Redefinition of online scoops: Online journalists' personal and institutional responses to online scoops
First Monday

Redefinition of online scoops: Online journalists' personal and institutional responses to online scoops by Jeongsub Lim



Abstract
Online news circulates at a fast pace on a real–time basis. It is necessary for online journalists to deal with breaking news at each stage of the news–making process. This process is a part of the institutionalization rooted in the production of online news. On the basis of such observations, this study includes findings from interviews with Korean online journalists to determine how they perceive the nature of scoops in relation to their competitors and how they respond to scoops. This study is meaningful in that its empirical findings provide baseline information for theorizing about the online production of news. This study also reveals that perceptions of online scoops have been redefined among online journalists. Furthermore, institutions and individual intuitions guide online journalists’ news production.

Contents

Introduction
Instant publishing of online scoops
Social media as tools for breaking scoops
Institutional orientations: Monitoring and lack of relevant stories
Method
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

When compared with newspapers, television, and radio, news Web sites employ profitable modes of news production. News Web sites produce and distribute content during a 24–hour news cycle without fixed deadlines. These sites are continuously updating publicized content with additional information and correcting inaccurate reporting promptly. Although the update cycle varies for news Web sites, traditional news media cannot overcome the update speed of news Web sites. Instead, newspapers have forsaken competing with online media that provide instant news (Lewis and Cushion, 2009). The fast update cycle enables users to compare fresh stories with earlier stories. Furthermore, online stories are linked to such multimedia content as photographs, graphics, videos, or audio clips (Redden and Witschge, 2009). By weaving through the content, users can enjoy a richer variety of imagery and sounds than with newspaper stories and television news.

Considering these features of online news production, we were interested in the responses of online journalists to competitors’ scoops. The answers would reveal intriguing information about online news. Because news Web sites publish content instantly, news stories may resemble competitors’ scoops. The number of “hits” for news stories indicates online journalists’ successful job performance; thus, they may want to break stories on news Web sites so that competitors will follow them. These two assumptions imply that the production of online scoops can involve personal characteristics of online journalists and institutional rules that guide the production of news. This study examines the responses of online journalists to scoops and implications for the production of future exclusive news stories. Key ideas include institutional orientations controlling news–making processes (Lowrey, 2011).

This study is meaningful in three regards. First, the nature of online scoops has not received full attention from previous researchers; therefore, a close examination of the production of scoops will be beneficial. Second, an objective of this study is demonstrating that online scoops are determined by the combination of online journalists’ intuitions and institutional rules associated with news production. Finally, the results of this study provide online journalists with an opportunity to reflect on their news–making practices from a detached perspective.

 

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Instant publishing of online scoops

Scoops for traditional news media are defined as exclusive “new” stories published by one news organization and missed by competitors (Lewis and Cushion, 2009; Shaw, 2006). Scoops usually feature items of significant impact on society. The ability to generate scoops is an important criterion for evaluating the job performance of traditional journalists. The extent to which journalists produce a front–page story or prime–time television news story exemplifies their ability and reputation. More important, journalists who break news demonstrate their leadership on the beats, which is important to the journalists’ sources and to their news users (Grueskin, 2013). In other words, sources are willing to divulge information to journalists who break news and to collect information from them, and news users want to be informed by the scoops. This pursuit of exclusiveness is characterized as “scoop mentality” (Gahran, 2011). The mentality is accepted by most traditional journalists, and an actual scoop is equivalent to an honor.

However, the notion of online scoops is widely different from these traditional scoops in the following regards (Alejandro, 2010). First, news users want information at the same time that journalists obtain it. Thus, the users want to access online scoops immediately as journalists produce. However, news consumers of traditional media are forced to wait until newspapers are delivered or prime–time news is aired. Second, when journalists hold a story until it is complete, they risk being scooped by competitors and amateur journalists (e.g., bloggers or citizen journalists). This situation promotes this instant breaking news. Traditional scoops are hardly noticed by competitors because they are put off until deadline. Third, online scoops are based on the fast news cycle, often coined as “24–hour news cycle,” “1,440–minute news cycle,” or “86,400–second news cycle” (Gillmor, 2011). In contrast, traditional scoops are constrained under the relatively slow news cycle of newspapers or television. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube promote instant delivery of the latest news. This cycle of every–second, every–minute deadline has satisfied news users’ insatiable appetite for new information (Gillmor, 2011). News Web sites take risks of breaking stories without the standards of verification; further, viral online communication allows news to circulate instantly among interpersonal networks (Chadwick, 2011). Thus, political news is published first online, subsequently attracting television and newspaper journalists.

