Competition alive and kicking in newsrooms

October 10, 2004|By Paul Moore

THOSE who claim that the diminished number of daily newspapers in the United States means there is less competition haven't been in a newsroom lately. No one I know at The Sun accepts being beaten on a story by another news organization, especially on a story about Baltimore or Maryland.

Competitive zeal is bred in the bone of most newspaper reporters and editors. It is an essential ingredient for success. If your news-gathering process is seen as passive or slow, it hurts your personal and institutional pride and damages readers' perception of your newspaper.

The Sun and The Washington Post battled daily for weeks during the sniper shootings in the fall of 2002. The battle was fueled by determination to get the latest and best information and to go beyond the other newspaper's work. That The Sun was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its reporting shows how competition can drive quality.

Selected stories of the past week illustrate how this situation can play out: how being out front one day can turn into playing catch-up the next.

A number of news stories chronicled the process of Major League Baseball's decision to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C. The effect of the move on the Orioles and the compensation demanded by owner Peter Angelos were the most important parts of the story for Sun readers and O's fans. Recognizing this importance, the newspaper enlisted the expertise and experience of Jon Morgan, the newspaper's current regional editor, who is a former sports-business reporter.

During the week that baseball officially returned to Washington, Morgan and his colleagues reported the essential elements of the deal that Angelos and MLB were negotiating. (Final details are being worked out.) Competitors, including The Washington Post, were citing The Sun's reporting on their Web sites.

The Oct. 1 edition of the Post, however, had a front-page story reporting that Angelos would be able to sell the Orioles for no less than $360 million, a guaranteed price that would escalate over time. The Sun did not have a story with that information that day.

"I noticed that The Washington Post beat you on the Angelos story today," said one reader. "What's going on?"

The Sun's editor, Tim Franklin, was not happy. "We can't be beaten on a story so important to Baltimore," he said. Franklin hates getting beaten on a major story, because a competitor will receive the attribution and "a reader will logically wonder: Is someone at The Sun asleep at the switch? Is The Sun plugged in to what's going on?'"

Morgan said of the Post: "They did get the $360 million figure first, and for that I will be kicking myself for many years to come." The Sun's follow-up article, co-written by Morgan, was substantial and corrected several discrepancies in the Post's story. "We got back in the game," Morgan said.

In another sports-related story, The Sun recovered from a slow start to report exclusively in the Oct. 2 edition that Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis had agreed to a plea-bargain deal in his drug conspiracy case. The newspaper also was the first to report that Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli and his coaching staff would return for the 2005 season.

These two examples are not cause for celebration. This is what beat reporters are supposed to do: produce news.

In another story, it was reported on Oct. 1 that CIA director Porter J. Goss would, among other things, replace A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard as CIA executive director, the No. 3 position in the agency. Krongard is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Alex. Brown Inc., the prominent Baltimore investment company that was sold in 1998.

Ann Cherry of Baltimore was one of several readers who complained that The Sun did not report on the story. "I read about it in The New York Times and The Washington Post. It's distressing that our local newspaper did not pursue this. Krongard is a prominent man who is very well known in the Baltimore region."

The Sun did report on Krongard's removal, but it was underplayed as a three-paragraph "national brief" that many readers missed. In the Oct. 6 edition, the newspaper produced a staff-written story, "Krongard unclear on future after the CIA," which ran on Page 3A.

Being aggressive does not mean lowering standards to publish or broadcast a story before it is completely checked out. CBS' inadequately reported story about President Bush's Air National Guard records is the best recent example of that.

"In terms of expectations, I think even the best beat reporters will on rare occasions get beaten," Tim Franklin said. "The key word in that sentence, however, is `rare.'"

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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