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High-Wire Reporting

The Star Tribune had a scoop on its hands. Investigative reporters Chris Ison and Paul McEnroe had learned that Rufus Simmons, a University of Minnesota administrator whose job is to discourage sexual harassment and sexual violence on the part of male athletes, had recently been arrested--for soliciting prostitution.

Instead of saving the story for the newspaper's August 20 print edition, editors decided just before 9:00 p.m. to post the article on the Star Tribune's Web site (www.startribune.com). Even if their rivals across the river saw how badly they were going to be beaten come dawn, projects editor Greg Stricharchuk and his colleagues reasoned, there wasn't time for the rival Pioneer Press--which had beaten the Strib badly on the U of M basketball program's academic-fraud scandal back in March--to play catch-up.

Come morning, however, there were cries at Strib headquarters that the paper had been hit below the belt. Relying almost exclusively on Ison's and McEnroe's investigative work, the Pi Press had put the Simmons scandal on the front page. Besides having a couple of different sources react to the allegations, very little of substance was added to what essentially was a Star Tribune story. The Pioneer Press version carried no byline (it was credited to "staff reports"), and made no mention whatsoever that the source of the story was the Star Tribune.

"I was close to lodging a complaint of plagiarism," says Stricharchuk, who says he would never have done what the Pioneer Press did. "Just because the story is online doesn't mean it's free for stealing."

Strib staffers aren't the only ones grousing. After requesting confidentiality, a Pioneer Press reporter reveals that many in his paper's newsroom were mortified by the night moves: "To a lot of people here, it seems like a case of some night editor hopping online and more or less stealing a story outright," says the writer. "If that's true, that's bullshit. And they have every reason to be pissed."

Pioneer Press editor Walker Lundy argues that once the competition went public, his staff was not only justified in chasing down the allegations, but had the responsibility to do so. "If they're saying that we ripped off their story and published it as our own, we certainly did not and never would," Lundy insists. "If they're saying they had the story first and we chased it, that's entirely possible. We do credit them on stories that are not our own. And that's something they've certainly never done [for us]. But in this instance--and I wasn't here that night--given the story that we wrote, I'm certain we were able to get our own story before we went to press. And that's pretty common behavior for a newspaper or any TV station."

Aside from Lundy's hyperbolic assertion that the Star Tribune has never credited his paper (the Strib certainly did so when the Pi Press broke the academic-fraud scandal in March), the editor is technically in the clear when it comes to charges like plagiarism. Explains Mark Anfinson, a local media attorney who has counseled City Pages, once facts are made part of the public record they're unprotected unless a story is cribbed nearly word for word. Crediting another media outlet for any given story is a matter of professional ethics, and one that's often breached in the heat of battle.

Lundy does allow that had the Strib not put the Simmons scoop on its Web site Thursday night, it wouldn't have been in his paper on Friday. And that fact has journalists at both newspapers wondering out loud whether, and under what circumstances, breaking news should be put online before being published in the paper.

"We want to use online to get news to people as quick as we can," says the Star Tribune's Chris Ison. "The online people are very serious about that, as they should be. On the other hand, we still value competition. And given that the vast majority of our readers still get their news in the morning paper, I think it's clear that we sacrifice a competitive edge sometimes by putting things online in the evening."

Adds Tim McGuire, editor and senior vice president of new media at the Star Tribune: "We're constantly thinking and talking about these policies. The events of the last few weeks have perhaps made me a little more conservative and cautious. You'd like to think everyone is playing fair. But it doesn't look like everyone is playing fair."

When both newspapers launched their sites in early 1995, these questions were all but nonexistent. Web publishing was a subject to be discussed on the business page, the key question being whether the enterprise could outlive the fad, rather than how it might affect the craft of reporting. In just a few short years, however, cyberjournalism has exploded.

Nationally, according to statistics published in June's American Journalism Review, the number of Americans getting news online at least once a week tripled from 1996 to 1998, to more than 36 million. Among college graduates under age 30--an attractive demographic to advertisers--47 percent are reading news on their PCs. In 1994 there were 20 newspapers online; today there are 4,925 worldwide (2,799 in the United States). Locally, things have moved even more quickly, in part because two major newspaper chains are battling for users. At the Knight Ridder-owned Pioneer Press, senior online editor Brett Benson says his paper's Web site (www.pioneerplanet.com) is receiving 5.5 million page views a month. Bob Schafer, director of online strategy for the McClatchy Company's Strib, says his paper's site produces 15 million page views a month. Not only that, but startribune.com is in the black, a feat matched by only ten percent of the nation's online newspapers (a roster that does not include the Pioneer Press).

"In some ways I'm playing John the Baptist in the newsroom. Every time I get a chance to spread the Gospel, I take it," Benson says, only half-jokingly. "We're slowly but surely getting to the point where we can legitimately claim to have a p.m. edition of the newspaper again. I tell reporters to pretend we have a wire service, to pretend they're working for news radio."

Publicly, reporters at both papers function more or less as team players, insisting they're excited about the potential of new technology. But especially among print veterans, beneath the spirit of cooperation there's grumbling about the quick shift from ink to HTML. Often asked to file early versions of a work in progress, some reporters feel put upon. Others are so uninterested in the bells and whistles of the Web that they're slow to produce content designed specifically for online users--such as audio files, links to alternative sources, or documents gathered in the reporting process.

To help ease the culture shock, Benson's employer has created a joint committee of online workers and print journalists. "This is all human nature and perfectly understandable," he says. "If we're asking them to take 15 minutes and bang out an update, that's 15 minutes they could use to call a source or polish a story. So I have to balance my needs with an appreciation for the fact that these people have a paper to put out."

At the Strib, McGuire, Stricharchuk, and other editors say they hope the skeptics will come to realize this "new" way of thinking about newspapering is actually a step back to the old school.

"People have gotten used to a cushy lifestyle in terms of producing one edition of the newspaper. You have to understand that I'm very, very old," the 50-year-old editor observes. "Most newspapers when I got into this business did five or six editions a night. I don't think that's a sacrilege. We're returning to our roots. I think we're going to have to do more and more of that."

Stricharchuk adds his own spin: "I worked for nine years at the Wall Street Journal. The premium was on speed and getting the news out. A lot of what we do around here every day is routine: police calls, fires, and court stuff. It's very routine. If you were breaking that stuff routinely online, it would force stronger reporting for the paper. The additional reporting and analysis that you would do for the paper would be value added."

The flap over the Rufus Simmons matter notwithstanding, Walker Lundy seems to concur. "The only concern I have is how we can make the whole thing stronger," the Pioneer Press editor admits. "In this town there's the issue of competition and where do you publish something first, online or in the paper. What we're doing--we took baby steps a couple of years ago and we'll take even bigger steps in the future--is to make online just another publishing arm of the Pioneer Press. Will that day come? Yes. But I think it's a ways away."

Last Thursday Ison and McEnroe again scooped the competition by reporting that the U of M had settled a sexual-harassment claim against Rufus Simmons back in 1988. Greg Stricharchuk says he and McGuire decided to wait until well after midnight to post the story online, just in case.


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