As Media Multiply, So Do 'Conceptual Scoops'

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Tired of cable news channels giving breathless treatment to new tantrums by cranky celebutantes? Inundated with updates on your cell phone or thousands of identical headlines on your PDA?

Bleeding paid readership, the nation's beleaguered big-city daily newspapers sure hope you are. They're trying to lure you back to the fold with what they think is their advantage — the conceptual scoop.

Washington Post managing editor Phil Bennett tends to recognize one when he is forced to blurt this out loud: "God, that was a smart story."

"A smart story often does contain new facts," Bennett explains. "But just as often it takes facts that are lying in plain sight and synthesizes them, or arranges them in a way — sometimes in a narrative — that really exposes some new meaning on an important subject. And I think that's a conceptual scoop."

Our idealized notion of Washington reporting involves a guy nicknamed Deep Throat in a trench coat in a garage parking lot whispering to a reporter: "Follow the money."

In real life, Washington reporting is often filled with perfunctory coverage of such obvious moments as bill-signing ceremonies, when a president publicly praises laws passed by Congress.

The Boston Globe noticed something rather striking, however. Away from the cameras and microphones, White House aides sometimes quietly release written statements saying the president has the right to ignore all or part of the laws he's just signed — and often just praised. In fact, the Globe found that the Bush White House has asserted that right not just occasionally, but more than 750 times. It's one of the cornerstones of the administration's claim of the primacy of executive power in government.

Bennett says stories like the Globe's "signing statement" scoop revealed something that was happening in plain view, but was essentially invisible because no one had bothered to connect the dots. The reason this matters to newspapers is that a headline delivered to your BlackBerry only provides a new fact. A story like this conveys an idea.

"It's another form of competitive journalism," Bennett says. "People who can arrive first at the defining nature of a conceptual scoop — of telling you, 'Here's what these sets of facts mean' — oftentimes control the agenda of the discussion of that subject."

Bennett has put an emphasis on that kind of story at the Post. Like many papers, the Post has lost paid subscribers in recent years. While he says he's wary of easy trend stories or front-page pitches based on flimsy reporting, Bennett sees genuine conceptual scoops as calling cards that can keep readers interested.

The Wall Street Journal is even better at it — out of necessity, because editors of the nation's top financial newspaper know people often read another daily first. At the Journal, the scoops come in all flavors — like the one about how the arrival of a Starbucks often helps neighborhood coffee shops instead of hurting, as many people charged. Or one from last year, in which Journal reporters designed a giant software program to confirm their gut suspicion that there was raging fraud in the way corporate executives got stock options.

"They literally found the odds were so extraordinary — hundreds of billions to one — that it strongly suggested there was cheating," says Mike Miller, the editor who's overseen the Journal's front page for the past seven years.

Miller points out you'd be far more likely to win the Powerball lottery than to time the market like that. Other articles had pointed out questionable timing of stock options grants, but no one proved how widespread it was — until the Journal.

"So when they were done," Miller says, "nearly 140 companies were under federal investigation, 70 top officials had lost their jobs, five executives were charged with federal crimes, and those numbers are continuing to roll. This was all because of [the reporters'] ingenuity at statistical modeling — and also sensing a trend out there that they were able to document in a really extraordinary way."

That scoop was a Pulitzer winner. But they don't all have to be that serious. When one reporter overheard a guy being ribbed about his dinner plans, a conceptual scoop — and a new term, the "man-date" — were born.

The reporter, Jennifer 8. Lee of The New York Times, says she was instantly drawn to the question of how straight men socialize one-on-one.

"When it's not dependent on alcohol, and when it's not dependent on sports, how do they do it?" she asked.

As Lee interviewed men about the idea, she found they were leery of seeming too intimate with a buddy. Going to a bar was fine — under certain conditions.

"You know, if they're sitting next to each other, and there's a TV involved, then it's not a man-date," she says. "If you went for a jog in the park — not a man-date. If you went for a walk in the park, that would be a man-date."

"And I just found that whole notion really interesting."

Lee is covering cops for the Times now, but she's a conceptual scoop artist. And she knows that these stories, though they might not be the ones most rewarded with prizes, are usually among the most e-mailed.

"It literally is, kind of, stories that people talk about," Lee says — as in, "'Hey, did you hear that story about cell phones and flirting? That was really awesome.'"

Big papers like the Times, the Post and the Journal are unlikely to stop digging up dirt — or to stop trying to break news. But the more you scan their front pages, the more likely you are to find stories that rely as much on deep thought as on Deep Throat.

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