Scoops: When journalists masturbate

This quote is beginning to get some press attention, so I ought to correct the record: I said “masturbatory”, not “masturbating”. Glad that’s cleared up.

In fact, the full quote was captured by the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch: “Breaking news is the most masturbatory thing journalists do. The reader couldn’t give a flying fuck who broke it.”

A bit of context, here: I was giving a talk about wonk journalism at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and in the Q&A I was asked about whether there was a problem with the fact that explanatory journalism doesn’t break news. In particular, I was asked about this quote, from James Ball, at the Guardian, writing about Vox and FiveThirtyEight:

Neither site truly aims to break news on the areas they cover, and therein lies a problem: are readers meant to visit their favorite “regular” news sites, then hop by and see if the newcomers have anything to add (or debunk)? Neither FiveThirtyEight nor Vox has offered quite enough (yet) on any of their specialities to become the first stop.

This, I think, is doubly silly. For one thing, both Vox and FiveThirtyEight are brand new: give them a little bit of time to start getting the breadth and depth they aspire to!

But more to the point, readers don’t care who broke the news: only journalists care about that. If I report something and then you report the same thing five minutes later, then by the laws of the journalistic honor code, you’re supposed to credit me in your story.

There’s one exception to this rule: at newswires, it theoretically matters who gets news first, because news can move markets. (In practice, however, even newswire subscribers aren’t generally fast enough to be able to trade on news before the markets have moved, so it doesn’t really make a huge amount of difference whether one wire gets the news a fraction of a second before the other guy.)

Outside newswires, on the other hand, chasing after scoops is silly — especially in the 99% of cases where the news is certain to come out soon enough anyway. Many highly-respected newscasts and magazines rarely or never break news; conversely, many low-quality, high-velocity websites are constantly churning out microscoops of zero importance. It seems self-evident to me that all news organizations should decide whether or not to publish information based on the inherent quality of the content in question, and the degree to which that information serves the publication’s readers. Instead, far too many news organizations make their publication decisions based on what other news organizations have already published.

Journalists, of course, spend a huge amount of time looking at their rivals’ content. And in their solipsistic way, they generally assume that if they’ve seen a certain story elsewhere, then their readers will have seen that story too. Every journalist in America can tell you about a project they were working on which was spiked when their editor saw something vaguely similar elsewhere — even when the overlap between the two publications’ readerships was roughly zero.

All of which is to say that when journalists start caring about scoops and exclusives, that’s a clear sign that they’re publishing mainly for the benefit of other journalists, rather than for their readers. Take the news, for instance, that I was joining Fusion. That news was published in the New York Times — both online and in print. The story, by Ravi Somaiya, was a great one.  But because of scoop culture, it only appeared in the NYT because it appeared first in the NYT: Fusion gave Ravi the exclusive. My own story appeared a few minutes later, which is fine; if it had appeared a few minutes earlier, the NYT would probably have refused to publish anything on the subject at all. Even though the only people who care about such things are a handful of media navel-gazers on Twitter, none of whom read the NYT in print.

The argument for caring about such things is that news dissemination has become increasingly fragmented and social: if you have the news first, then your story gets a headstart on Twitter and Facebook, which is how more and more people are getting their news. But frankly while a headstart is nice, it should never make the difference between publishing and not publishing. Readers come first, and all decent publications have their own readership: they shouldn’t be so meek as to assume that their readers will have invariably found the same news elsewhere, just because someone else’s version arrived a little earlier.

James Ball, like most journalists, assumes that news consumers go to news websites in order to find out what is new, what is breaking. But that’s not true. They go to understand the world, broadly. If Vox and FiveThirtyEight help their readers to understand the world, then they will have done their job. No site is exhaustive, and no site will be better at providing all the news that’s happening in the world, on a real-time basis, than the wires and their clients. If you want to succeed online, you need to find a niche, something you do better than anybody else. And it seems to me that explaining and contextualizing the news is a very high calling, even if you can’t explain and contextualize everything.

Of course, explanatory journalism is dependent upon somebody, somewhere, breaking the news in the first place; in my talk I used the word “parasitical”. You can’t have explanation and context without someone on the ground finding and reporting the facts which can then be explained and contextualized.

What’s more, in many cases the person on the ground, who sees the facts in their real-world context, is often the very best person to be doing the contextualizing. That’s why Ezra Klein, for one, is giving his staff beats and is telling them to go out and report news: talking to sources and spending a lot of time in a certain world is pretty much the best way to get the deep understanding of a topic that is necessary to be able to produce a first-rate explainer.

But reporting news, and cultivating sources, is a different thing from breaking news — from being the person who reports the news five minutes or five seconds faster than the other guy. And if you’re not focused on scooping the competition on something incremental, then you’re going to have more bandwidth available for being able to talk to your sources about the big picture, where the real value is.

So let’s try to move away from scoop culture, and away from journalism-for-journalists. Instead, let’s serve our readers. The real readers. The ones who aren’t on Twitter.

