Writers dish on scoops that slipped away

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Far as I know, I never got scooped on a story. But it almost happened: I’d spent several years working on a true crime piece about a serial killing in San Francisco. A draft was rejected by a dozen publications. I’d happily dipped into the red, thanks to plane fare and Castro accommodations. But when it finally ran, people liked it.  

And then I got an email. It was from Sarah Weinman, a journalist whose work I revere. She said that the case had been on her radar for years. In fact, we’d pitched it to the same publication. This was after the fact, of course, but it was frightening to learn I’d had a superior colleague breathing down my neck and had no idea. I experienced what I assume were heart palpitations.

ICYMI: Two dozen freelance journalists told CJR the best outlets to pitch

I imagine that to actually get scooped on a story must feel considerably worse. So over the last two weeks, I contacted a number of journalists whose work I admire, and asked what it was like to be scooped. Some said that, like me, they’d managed to dodge a bullet. Others were not so lucky. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

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::::::::::::::::::::::::Can’t think of any, offhand. Hope that’s not just The Old Oaken Bucket delusion.

Robert Kolker, Lost Girls

Whenever I think back on the ones where I got beaten, I feel a little like an actor who shows up to the same auditions as other actors, who look like me and talk like me and are the same age as me—and suddenly realize we’re all up for the same role. Some of us will get the role and others won’t. I feel like that’s happened a lot.

It’s all about battling for access. There was the story of Audrie Pott, a teenage girl who, in a terrible tragedy, was sexually assaulted and then driven to suicide. And I was in touch with her family constantly. Then, at one moment, they stopped talking to me. Sure enough, a couple of months later, Nina Burleigh had a story all about it in Rolling Stone. And then the same thing happened with Lawrence Franks, an army deserter who disappeared completely after finishing at West Point. Six years later, he turned up, having enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He ended up getting court martialed. Anyway, I ended up on the phone with his mother. I was emailing, I was writing him in prison, I was working very closely with the family to try and find a way to tell his story with integrity. And then suddenly they stopped talking. And there was Janet Reitman’s feature about it in Rolling Stone, with participation from the family.

With a certain kind of difficult and grim narrative-driven crime story, there’s gonna be usual suspects you turn to to write them, and I’m one of those usual suspects, and I guess Nina and Janet are as well.

The best story I have about this was really early in my career, maybe the second feature I worked on for New York, so I was kind of green. It was about a guy named Chris Paciello, who was a nightclub king in Miami and a good friend of Madonna’s. He was dating Madonna’s friend Ingrid Casares, and he was on top of the world. And then suddenly it turned out that he was mobbed up to the gills back in Staten Island and was a getaway driver for a murder from many years before. And so I was in the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse sitting there, and a few feet away from me was Suzanna Andrews of Vanity Fair. She’d just left New York, shortly before I had arrived, so we had never met. But my heart sank when I saw here ’cause I thought, Well, you know, I’m screwed.

But then, as happens on a trial, we started talking to each other. I introduced myself, she introduced herself. She, of course, knew everybody I was working with at New York, and I said to her, I gotta be honest, I’m not sure my editors will want to share this story any time soon. I have to kind of make the case to them that it’s worth running ’cause they might just sit on it. And so we went out to lunch and we spent the whole lunch trying to brainstorm ways to convince the editors at New York to run the story. Which I thought was very classy, and very funny, and certainly not what I would have predicted, given that she was competing with me. I think she felt like, Well, que sera, sera. My story will run when it runs, and yours will run when it runs, and that’s the way it’ll go. And if I recall, my story, written with the wonderful Ethan Brown, ended up running before hers, but not that it mattered because [hers] was excellent.

Renee Montagne, NPR

I’ve not managed to come up with a story of being scooped, at least traumatically enough for me to have a vivid memory of it. I feel like I’ve missed out on a fine tradition in journalism!

Joe Hagan, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

When DIDN’T I get beat???

The biggest and saddest beating was not a news break per se, but when I wrote a big exposé of Goldman Sachs for New York that appeared a couple weeks after Matt Taibbi’s infamous takedown in Rolling Stone. The world had gone so far off its axis, and there was so much anger at GS, that my merely straight journalism paled next to Taibbi’s gonzo evisceration.

