Smart vs. dumb competition

January 29, 2004

A reporter writes to Jay Rosen complaining about the pressures of of the campaign trail. Reporter thinks he doesn’t want to focus on the horse-race and does want to focus on what voters are talking about, what goes into their candidate preferences, etc.

But the bosses back at the main newsroom put constant pressure on him to have the same story as everybody else, so time he could spend finding timely and interesting bits of information (you know, actual news) is spent duplicating the coverage of the rest of the press corps.

I’ve read a bunch of times that the surest sign of insanity is to keep repeating the same behavior and expect a different result. Well, nobody said we were sane in this biz, but every year we get the same laments about “horse races” and “character questions” and nothing ever changes.

And it won’t until we learn the difference between smart competition and dumb competition.

Dumb: Repeating so much as a syllable of coverage available from the wire services you’re already paying for. Saying, “why don’t we have this?” when we do — bought and paid for by our subscription to the AP or any other wire service.

Smart: Finding whatever everybody else isn’t covering.

I suspect the problem is that political editors are former political reporters who don’t really trust their reporters to be as good as they imagine they used to be, so they match their reporters’ work against everybody else’s to judge how well their folks are “covering” the story.

The other problem is that reporters are on the road hundreds or thousands of miles from the home newsroom, so the boss can’t keep an eye on ’em. The only way to assure the boss that they’re on the job is to report the same thing everybody else reports.

Nothing changes until editors start telling their boys & girls on the bus: I don’t want anything I can get off the wire.

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