From 2004 to 2007, British television news programs (e.g., BBC News 24 and Sky News) designated more stories as breaking news and spent more time on breaking stories (Lewis and Cushion, 2009). This trend reflected the technological advances that provided reporters with better positions to break stories. Given that online news is facilitated by diverse technological features, it is likely that breaking a story on the Web is more prevalent among news Web sites than traditional news media. Social media play three important roles for major news media (Bakhurst, 2011). First, social media allow news media to collect more or better news materials (e.g., ideas or witness) quickly. Second, social media provide news media with innovative ways of listening to and talking to news users while enabling the news organizations to deal with diverse news audiences. Third, social media help news media distribute news and attract people. Print journalists have no luxury of waiting for deadline for the publication of news because live–tweeting has been common journalistic reporting to be competitive (Clayfield, 2012). Twitter has changed even the way in which sport journalists produce news. The Denver Post’s sport journalists break stories first on Twitter and on Facebook and they provide the readers with the link to a full story on the news Web site (Jones, 2010). In this sense, Twitter is an essential tool for disseminating breaking news.

Two types of online scoops have emerged (Gahran, 2011). First, exclusives are developed by journalists to enrich the public discourse about certain topics or to promote greater diversity of news. Second, news stories that are reported first (before competitors) are regarded as scoops. For example, the Dallas Morning News first broke the story on its Web site on 28 January 1997 about Timothy McVeigh’s alleged jailhouse confession; the online story was published on the Web site seven hours before the saturday print edition hit the newsstands (Allan, 2006). Coverage of exit poll results during presidential elections is also categorized as this type of scoop, and inaccuracies in this type of reporting often lead to deterioration in the quality of journalism (Gahran, 2011). Given that journalists cover the same beats as their competitors, the scoop that edges out competitors is hard to secure because of intense rivalry (Gans, 1980).

Instant publication of a scoop on a Web site promotes immediate coverage of the news story by other Web sites; such online stories are published typically as contextual news packaged with hypertexts, analyses, and interpretations (Kim, 2002; Lim, 2006). When a news Web site breaks an important story, competitors accept the story and publish similar stories. When the New York Times broke a story on 16 December 2005, under the headline “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers without Courts” and further related stories, USA Today and the Washington Post followed 22.1 percent of the stories (Lim, 2011). These two newspapers covered 25 percent of Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal stories in the New York Times after the newspaper broke a story headlined “Spitzer is Linked to Prostitution Ring.”

However, instant publishing has negative consequences, such as allowing competitors to develop a scoop and even take the credit for breaking a story (Shaw, 2006). News media engage in reactive coverage, often reporting what officials say while focusing on the public’s demand for novelty; as a result, standards of accurate reporting are eroding (Hanson, 1997). In the online news market, the time lag between scooping and being scooped is so small that users hardly notice the lag. Users appear to have little interest in which news Web site breaks the story.

 

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Social media as tools for breaking scoops

The popularity of social media erodes the capability of news media to break news because Twitter posts the first story; Facebook publishes the first image of a person; and YouTube posts the first video of news events (Bakhurst, 2011). In particular, Twitter is a new newswire that breaks stories because Twitter links news outlets to active users through social networks, which is called “Twittersphere” (Mackintosh, 2012). Twitter supplement traditional journalism rather than replacing it because journalists check the accuracy of information before updating tweets every few minutes (Ahmad, 2010). In this sense, collaborative reporting between professional journalists and amateur journalists becomes a legitimate way of breaking news (Clayfield, 2012).

By recognizing the competitive aspects of the social media, mainstream news media incorporate the features of social media into their news–making process. For instance, the Breaking News desk at the Guardian used Twitter to provide live coverage of daily news events with immediate Twitter updates (Ahmad, 2010). In 2009, Sky News in the United Kingdom hired a Twitter correspondent who published breaking news, and BBC appointed its social media editor in 2009 who assisted in the engagement of its reporters and producers with social networks (Alejandro, 2010).

An analysis of the online coverage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by the Guardian, BBC and CNN reveals that the BBC and CNN dedicated news space to social media content for breaking stories (Bruno, 2010). The Guardian, BBC and CNN filled 34 percent, 25 percent, and 65 percent of news with social media content, respectively. This indicates a significant role of social media for production of online scoops. The online scoops rely not only on local correspondents and news agencies dispatches but also on new storytelling formats such as interactive maps, multimedia visualization, live blogs) (Bruno, 2010). In other words, “rumors, half–truths, live–tweeted accounts and amateur audiovisual content enter the maelstrom of the medium and trash towards an official, verified narrative” [1].