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34 Responses to Scoops: When journalists masturbate

  1. Dan says:

    I feel like you have just summarized our entire model at We don’t chase incremental scoops. I have been accused of burying “scoops” in my stories several times and been asked why I didn’t write some [Exclusive] or [Breaking] type of story. Mostly because I don’t play that game and it takes bandwidth from what I am trying to cover at any particular moment.

  2. Zach says:

    I might not care who broke news, but I care that news was broken. Original reporting is important.

  3. 14 the claw says:

    Of course you would say that. Leave the heavy lifting to someone else. Then move in with your own views. Take your own sweet contextualizing time. While the people with strong backs move your furniture, you can rearrange the pillows. You say self-gratification is the purpose of the scoopers. I say the self-justification is what you’re about.

  4. I was previously the editor in chief of this breaking news web site, a companion print magazine and monthly events devoted to newsworthy topics. Many journalists are motivated by the desire to break news first, myself included. It is hard work and very time consuming. On our web site, when we broke news, our readership skyrocketed. When we followed our main competitors, even with a story that had more information and context, our readership moved, but only as an echo, not as the first shout. Readers care about breaking news. Based on my own experience, no web site will survive as a commercial enterprise supported by advertising dollars unless it consistently breaks significant news (relevant to its readers) often and well.

  5. colman1860 says:

    This was fantastic until the last sentence. Being a long-form reader who doesn’t just chase breaking news does not preclude twitter use. Twitter is a fantastic medium in its own right.

  6. Judith Evans says:

    “When journalists start caring about scoops and exclusives, that’s a clear sign that they’re publishing mainly for the benefit of other journalists”: This misses the fact that without “scoops and exclusives” a huge amount of the news we read simply wouldn’t be out there. The assumption that most news would kind of make its way into the public domain anyway just isn’t true.

  7. David Joerg says:

    Scoops are the high-frequency trading of journalism.

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  10. Pingback: Felix Salmon: I Said ‘Masturbatory’, Not ‘Masturbation’ - FishbowlNY

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  14. Grego says:

    Agree with some of your conclusions here and have wondered if journalism-for-journalists sites (Vox and 538 among them) really do serve the right readers, the ones that aren’t on Twitter…

    As for scoops, I tend to think those with [Exclusive] are more valuable than those with [Breaking] tags. Breaking news is going to break, but an exclusive investigation or interview will add unique value that nobody else has.


  15. Ian Fraser says:


    The danger with contextualising is that it can become “churnalism”. Also I don’t believe journalists are quite as precious about following up each other’s material as you suggest. Finally you appear to have underestimated the significance of investigative reporting which, clearly, plays a vital role in exposing and reining in scams and corruption—and which, by its very nature, inevitably gives rise to “scoops”. I agree with Greg Emeson on the distinction between “breaking” news and the outcome of exclusive investigations. Otherwise a very interesting piece. Thanks and good luck with the new job.


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  20. Andrew says:

    Very very interesting point coming from a journalist.

    However, one argument related to “it theoretically matters who gets news first, because news can move markets”. I’m not sure what you mean by that. Do you refer to ‘who’ in terms of reputation? (eg: if a market-breaking news is broken by a trustworthy source it will have a bigger impact than if broken by another?). In this case wouldn’t necessarily agree. We’ve seen examples recently of market-breaking news broken by relatively unknown sources. Sure, the impact snowballed as it was picked up by better known agencies, but in those places where it mattered the news spread without aid once it was broken.

    However if you maintain the point, then you should consider that similarly I, as a news consumer, don’t *really* care who broke it but I will still choose my source. If I first see it on a site I don’t consider trustworthy (or otherwise not inspiring confidence) then I will skip it and look for the same on sites I trust even if they come around later. With market-breaking news it’s largely the same: the trustworthiness of the source does matter. As long as the reliability is important and you don’t read news just for kicks, then it matters up to a point.

    However, the very act of ‘breaking news’ is the one that lost importance. To me the ‘who’ matters. It doesn’t matter whether they are breaking the news or just relaying it, but the who matters. Back in the print days, to get the news to the readers it would take a day of writing, then the news makes it in the next day print, competition reads it, relays it the next day, etc. It would take 2 days at best.

    Now it’s a matter or minutes or hours at most. And the who matters more than the act of breaking.

    If I somehow choose Mashable as a newssource for tech stuff and it’s in my newsreader, then I’d probably wait for whatever comes to be picked up there. If I see something in passing on facebook or elsewhere on Techradar, I might not care and click anyway but if I wouldn’t consider TEchradar trustworthy then I’m not going to click and just look for it elsewhere.

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  23. Will White says:

    Any product is at risk of being a commodity. Good business people know that the land of real profits is populated with creativity and differentiation. Never treat your product like a commodity lest your customers do the same and you find yourself chasing ever thinning profit margins. Scoops are by definition treating the news like a commodity. Another commenter highlighted the difference between a “breaking” item and an “exclusive”, and they couldn’t have been more right.

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