Joel Anderson, BuzzFeed News

On February 7, 2014, [BuzzFeed] got a tip that there was a moderately prominent college football player who was going to announce that he was gay before the NFL draft. A couple of days later, one of our editors got the name of the player—Michael Sam, a defensive end from Missouri who had been the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. That’s a big deal, no? But the catch was that we couldn’t release the name of the player without getting some sort of on-record confirmation that wasn’t the original source. So I spent the next few hours frantically talking to people in the know who could confirm the name but wouldn’t go on the record. We knew, of course, that several other outlets were already chasing the same information and people and that time was of the essence.

As I remember it, from both memory and an old email thread, we were making arrangements to talk with one of Sam’s former college teammates and subsequently reached an agreement with his handlers to not “out” him in our publication. There were some serious internal discussions in a very short amount of time about not “outing” Sam in a reckless and irresponsible manner, and for that I have to credit our incredibly diverse and thoughtful staff for helping us navigate those issues. Instead, we’d wait until he made the announcement on his own terms and then immediately publish our own pre-written and pre-reported story.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way: Sam and his handlers, realizing that the story might get out anyway, made their announcement that night in coordination with ESPN and The New York Times.

That, uh, obviously hurt. And though we ultimately got credit in at least one published account for pushing the announcement, the fact is that we—but mostly me—still got beat on one of the biggest sports stories of the decade.

The silver lining is that our interest in and handling of that particularly story led me to what I think is the best story of my career: a lengthy look at Sam’s tortured relationship with his family, particularly his father.

So all’s well that ends well, if you don’t think much about the fact that Michael Sam ultimately never played a down in the NFL regular season and that the NFL still has never had a publicly gay player.

David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post

It happens quite often. Most recent times have all involved Shannon Donnelly, the society reporter at the Palm Beach Daily News. I’ve been trying to figure out whether (and why) charities that have held expensive charity galas and luncheons at Mar-a-Lago are leaving for other venues. Shannon, who has Palm Beach wired, has consistently broken the news I had tried, and failed, to break first. One example: She broke the news in May that three charities were departing, and then most recently she got an answer from the American Humane Association about why they’d decided to leave. It turned out they didn’t like Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr.’s hobby of trophy hunting.  

In this case, the only thing I can do is tip my hat and retweet Shannon. I’m stuck dealing with the flaks at these organizations, who appear to be terrified of making news on this topic: For one recent story, the flaks at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society wouldn’t even confirm for me which years they’d held events at Mar-a-Lago in the past. Shannon actually knows the Palm Beach people who are on the ground, making the decision. I can’t have her sources. But my readers still get to benefit from them if I tweet out her work and cite it in my stories.

Greg Howard, The New York Times

To be honest, I get beat to just about every single story I write. It’s a pretty common thing, to a point where it rarely bothers me too much. If I’m doing profiles, which is what I care about most, someone has beaten me to itif not weeks before, then months, or years. But then I’ll be like, Has anyone done a good in-depth look at this guy or woman? And is there still room for me to get my story off? And often, I’ve found that there’s usually some room for me to get in.

When I was at Deadspin, Richard Sandomir, who’s now my colleague, beat me to Jason Whitlock’s playbook. I’d been working on a thing about The Undefeated and somehow ESPN basically rolled out the red carpet for Sandomir, and he went to Bristol, hung out with Jason Whitlock, and saw the playbook, which is their blueprint for what the site would be.

We momentarily panicked because we had so much stuff. We had people leaking to us and we thought we had a whole lot of exclusive shit. And it turned out that maybe because ESPN knew we were on the story, they went to The New York Times and they just unloaded. Here’s the playbook.

Obviously, I have a different sensibility than Sandomir. I’m black and young, and I have a different personal relationship with Jason Whitlock. I was coming at the story from a different place, with different reporting imperatives. I saw the playbook for what it was—the work of a megalomaniac.

But initially we panicked, and then we read the story and it was like, Oh, shit! Oh, shit. They like [the playbook]. And by this time, we had begun writing our story. I will never forget thinking, Holy shit, we just got scooped by The New York Times. But it was okay because, because it allowed us to punch up even more. The fact that we were able to point to the Times and say, See? They loved it, was, for us, a coup. It became part of our own narrative.