However, the competition for breaking scoops on Twitter and other social media can produce fake scoops with no significant value. Journalists feel forced to post sensational stories of little value when they intend to create waves on the Internet (Davison, 2009). Mainstream news media limit the possibility provided by the online environment and absorbing alternative voices in the mainstream media while disjointing online journalism from the discourse of good and professional journalism (Bogaerts and Carpentier, 2012). Mainstream news media also emphasize the journalists as individual to support the journalist’s claims on trustworthiness. Their understanding of online scoops can reflect these discursive tendencies, and the tendencies are likely to be linked to institutional orientations.

 

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Institutional orientations: Monitoring and lack of relevant stories

Institutional approaches reveal how online news media understand innovation in the age of uncertainty. Generally, online news media do not make innovative changes to their news homepages because of uncertainties about users and technology. This tendency results from institutional orientations and preferences regarding norms and rules of news production (Lowrey, 2011). Institutional orientations include monitoring and imitating competitors. News Web sites check with coverage at competitors’ sites and when they learn about a news story by their competitors, they are likely to publish the story on their site (Boczkowski, 2010). Monitoring competitors often occurs between two news media rather than multiple news media. For example, NBC and CBS monitor each other, but they do not focus on ABC’s coverage (Gans, 1980).

The online newsroom demonstrates similar institutional orientations. Online journalists monitor competitors’ stories through technology, television, radio, and newspapers (Boczkowski, 2009). The news Web site for Clarin, Argentina’s leading daily newspaper, has hired staff members to search stories published by competitors and identify newsworthy stories as leads for the paper’s reporters (Boczkowski, 2009). Clarin reporters publish stories continuously on the Web site and visit competitors’ sites at 10–minute intervals. Monitoring competitors often leads to imitation of competitors (i.e., coverage that is similar).

Monitoring and imitating competitors indicate that online journalists consider news Web sites and source Web sites as important information outlets (O’Sullivan and Heinonen, 2008). Similar stories, therefore, circulate among the various types of news media. Yahoo News, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, AOL News, and Google News publish Top 10 stories similar to those that newspapers, television networks, cable television news, and radio stations cover (Maier, 2010). The online news media post 59 percent of the stories, which contain topics that are identical to those published by newspapers, television networks, and radio stations. Further, the same agendas flow between online and off–line news media, indicating intermedia agenda setting. For example, Korea’s news Web sites — Joins.com, Chosun.com, Donga.com, online Yonhap News Agency — distribute the same agendas (Lim, 2010). Through these procedures, Joins.com influences the news agendas that Chosun.com covers, and Chosun.com impacts the news agendas that online Yonhap News highlights.

Additionally, news Web sites adopt institutional orientations toward not covering many follow–up stories, which has been observed in South Korea’s online newspapers (Ahn and Park, 2007). Korea’s online newspapers (i.e., Chosun.com, Donga.com, and Joins.com) publish fewer follow–up stories than portal sites, such as Naver, Daum, and Yahoo because portal sites receive diverse diets of follow–up stories from news organizations with which they have service contracts.

Korea’s news Web sites (e.g., Chosun.com; KBS, a national television network; as well as Ohmynews, and PRESSian, two Internet–only news media) provide few follow–up stories on their homepages (Kweon, 2004). Similar trends were cited in another research study (Barnhurst, 2010). The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Oregonian have published limited numbers of follow–up stories after release of initial stories, regardless of topic. Barnhurst (2010) observed, “A greater emphasis on breaking events accompanied a loss: fewer stories followed up after a story first emerged” [2].

Instant publishing of online scoops, monitoring and imitating competitors, and printing fewer follow–up stories are understood as institutional orientations that online journalists respect. It would be helpful, therefore, to determine how these orientations affect the production of online scoops. The responses of online journalists to scoops can reveal interesting aspects of institutional orientations. A premise of this study is that online journalists’ responses to scoops are either personal responses (e.g., to thrilling experiences) or institutional responses (e.g., toward defining online scoops). These two responses are expected to be interdependent. The following questions are proposed.

RQ1: How do online journalists respond to competitors’ scoops?
RQ2: What responses do online journalists demonstrate when competing news Web sites follow their own scoops?

