Why we keep secrets in the mainstream press

A primer on why a mainstream journalist would think twice before blogging during the reporting stage of a story--even if it's not a scoop.
Stephen Baker

One of the commenters on Buzzmachine, FYJ, points out that there was not one shred of a scoop in the math story. So why not blog it?

In response, here's primer on why we mainstream press types are secretive, even when we don't have scoops.

In past years, I've had big cover projects consigned to inside space when the competition runs an article that has even the appearance of covering the same story. Sometimes the story in the Journal, Forbes or Fortune is hardly related. But editors in the past (and I'm stressing the past, because I haven't suffered this in a while) worked with the idea that if readers think they're familiar with a story, they won't bother reading it. And what's more, they'll think the magazine runs stale stories. (I'll pause here for everyone to make the requisite BusinessWeek quip...) So a story loses its cover not because it's stale, but because readers may think that it is (without reading it, naturally).

Now, I'm just trying to explain a certain mindset that some people would consider paranoid. If you open-source the reporting of a story, it gets into the buzz. Other news outlets, while perhaps not copying your story, begin sniffing around related angles. Bits of the story get into the news. It becomes the dreaded "familiar." And your editors, while perhaps appreciating your story, take it off the cover in favor of something fresher. They put it inside, and give it a good trimming.

This is the thinking that leads us to be secretive. An inside story has lower impact and counts for less in the annual review, which is tied to salary.

So, to conclude, by open-sourcing a story, you may bring more traffic to your blog and get all kinds of attention in the blogworld. It benefits from the wisdom of hundreds of highly informed readers. It is a virtuous and worthwhile endeavor. But it may get knocked off the cover. In coming years, success on the blogs will count for more and more, and the importance of the cover of the paper edition of the magazine will likely diminish. But we're not there yet.

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