Mike Isaac, The New York Times

I’ve been beaten a bunch of times over the course of the past 10 years. I think there are a few different ways this happens, some of which I am more okay with than others.

There’s the usual way, where you’re chasing down a tip that seems to be circulating quickly and aren’t able to corroborate it quickly enough before another competitor. A lot of folks were chasing that story about Justin Caldbeck, the serial sexual harasser venture capitalist, before Reed Albergotti finally got enough people to go on the record and the piece came out. A number of journalists I know swore aloud after they saw that Reed was able to push it out before them.

That’s happened to me quite a bit. Most recently, I had heard about an incident with Uber’s former CEO a few years back where he visited an escort bar with work colleagues and it made some uncomfortable. I was trying to run it down but got sidetracked, and another reporter over at The Information came in and scooped it when I was dragging my feet. It was frustrating, but it happens.

One thing I hate, though, is getting beat just because of process-related reasons. For instance: I work at The New York Times, which is a venerable institution with many people who can add value by spotting errors or editing and refining pieces before they go out the door, which is more often than not a way of making a good piece even better.

However, this is far from ideal if you’re going for speed. Once I had a tip that Travis Kalanick was stepping down from his position on Trump’s economic advisory council after two weeks of intense criticism. I wrote three paragraphs and was pushing to get the piece out fast, but the fact that we have three extra layers of editing before even the shortest story will see the light of day means we are many times slower than outlets who can push the button themselves. As a result, my three grafs got stuck in copy desk limbo, and someone who said they were going to stay quiet ended up screwing me and tipping off Kara Swisher about it. She ended up writing a single sentence and pushing the button herself, beating my tip that I had already had for an hour.

That sort of thing is super frustrating, but there’s not much you can do about it except angrily tweet or whatever. Or just move on and get the next scoop.

That’s usually my only solace when I get beat: The knowledge that there will be infinitely more scoops to come, and I’ll get one soon enough.

I will say, though, that scoops are great but have an incredibly short half-life, journalistically speaking. Everyone quickly ends up matching your scoop, and years from now no one really remembers who the first reporter to publish such-and-such mid-level Google executive left their job to go to Facebook or whatever. These days I’m hoping to focus more on the longer, more enduring pieces that leave a strong impression on the reader for years to come.

That’s not exactly easy to accomplish and often takes much more time and effort to knock out. But I think it’s worth it.

Spencer Ackerman, The Daily Beast

OK, so my problem here is that I can’t remember what the actual story was.

I was working for days on some Snowden story in mid-June 2013. This was an intense period during which the Guardian team (and I’m sure The Washington Post team) was working nonstop to go through the Snowden documents, find the choicest stuff, do the necessary reporting to back up what the documents indicated, and write/edit everything in a way that was comprehensible to a lay reader.

After work one of those days, I went to go see a band passing itself off as Black Flag (the Greg Ginn/Chavo one, not the one with Keith Morris, Bill Stevenson, Dez Cadena, and Chuck Dukowski) play. Sometime during their set I checked my phone and saw the Post had run with something that stepped on the toes of what I was working on. I felt nauseous and beat myself up for going to this show rather than working, even though it was, you know, something approximating Black Flag. Later that night I got a hug from Greg Ginn, something I sought out for reasons that still confuse me.

Now: in the haze of memory, I thought that Bart Gellman had scooped me on their black-budget story (the classified intelligence budget, listing funding for various intelligence operations and programs) as I also remember losing that one to the Post. But a quick Googling shows the Black Flag show was around June 15, 2013, and their black-budget story was in August. Looking back to the June 15 date, Bart and the Post had a piece that touched on a secret history of the Bush-era warrantless surveillance program. If that was what ran during the Black Flag show, then what I must have been working on was this story, one that used that secret NSA inspector-general history but went in a much different direction than the Post. So I guess I was only kind of scooped during the Black Flag show, but it felt in that moment like I had fucked everything up by taking that rare evening during Peak Snowden to go do something recreational.


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Adrian Chen, The New Yorker

Probably the worst was when I was working on a story about Mike Daisey making up his This American Life Apple story. I had a suspicion it was fishy but ultimately concluded I couldn’t prove that he made up anything short of a trip to China. But then [Rob Schmitz] tracked down his translator and got the scoop. That sucked.

Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN

1998 began with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky hiding in the Watergate from the world’s media and ended with only the second impeachment of a president in American history. For me, the year started, in the span of only about six weeks, with getting scooped by Bob Woodward and Matt Drudge. That’s not easy to do. Between the two, I remember more clearly the crushing feeling of getting beaten by Woodward—not the details of his actual scoop, it turns out, but the way news of it was delivered. Late on a wintry Saturday night—while hunkered down in some grimy DC gin mill—I got a phone call from Irv Molotsky, the veteran weekend desk guy in The New York Times’s Washington bureau.

“Let me read you the top story in tomorrow’s Washington Post,” Molotsky announced, sounding like a mortician or maybe a gravedigger. Then he paused dramatically for a few seconds—it felt like a minute– before he boomed, “BY BOB WOODWARD.” Yeah. Irv didn’t bother reading me the headline; the byline was enough.

Anyway, this story isn’t about getting scooped by Woodward or Drudge. This is about my own scoop that got away—a lead-of-the-paper airtight exclusive that I let slip away after being played, hard-up against deadline, by one of the president’s men.

Mid-way through that chaotic year of Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Ken Starr, the blue dress, and the President’s cigar, all of Washington was guessing if and when Bill Clinton would be subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury to answer questions under oath about whether, in fact, the President had “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, the 25-year-old former White House intern, and whether he lied about it—and then tried to cover it up. For months, Clinton had refused six separate requests by Starr’s prosecutors to voluntarily appear before the grand jury. The president’s lawyers had given prosecutors several explanations for the refusals, including Clinton’s busy schedule and the White House’s view that Starr’s investigation was a political witch hunt.

In late July, I had two money sources tell me that Starr had just subpoenaed Clinton, the first time in American history that a sitting president was summoned to appear before a federal grand jury. Both sources were anonymous, but they knew not only about the subpoena but that it had been served. I wrote up the piece and it was set to be the lead story in the Times the next day (at the time, the paper’s gatekeepers were Page 1 Editor Marty Baron, now the Post’s editor, and National Editor Dean Baquet, who is now the NYT’s executive editor).

For every story I’ve done in my 30-year career, I’ve always tried to err on the side of caution by making as many phone calls—and trying to speak with as many people—as possible. The goal is to bullet-proof every sentence, every piece. At about 8 pm, with my soon-to-be exclusive written, edited, and all but pasted up beneath a three-column banner headline, I received a return call from a senior White House source, a high-up lawyer in the counsel’s office.

“Don’t go with it,” the lawyer told me, though only off the record. “There’s been no subpoena delivered here… Run the story and you’ll look like a fool.”

What? This warning made no sense, so I pressed him: Was the subpoena going to be delivered tomorrow morning? Had the subpoena been withdrawn because the president voluntarily agreed to testify? Had the document perhaps still not yet been physically delivered to the president? (In other words, was my source relying on some technicality to get me to quash a story he knew to be true? He worked, after all, for a president who’d soon infamously respond under oath, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’… is.”) My source wouldn’t answer any follow-ups but repeatedly, alarmingly expressed certainty that I was dead-wrong and was setting myself up for a big fall. So now I had two yeses, on background, but one very big no off the record. And the no was from a pretty reliable source, one I trusted. I sat at my desk, puzzling over what to do. The clock was ticking. You’ll look like a fool kept ringing in my ears.

From my desk, I sprinted across the DC bureau’s carpeted floor to the editors’ front desk. Winded, I warned them that a key source, in the White House counsel’s office, had just insisted no subpoena for the President had been delivered. We should hold the story, I said dejectedly, and the paper’s top editors, including Marty Baron, quickly agreed.

I was gutted and embarrassed. I had written an exclusive that had to be stripped from the next day’s front page at the very last minute. My bureau colleagues had a cheeky name for a scoop that turns out to be wrong: “the eternal exclusive,” one no news organization will be forced to match. After all, if you’re going to report in the paper of record that the President of the United States is being subpoenaed by a federal grand jury for the first time in American history, it’d be awfully nice to get that one right.