 

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Method

The methodology for this study included qualitative in–depth interviews with online journalists. Many researchers (Jha, 2008; Maille, et al., 2010; Plaisance and Deppa, 2009) adopted this method to analyze practices associated with news production. We interviewed 10 online journalists from national newspapers, television networks, news agencies, local newspapers, and Internet–only media. The online journalists were selected from participants of the online survey conducted from July–August 2010. The survey collected information about online news production (e.g., update cycles, relationships among news Web sites, and online journalists’ tasks), and the in–depth interview explored the production of online scoops. The selection procedure for journalists (also survey participants) who were invited to be interviewed involved an analysis of online experiences, diversity of titles, and news companies with whom they were employed. The first 10 journalists who accepted the invitation to participate in in–depth interviews were selected as the final interviewees. Interviews were scheduled, with time and location specified for participating journalists.

The number of years worked at news Web sites for online journalists who were interviewed ranged from 11 months to eight years. The total years of journalistic work experience varied from three years to 20 years. The online journalists in the study sample included seven males and three females, indicating that male reporters’ perspectives were more dominant than those of females in the interviews.

From 28 October 2010 to 29 November 2010, we conducted interviews at the news organizations where online journalists worked; each interview lasted one hour to 90 minutes. The interviews began with three guiding questions: (a) “What do you think of competitors’ scoops?” (b) “How would you evaluate your coverage of competitors’ scoops?” and (c) “How do you feel when your competitors’ cover your scoops?” We attempted to resolve any ambiguities by discussing the questions with the online journalists. For instance, we explained that the first question concerned personal emotions or follow–up stories produced by online journalists when they first learned of competitors’ scoops. The probing questions were used if necessary. We created transcripts with the consent of the journalists.

 

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Results

Redefinition of online scoops

The concept of the scoop is changing in the online news market. Online journalists have redefined the scoop not as an exclusive story covered by a news Web site but a story developed through hard work. Online news is posted on a news homepage, and incorrect information is corrected on a real–time basis. Online stories are connected through hyperlinks to photographs and audiovisual clips so that news consumption from multiple sources is secured (Leckner and Appelgren, 2007). In this light, online journalists emphasize that online scoops have richer content than traditional scoops. Comments from an interview with one of the respondents follow:

Scooping online requires the insight and judgment for identifying good stories. When the journalist gives meaning to a story receiving no attention from other journalists, the story becomes a scoop. Who cares about initiating the scoop? Who knows [if] a Blue House (Korea’s version of White House) correspondent breaks a story? Except for the other Blue House correspondents, the general readers [probably] do not know who scooped. (journalist F)

An online scoop influences the world when it is covered by many other competitors and users pay attention to it. A scoop is not the story that an online journalist exclusively covers. Instead, it results from cooperation between competitors and users. This redefinition of an online scoop improves the previous definition, which suggested that a scoop is the outcome of a story developed by a journalist on the basis of stories that other journalists neglect (Gahran, 2011). Therefore, a scoop results from the combination of a journalist’s ingenious efforts, competitors’ coverage, and users’ interest. However, a mediocre story is published as breaking news. This trend is exacerbated by competition for instant publication and sensational news. Commercial logic is permeated through online news production, leading to the production of false scoop. One respondent remarked:

I observed false scoops recently. Competitors often publish a story [that is] not worthy to be a scoop. The online news ecology, seeking sensationalism and commercialism, produces this problem. News Web sites should be conscientious in this matter. (journalist J)

It is noteworthy that citing competitors’ scoops is rare, indicating that online journalists may ignore the news value of a scoop (Lim, 2011). News agencies provide stories similar to the scoop so that other journalists do not have to cite it. They simply write a story on the basis of the stories provided by news agencies. Online journalists support this observation. An online editor for a local newspaper explained that their online journalists do not cite competitors’ scoops often because they can use wire stories.

Reactive responses to competitors’ scoops

The first research question concerned the response of online journalists to competitors’ scoops. While journalists monitor competitors’ news coverage, institutional orientations prevail within the online newsroom (Boczkowski, 2009). We expected that online journalists would demonstrate two distinct responses to competitors’ scoops: personal responses and institutional responses. Online journalists exhibit personal responses based on their experiences while covering news events; institutional responses, however, relate to the practices of news production.

