to enable him to hire two muckrakers and is already asking readers to forward news items to be investigated. While he is getting his new site operational he has a daily muck posting on his site.

    By getting his funding from viewers he insulates himself from the problems that advertising brings up as well. I assume there will be some degree of interactivity on the new site as well.

    I’m constantly surprised how such a young fellow can channel I.F. Stone so well.

  • I stopped by to post a comment — to contribute to the conversation here after having drafted off of Jeff’s post in a post on my site — when I saw CaptiousNut’s comment calling the automatic trackback from my site “spam.” There are so many things wrong with CaptiousNut’s argument, but I’m really glad he posted the comment because it’s a crucial issue in this conversation.

    There’s a reason why blogging software like WordPress automatically generates these trackbacks — to expand the conversation (or the collaboration, to use Jeff’s term). I didn’t consciously generate the trackback above. WordPress did it automatically when I linked to Jeff’s post — someone will no doubt point out that there’s a way to turn that off.

    But even if there is a way to turn off the trackback feature, CaptiousNut’s comment still smacks of censorship. Does Jeff have a copyright on this conversation? What about Jeff linikng to Steve Baker’s blog post. By this logic, Jeff should have posted his thoughts there rather than post his thoughts on his own site.

    There’s a bigger issue, though, that gets to Jeff’s question about scooping vs. collaboration. Did Jeff “scoop” this issue by writing about it first, so that I shouldn’t be permitted to write about it also and then generate a link here? (Sounds pretty Old Media to me.) Or is this linking from one blog to another an essential part of collaboration? CaptiousNut seems to suggest that Jeff “owns” the conversation, but it was actually Steve Baker who started it.

    Think of it in terms of brand. BuzzMachine has a huge amount of brand equity, while Publishing 2.0 has none at this point. Why shouldn’t there be an open competition between brands? The power of BuzzMachine’s brand should keep the conversation here, not censorship of a link to Publishing 2.0. And if people link of Jeff’s site to my site, it doesn’t mean they won’t come back.

    If Jeff agrees with CaptiousNut that my trackback is spam, then he should just delete it. But I suspect he won’t because he practices what he preaches.

  • Captious clearly didn’t understand that the first publ 2.0 link was WordPress’ form of a trackback and overreacted.
    Scott, I think you, in turn, overreacted.
    That’s all a misunderstanding.
    Now let’s get back to the conversation, which I’m enjoying.

  • I think Marina Architect has it right. Linking and citing in the blogosphere make it possible to track a conversation back to its source. We may spend time here discussing it on Jeff’s blog, but we can still see that it originated with Steve Baker — Jeff’s post is probably generating a lot of traffic for Steve.

    Recently, a post on Lloyd Shepherd’s site ignited a debate about DRM, which I followed across numerous blogs, but everywhere I went — and this is remarkable — Lloyd was cited as the source of the debate. Lloyd could publish an article in the Guardian, and the blogosphere would probably make the link for him.

    If journalists open-sources their writing processes, the quality of their ideas will in effect protect the “scoop” — the blogosphere may run off with the conversation, but, at least among Old Media, if another brand tries to to scoop the topic, the blogosphere will keep credit where credit is due.

  • Attribution would seem to be a key component in maintaining the ‘credit for originality. Customer focus is a major issue, particularly, the contention it is lacking in traditional media.

    Consider a newspaper that scores a sponsorship deal for a series on a new, locally developed, technology, for waste management. What’s the key factor in this scenario, first to publish, or taking an originator position, creating discussion? Which of the three parties media company , sponsor, and audience benefits the most from which action?

    Managing the client relationship, while promoting discussion is high risk wire act. until the value in discussion can be quantified. When that happens, ‘scoop’ takes on new relevancy morphing from destination to origination. Then scoop becomes source.

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  • I just came back from the Online Publishers Association confab, where I spoke at the end, and I said that we waste too much resource and money on ego: on having our own movie critic, though the movies are the same everywhere and the opinions that matter are those of the audience; on having our own golf writer go to the tournament far away, though the score is the same as the one reported hours before on TV; on sending our own political pundits to the political conventions, when nothing happens there.

    But what’s left when we’ve effaced the ego entirely, Jeff? While it’s true that the new media works through aggregation and collaboration, remember that what is being aggregated has a significant “old media” component. Think of the movie criticism site Rotten Tomatoes — what makes it work is that it turns all of those superfluous movie critics you deride into a fairly good metric of a film’s worth. Would the site be nearly as useful or well-visited if it were composed only of audience feedback? Probably not.

    Like it or not the ego matters in the new media just as much as it did in the old. Would I rather read Peter Gammons’ take on the 2006 baseball season or YankeeFan647 who thinks the Red Sox are “teh sux0r”? Here in Boston I have all manners of local quality sportswriting to choose from, as well as websites who specifically aggregate and comment on the old media’s coverage. While I enjoy the new media’s metacommentary, would it be nearly as valuable or entertaining without a good old fashioned ego-driven commentary at its root?

    This is not so much about the value of the “scoop” as it is the singular narrative voice. Truly no one is disputing the usefulness of the open-source approach in the new media, but does that mean every effort must be a collaborative one?

  • While you raise some valid points about the benefits of collaboration and scoops, I tend to veer away from having “too many cooks.”

    “Is it better for Steve and Business Week to have held back their story from public view until it was packaged and polished and delivered in print, or to have sought out the best advice on it from an informed public by seeking collaboration via Steve’s blog as the story was being formed? Which produces a better product and a better business?”

    While seeking assistance is nice, Stephen Baker has newsrooms filled with other professional journalists, plus the expert sources he did — and did not — seek out to assist with his story. Making the story development and writing process public would only drag it out, and dilute the final quality.
    — Mike

  • I was going to ask Mike if he was a Big Media guy but a link on his blog confirmed my suspicion.

    Big Media content is already excessively “diluted”. You guys simply do not get it. No one is buying the products and I guess there has been some directive to go out and blog to defend your ineptitude.

    If only it were so easy.

    Incidentally, Rich Karlgaard recently did a blog post on “Zero Summers” and then wrote a column on it later. Not sure if it was by design or aided in the writing process. One would have to ask him, but it certainly didn’t negatively affect the its outstanding quality.

    But then again, the third-stringers at Forbes can out-pen anyone at Bweek.

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