Well, I felt even worse the next day when the Associated Press put out a bulletin about the President’s grand jury subpoena—confirmed, apparently, by “sources” inside the White House. Later that day, my own “inside” White House source sheepishly claimed he had no idea the subpoena had been delivered; he didn’t sound all that sincere, responding to my anger with a faint chuckle. The White House either decided they didn’t want us to have this exclusive—my colleagues and I had nailed our fair share of scoops that year, and more than a few of us weren’t too popular with many folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, including the president. Or perhaps, the White House counsel’s office lawyer genuinely didn’t know. I got played and, perhaps, punished.

My editors were as bitter about the eleventh-hour White House head-fake costing us a big scoop as I was. I learned a valuable lesson: The best way to get scooped—maybe the only way—is to hold an exclusive out of an abundance of caution if you aren’t completely certain it’s right. It’s better to be right than first, as they say, even if it means you may sacrifice a few hard-fought shots at glory. And as consolation prizes go, it’s not a bad one to play the fool only for your editors, rather than the whole world.

ICYMI: What kind of journalist are you?

Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker

Not that I know of. Best, Janet

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake

I was at the San Antonio Light, which no longer exists. I was in newspapers for 20 yearssix in San Antonio, and then two in Baltimore. That’s eight years out of 20 that I worked in a truly competitive situation. When I was in San Antonio, there were two papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, The Express and The News. The Light was owned by Hearst. I was literally one of three cop reporters sitting in a small little cubbyhole at the San Antonio police department, listening to the scanner.

So Murdoch versus Hearst, you can imagine the tenor of the competition. I was pretty new. I had been there maybe a month, and I was doing weekend cop shop. There was a story in which three 14-year-old boys went out and attempted to rape, and ultimately murdered, a classmate’s mom. A huge story. A capital crime. I just got beaten like a drum the whole weekend. Every step of the way, the News reporter, Bill Hendricksthe longtime cop reporter with all the sourceswas just getting everything that I wasn’t getting. It was so bad that my bosses couldn’t even be mad at me. They treated me as if I were developmentally disabled.

On Monday, after this horrible weekend of just being behind the story every day, they bring me in and it would have been better if they had yelled at me. They were so nice. They were like, Yeah, you know, you came here from a much smaller paper. You’re pretty green. What can we do to help you? I did cops Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It was now Monday—I was on general assignment—and I was just doing plain night-side reporting. They said, So why don’t you go to the school board meeting for the area where this happened?

I’m really on a winning streak. I get so lost in South San Antonioit’s way out in the sticksthat I miss the school board meeting. I get terribly, terribly lost. I have to stop at what in Texas you’d call an ice house, which was a place that sold beer and soda, maybe had a pool table. Maybe you could get some hot food there. This is 1983, so of course I have to call in on payphones where I can find them. I stopped at the ice house to ask directions. Then I went back to the ice house to call in. I had managed to cobble together something as people were leaving the meeting.

I’m waiting to use the phone in the ice house, and I’m sitting there with the family who owns the ice house. Waiting and waiting, so I just tried to make awkward conversation like, Well, that was really something, that thing that happened, that horrible crime. They’re very wary, and they’re like, Yeah, well, it happened. I said, I guess it must be really terrifying. This teenage boy who’s sitting there looks up at me and he says, I told them not to do it. I went, What? He goes, I was with them, but I ran away right before it happened.

It’s now about nine o’clock at night. I’m not going to get this story, but I did say to him, I’m going to come back tomorrow and talk to you. What had happened was, through making every mistake and being a complete idiot, I had met the boy who was with the boys who committed the crime, who told me the whole story of the day. That they were three kids, playing hooky. They got bored. They didn’t know what to do. They had an impromptu barbecue, wandered around, and one of them said, Let’s go rape Kristy’s mama. He swore that he stood at the sidewalk and ran away as he watched them push her into the house, with her screaming.

I look back at that and I still kind of get chills. Because in every job probably, but I know for reporters, there are these moments that come, and you can be categorized for the rest of your career as an idiot. It’s like there was this crossroads and I was standing right at the juncture where I’m new in a job and I’m about to become famous for being the reporter who can’t even find her way to a school board meeting. Because I did get lost, and because I did stop at this ice house, I found this kid and got this great story. That wiped out every mistake I had made up to that point.

You know, it probably kept me in journalism. Because I can’t imagine my future at the San Antonio Light if I don’t get that story. They’re going to continue treating me as if I’m just this sad, mentally deficient hire. I might not have even made it through my probationary period.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He’s an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.