The personal responses of online journalists were grouped into two categories. The first category, reactive responses, included low self–esteem associated with publication of a competitor’s scoop. Online journalists were reactive because they responded emotionally to the scoop instead of analyzing it and making rational decisions. Average citizens’ reactive responses to nasty events have been demonstrated at times by online journalists who were trained to maintain objectivity, balance, and fairness. The implication, therefore, is that emotions can be introduced to the production of news stories while journalists try to remain objective and rational. The findings of the interview used for this study included comments from an online editor for a local newspaper who said that being scooped was not good at all. Another journalist expressed a similar sentiment, as shown below:

It felt like ‘Oh my god.’ I’ve already known three or four out of ten scoops that competitors picked up. They were scooped while I was holding on [to] stories to check accuracy. It is hard to describe my feeling and it is such a bitter moment. (journalist J)

Online journalists who participated in this study considered following competitors’ scoops as negative experiences, and they acknowledged decreased self–esteem caused by questioning in their newsrooms. The low self–esteem signifies that online journalists feel pressure because of the initiation of competitors. The job culture that emphasizes the ability to produce news rapidly seems to penetrate the online newsroom. The underlying features of this culture are harsh evaluations of job performance. A local online journalist who had four years of experience said that she felt depressed by negative evaluations from her news organization; she also said that the editor and managing editor often checked the newspaper or the Web site and notified her of the competitors’ scoops. Journalist I commented:

Being scooped makes me depressed a lot. I am proud of myself as a journalist, but I am beaten by my competitors in covering the issue familiar to me. It is stressful to admit my mistakes in checking sources. When the scoop is beyond my knowledge, it is devastating; people in the newsroom criticize me for being scooped, while I feel motivated to find better scoops.

From another perspective, being scooped and scooping are daily routines for online journalists. The stress caused by being scooped may result in a decrease in self–esteem, and harsh evaluations can be plausible consequences. Thus, the reactive responses to competitors’ scoops may vary according to the years worked by online journalists. We did not expect this possibility, because the competitive ethos indicates that novice journalists and experienced journalists would demonstrate similar responses and emotional states with regard to being scooped (Lim, 2013). However, novice journalists tend to be sensitive to being scooped because they are not familiar with the newsroom culture. In this study, personal characteristics of novice journalists affected stress levels associated with being scooped.

One respondent interviewed for this study worked as an online journalist for a local newspaper for four of the six years of her journalism career. Another online journalist for a local newspaper worked for only three years in the field. A male online journalist for a financial newspaper worked in that capacity for four years; his entire journalism stint was 10 years. The three journalists who had less than 10 years of online experience expressed emotional responses, such as “I lost my confidence,” “It was so devastating,” and “It was too bitter to describe my feelings.” Being scooped and scooping were daily patterns, and flexible attitudes were required. However, the less experienced journalists did not seem to adapt well to the daily challenges.

By contrast, experienced journalists were not influenced by “being scooped.” Years of experiences and skills acquired for dealing with being scooped enabled them to control their emotions. They demonstrated the confidence that they could develop a scoop at any time. An assistant editor for a television Web site said:

The experience of working in this field for 20 years makes me deal with being scooped. I am in charge of editing online stories. The editor should not demonstrate emotional responses with regard to being scooped. (journalist D)

Online journalists who perceived their websites as highly credible and who expressed pride careers did not appreciate the impact of competitors’ scoops. In fact, experienced online journalists underestimated the scoop. However, these attitudes were not consistent for all types of scoops. For competitors’ scoops carrying political, economic, or social significance, experienced journalists may be forced to develop specific strategies and produce follow–up stories. These situations can cause experienced journalists to experience low self–esteem and emotional distress. One participant in this study commented on the issue of stress as shown below:

Being scooped does not cause much stress. We do not cite the competitors’ scoop directly, because such a decision affects our integrity and self–esteem as journalists. (journalist H)

Proactive responses to competitors’ scoops

Online journalists showed proactive attitudes toward being scooped, which meant that they reinterpreted competitors’ scoops as a springboard for developing news stories of high quality. Some online journalists even applauded their competitors for breaking stories. This behavior seemed a bit odd to novice journalists. The applauding reveals the relaxed attitudes of experienced journalists who have scooped competitors. Their reaction would seem to convey, “I can scoop you at any time, though you scooped me today.” One respondent remarked:

To be honest, I’m not feeling good with being scooped, but I applaud the competitors for scooping. I told the competitor that you did a good job and keep up the good work. (journalist J)

Such proactive attitudes can overcome the limitations of reactive responses. Emotional responses to being scooped can reflect lack of experience and the inability to deal with competitors’ successes. The ability to evaluate a competitor’s scoop positively incorporate it into the news seems to be an important qualification for online journalists. Such attitudes and responses reflect journalists’ understanding of their role to cover stories that are valuable to the readers and to develop stories neglected by competitors. One journalist stated:

I’m motivated to do more work in response to being scooped. I cannot blame any other people for being scooped. I just feel I have to regain my spirit. It is obvious that producing stories in which nobody is interested is what a journalist does. (journalist E)

In this context, being scooped may be a byproduct of news production; thus, it is important to develop follow–up stories so that the integrity and credibility of a news Web site are secured. Online news market is a competitive space in which the low costs of production of online news lead many news Web sites to enter the market (Nie, et al., 2010). Online journalists work under this structure of relationships. Therefore, they must monitor news produced by competitors to find and secure an advantageous position in the news market (Boczkowski, 2009).

