- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Compare and compete
Not so many years ago, a news clerk at The Washington Times would be sent out every evening as soon as the early edition of The Washington Post hit the streets with instructions to bring back several copies for the newsroom.
Our editors would then pore over the paper, mainly to see whether it had any major stories that we had overlooked. If so and we deemed the item important enough a reporter would scramble to pull together our own version of the story in time for our final edition.
A similar ritual went on in newsrooms across the country, wherever there were competitive newspapers. Similarly, editors everywhere would monitor the television networks' late-evening newscasts for late-breaking or exclusive stories that they might have missed.
So eager were editors to know what their competitors were doing that the Associated Press adopted the practice of distributing the front-page lineup of the New York Times to its subscribers as soon as it became available in the early evening.
That interest is as avid as ever, but it is no longer necessary for news clerks to drive across town to pick up copies of The Post. Today, we simply log on to its Web site to see what stories they are carrying and how they are being played.
It's not only The Post that we look at. Thanks to the Internet, we have a wealth of ways to keep track of what our competitors are doing and to help us judge the newsworthiness of the day's stories.
Both The Post and the New York Times update their Web sites throughout the day, often with wire stories, tipping us off to what they think is important. Newsroom televisions are tuned all day to CNN, which occasionally breaks stories ahead of the wires.
We also look in occasionally on the major Internet news sites, such as MSNBC or Fox Online, to see which stories they think are important. The Drudge Report which essentially provides links to the latest and hottest news stories on a wide range of Web sites is particularly good at identifying the kinds of stories that will resonate with large numbers of people.
Avoiding the pack
The latest addition to the mix is Google News, which employs new technology to monitor thousands of news sites and somehow highlights the stories that are being displayed on the greatest number of them.
All this is a great comfort to editors, making it less likely than ever before that we will miss something important.
But the technology also has an unfortunate tendency to homogenize the news, prompting editors everywhere to choose the same mix of stories and leaving their readers with a limited range of news and attitudes.
Just this week, according to the Drudge Report, ABC News' political chief exhorted his staff in a regular memo that they should not "let Drudge become our assignment editor."
This might have some value in a one-newspaper city, where editors feel they have a responsibility to make sure their readers are privy to the same information as readers in New York or Washington.
But it can be counterproductive for a newspaper like The Washington Times, which is competing in a market where we suspect that our most important readers already are seeing the New York Times and The Post.
We are constantly told by our senior editors that we have failed if our front page has the same lineup of stories as our larger competitors. Only by developing exclusive news of our own can we hope to give Washington readers a reason to buy yet another newspaper.
Some stories, of course, are just so obviously important that we have to have them. When President Bush delivers his State of the Union speech later this week, there is no doubt it will be the lead story on our front page, just as it is in every other newspaper in the country.
But most of the time, we will rely on the wire agencies for the news we think everyone else will have, and assign our limited number of staff reporters to try to break stories that we think will set us apart.
The television next to my desk is still tuned to CNN, just as it is in most newsrooms around the country. And we still look in every day on Drudge, Google and the New York Times.
But what really makes us happy is when we see that we have a hot story for the next day's paper that the others haven't caught on to yet.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]



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