Given this situation, online journalists who react negatively to a scoop do not appear to understand the nature of competition. Instead of being discouraged, they are advised to make efforts to influence their users more effectively than their competitors do. These efforts can be linked to proactive responses to being scooped, and the following response is admirable:

It is stressful to admit that competitors break stories, which I did not notice. But it is also a good stimulator. I’m motivated to pick up a good story. (journalist A)

Institutional responses to competitors’ scoops

Responsibilities for online news production involve an organizational level as well as the journalist’s personal level. Thus, online journalists’ responses to a scoop are likely to be influenced by the institutional context. Beat reporters share similar understandings of topics, sources, and approaches to story ideas, as explained by one respondent below:

Half of the stories that I’m covering are those that other competitors cover because the topical areas are overlapped. (journalist A)

A scoop is what a journalist selects and develops and what competitors recognize as an exclusive. Whether a story becomes a scoop depends on a journalist’s individual efforts and the institutional orientations regarding news production. The institutional responses of online journalists vary according to the sensitivity of a story and the availability of sources for checking facts. When a competitor’s scoop deals with important issues for which the facts are confirmed, online journalists produce alternative stories to challenge the scoop or develop related stories with new information, as explained below:

When the competitor initiates the scoop, we collect further information and develop bigger stories than the scoop and release analysis stories so that the readers are able to read and learn more. For sensitive issues, we cite opinions in opposition to the scoop and balance the perspectives in the stories. (journalist B)

Another respondent commented:

I check the accuracy of the scoop. When the scoop carries significant impact or news value, I contact sources and find additional information. And I write an update story, which other journalists struggle to cover. (journalist A)

Another online local journalist with three years of experience explained that she tries to find in–depth information in response to a competitor’s scoop. This indicates that the scoop serves as a baseline for rich story ideas, which is similar to “updates with additional information” cited in previous research (Lim, 2011). Follow–up stories are published after the original scoop appears, and quality of stories, rather than immediacy of publication, matters.

This careful response to follow-up stories suggests that inaccurate stories might be present in online news. Not surprisingly, an assistant editor for an Internet–only financial site emphasizes the importance of verifying the accuracy of information in every sentence because the scoop often turns out to be incorrect. An assistant editor for a television Web site also pointed out that its journalists first check facts and then work on follow–up stories.

However, when the scoop deals with important issues and fact checking is not feasible, online journalists cite the scoop and publish follow–up stories. The following observations from online journalists allude to the impact of immediacy when referring to a competitor’s scoop:

Citing the competitor’s scoop does not weaken the fairness or credibility of a news Web site. One story is circulating again and again so that the original outlet for the story is oblivious in the online news market. (journalist F)

Additionally, collecting information is late because other competitors already cover the scoop. Then, we write follow–up stories by citing the scoop. Within a couple of minutes, similar stories using “according to the Web site that broke the story” are posted online. (journalist G)

Online journalists have been known to tone down a competitor’s scoop depending on the nature and credibility of a story. An online local journalist with three years of experience explained that online journalists often do not write stories, though they can become scoops or even underemphasized scoops. This implies that the manipulation of a competitor’s scoop is related to the interests of news Web sites instead of online journalists’ individual judgments. For instance, politicians or governmental authorities can put pressure on news media to stop or delay publication of a scoop.

Personal responses to competitors’ coverage of own scoop

The second research question focused on how online journalists responded to competitors’ coverage of their own scoops. The answers given by the online journalists reveal that competitive ethos is institutionalized in the process of making news. The essence of competitive ethos is to constantly evaluate a journalist’s job performance against that of competitors. For online news media with a 24–hour news cycle, real–time evaluation of job performance dictates that news Web sites collect the number of page views per week and announce the results. A respondent provided an explanation of the process as follows:

Our news Web site analyzes weekly quantitative information about news and announces the rankings from 1st to 20th. The quantitative information includes the number of users who read a story, the number of page views, the number of unique visitors to the Web, the periods of staying at the Web, [and] the number of clicks per page. This almost drives us to the limits of our capacity. In the online news market, everyone is a competitor. (journalist G)

Given this situation, competitors’ coverage of scoops boosts journalistic ability, and the journalist is praised for developing the scoop. Online journalists take pride in their content, and the experience of scooping bolsters their egos. Online journalists experience the “thrill of victory” (Ehrlich, 1995) when they beat competitors with an influential scoop. A respondent observed:

Competitors accept my scoops and produce similar stories. Such moments make me feel good, and when the scoop deals with big issues, I’m proud of being recognized by other journalists. (journalist E)

Journalist J expressed similar feelings:

It is thrilling. I cannot describe the emotion when I finish the last line and send the story over [to] the newsroom. The story is the scoop.

Online journalists often create bigger stories than the original one to defeat their competitors, reflecting the intensity of competitive ethos in the online news market. The positive experience of scooping competitors generally motivates online journalists to develop another scoop, as noted by one respondent below:

I think being [a] journalist is an independent profession, because journalists write stories with their own bylines. When I lead the field of news coverage, I’m motivated to pursue better stories with good energy. (journalist A)

However, the practice of announcing quantitative information about page views can commercialize the news–making process. Users’ page views may contribute to the determination of news value, but the most frequently viewed story is not necessarily a good story. In Korea’s news homepage, news users can witness sensational headlines on the most visible space of the homepage because of contracts between news Web sites and portals. The negative impact of these contracts is expressed in the following:

We end up with posted stories attracting users’ eyes. In doing so, we focus on the news circulation instead of the quality of news, which leads to fragmented and sensational news consumption. The contract we made with portals (e.g., Naver) forces us to match a top story on portals with our homepage top story. This causes tensions for story posting. For instance, a story about the conflict between local government and central government does not attract users’ attention. The top story is toward human interest or a sensational topic. (journalist F)

The announcement of page views per story can be a result of hyper–commercialized journalism that transforms news into a commodity. The line between the newsroom and the advertising department becomes blurred, leading to commercialization of news (Benson, 2006). News organizations seek profits by using news as a platform for advertising (Scott, 2005). Given that news should serve the public’s right to know, the following comment about the quality of content is worthy of consideration:

>We do not care about the competition. Instead, we focus on providing better news to users. Our coverage may be posted 10 to 20 minutes later than competitors’ coverage, but it is not that important. How we report is a key. (journalist F)

Institutional responses to competitors’ coverage of scoops

By breaking stories, online journalists are afraid of violating the practice of sharing information with their beat reporters. Online journalists share the sources with beat reporters and establish closer relationship than their colleagues in the newsroom. This relationship leads to the practice of sharing relevant information and tips with other beat reporters. This practice is not a new one. Journalists seek agreements from their colleagues or beat reporters instead of pursuing their news stories independently (Donsbach, 2004). This verification results from the tendency of journalists to share the reality reconstructed in the news with other journalists. Publishing the scoop means to break this shared culture and act independently. When the beat reporters are scooped, the journalist initiating the scoop often feels guilty about the situation, as described below:

I have frequent talks with my beat reporters, and [we] have lunch or dinner together. They are much closer colleagues than my colleagues in the newsroom. So, I feel sorry for the beat reporters when I develop an exclusive coverage because I break the practice of sharing information. (journalist B)

Information sharing and information monopolies create significant tensions within the beat. When a journalist knows information but the beat reporter breaks the story, a close relationship turns sour. The line between information sharing and information monopolies can become blurred. When online journalists exclusively obtain important information, they break the story on the homepage. Online journalists may choose to share less significant information with their beat reporters as protection for being scooped, as illustrated below:

I do not consider leading the competitors with the scoop. I dedicate more time and effort to developing exclusive news. For instance, I incorporate solutions, governmental responses, or enactment of laws into the news and produce a series of stories. (journalist H)

As other institutional responses, online journalists emphasize the need to produce the quality of news and to gratify users. They prefer covering news in greater depth than beating competitors.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

This study includes the findings from in-depth interviews with Korea’s online journalists regarding their perceptions and responses to competitors’ scoops. Online journalists who participated acknowledged that they had responded personally and institutionally. Regarding their personal responses to competitors’ scoops, they described feelings of low self–esteem; however, some journalists viewed a competitor’s scoop as an opportunity to work harder. For institutional responses, online journalists developed full stories or cited the scoop according to its sensitivity and the possibility of verifying its accuracy. Journalists who were interviewed for this study expressed pride when competitors covered their scoops; and they stated that they were motivated to develop other scoops. It appears that online journalists consider the production of good news and satisfaction of users’ needs as important. Emotional personal responses and institutional responses in this study provide explain how online journalists deal with scoops.

This study reveals that online journalists consider redefinition of a scoop. Online journalists point out that journalists care about the source of a scoop but users have no interest in who initiated it. Given that online news spreads through hyperlinks, the quality of news is more important than who breaks stories (Gahran, 2011). Scooping is an issue for news organizations, but users want fresh and rich information (Nguyen, 2003). When a news organization posts scoops on its homepage, users access the scoops. This experience can lead the users to consider the news organization to be their reliable news source. Accordingly, the news organization can boost its reputation and attract more users. In this sense, an online scoop is produced by the combination of story development and exclusive coverage, competitors’ follow–up stories, and users’ interest. The scoop is diffused into relevant areas of the society, and these factors increase its value.

An online scoop is determined not by the ability of online journalists but by institutional orientations toward information sharing and information monopolies. Online journalists establish strong ties with their beat reporters, share information, and help one another in determining the value of news. This collaboration is similar to the verification process and shared reality among journalists that have been cited in previous research studies (Donsbach, 2004). Online journalists break stories while managing the safety net of information sharing. In particular, journalists emphasize the importance of a scoop to increase its value. An online scoop is created by the relationship between information sharing and information monopolies, and the scoop is transformed into a story carrying significant impact based on the evaluations of competitors and users.

However, the online journalists who participated in this study did not understand the redefinition of a scoop fully. Instead, they appeared more interested in evaluations of their job performance. It is not surprising, therefore, that online journalists react negatively (e.g., by demonstrating low self–esteem), to being scooped. Competitive ethos may generate such responses, indicating that online journalists may fear reprisal for being scooped by competitors. For example, television reporters regularly watch the monitor for competitors’ coverage and receive negative evaluations for being scooped (Ehrlich, 1995). Intense working routines occur in the online newsroom. Journalists analyze quantitative information such as page views, visiting time, and story views; additionally, their stories are ranked and announced corporately. When online journalists scoop their competitors, they experience a pride and increased motivation.

News agencies have the capability of weakening the significance of competitors’ scoops because they provide news organizations with similar stories (Paterson, 2005). This similar coverage leads to a standardization of news (Czarniawska, 2012). Online journalists who are scooped produce stories by using the content from a news agency instead of following the scoop. Respondents in this study admitted that they had published stories that were similar to a competitor’s scoop. Scoops that attract readers must be novel and influential to society, politics, the economy, culture, and international settings.

The degree to which competitors’ scoops can be verified for accuracy is a crucial component for the production of follow–up stories. Given a real–time update cycle, online news media cannot help citing the scoop when they have no alternative sources for checking accuracy. However, when they have sources available, online journalists develop new stories on the basis of a scoop; this practice is similar to the behavior of “updates with further information” cited in previous research (Lim, 2011). Follow–ups and updates reflect institutional orientations. The role of news media in constructing social meaning and processing information (Tuchman, 1978) is applied to the online news market. Online journalists provide meaningful interpretations about current issues by covering similar stories to scoops or by developing new information.

Limitations of this study include the generalization of findings for online news production in other countries because the setting for this research was Korea. Further comparative studies of online journalists from various countries are needed. The sample size of online journalists who were interviewed was 10; clearly, a larger sample would provide additional insights. However, this study offers useful baseline information for future research. Possible differences between online journalists working for national newspapers and those working for local newspapers were not explored. It is possible that local online journalists who are experts in local issues produce content of high quality that is pertinent to their local areas, but they may not focus on immediate news.

In summary, the scoop is not always an exclusive story published first; it may be a story resulting from an online journalist’s endeavors, competitors’ follow–ups or updates, and users’ interest. Online journalists personally experience low self–esteem as well as great pride for their work, whereas they produce follow–up stories or updates by collecting alternative information. Finally, competitive ethos is a contextual factor associated with attracting a significant number of users and controlling online news production. End of article

 

About the author

Jeongsub Lim is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at Sogang University, South Korea. His research focuses on news–making processes, online journalism, and framing building and its effects on public opinion. His research appears in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Asian Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice, Public Relations Review, and elsewhere.
E–mail: limj [at] sogang [dot] ac [dot] kr

 

Notes

1. Clayfield, 2012, p. 93.

2. Barnhurst, 2010, p. 564.

 

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Editorial history

Received 22 August 2013; revised 6 October 2013; accepted 7 October 2013.


Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Jeongsub Lim. All Rights Reserved.

Redefinition of online scoops: Online journalists’ personal and institutional responses to online scoops
by Jeongsub Lim.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 1 - 6 January 2014
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4839/3806
doi: 10.5210/fm.v19i1.4839.





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