Future Tense

Exclusive Scoop: That Last Exclusive Scoop Was Totally Wrong

When it comes to online news, can reporting on false rumors be good for business?
When it comes to online news, can reporting on false rumors be good for business?

Image by 3d brained / Shutterstock.com

On Friday, a nascent tech news website run by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin let fly with a big scoop. The headline: “Exclusive: Amazon Wants To Offer Its Smartphone for Free. Who Will Follow?

I was immediately skeptical of the story. Others were too. The sourcing was shaky, the details were fuzzy, and the titular claim simply didn’t seem to make much sense. The piece probably would have been dismissed altogether had it not come from Lessin and fellow former WSJ-er Amir Efrati, a pair of experienced, well-sourced, and duly respected tech reporters. But since it did—and since Amazon reps did not immediately refute the piece Friday afternoon—the story made the rounds, earning a coveted spot on the tech-news site Techmeme and sending ripples through Twitter. No doubt it drove a flurry of readers to jessicalessin.com, the site Lessin and her team are using temporarily while they prepare to launch their new publication.

Two days later, the site published a follow-up: “Amazon: No Phone Launch ‘This Year’ and ‘Would Not Be Free.’ ” From the post:

A spokesman for Amazon.com Inc. said Sunday the online retail giant won’t launch a smartphone this year, and that if it did launch one in the future, it “would not be free.”

The follow-up was not framed as a correction or retraction. It was framed as a fresh scoop. “The statement is the first time that Amazon has said it will not offer a phone this year, addressing long-running reports it has been working on one,” Efrati wrote. This post, too, made the rounds, and Lessin once again tweeted it with a tip to Techmeme. This time the tech-news board appears not to have linked to Lessin’s site, instead highlighting posts on the Verge and other tech sites that referenced Lessin’s self-debunking. Still, her site is the primary source.

What’s interesting to me is not that Lessin and Efrati reported on rumors that turned out to be wrong. Every journalist, including me and my Slate colleagues, gets things wrong sometimes. And in an online-news landscape that is more competitive and faster-moving than ever, it stands to reason that we’d see both more false rumors published and quicker debunkings of those false rumors than we did in the old days.

But as I read Lessin and Efrati’s unapologetic follow-up—no “regret the error” here—a question occurred to me: Do the writers of a piece like this in fact regret running with the rumor in the first place? Or might the whole thing turn out to be a net positive for them and their site? After all, a lot of people who might not have known the site existed are now aware of it as a possible source of hot industry gossip, if not necessarily bankable information. In the flurry of attention that followed the initial “scoop,” Efrati tweeted (and Lessin retweeted) the following:

It’s possible a small portion of the people who went ahead and signed up for those updates went back and canceled their sign-ups after the big Amazon scoop turned out to be a big nothing. But I doubt it. Nor do the page-views that news sites get from a story disappear if that story is later refuted. In fact, the refutation only draws more readers.

And in cases like these, it’s not always clear whether the original story was wrong, per se, or if it actually prompted the people or organizations in question to shift their public stance. For instance, last year CNET published an explosive piece reporting that Sen. Patrick Leahy had quietly rewritten an email privacy bill to let the feds read people’s emails without a warrant. Leahy immediately disclaimed the assertion and made it clear he would not support any such provisions. To many people, it looked as though CNET had gotten it wrong. But CNET’s follow-up made no such admission, instead implying that Leahy was the one backtracking. Both the original post and the follow-up were huge traffic hits—something that’s far more easily measured, and rewarded, in today’s online news world than it was in the dead-tree days.

I called Lessin for her thoughts, and she got back to me promptly. She didn’t directly answer the question of whether she regretted publishing the initial scoop. But she suggested that both posts were legitimate news stories. “I think from our point of view, we have a story that says (Amazon) had been considering something,” she said. “We said that it was very unclear what was going to come of it—just that there had been discussions. They declined to comment. We never said this is something they were going to do.” As for the follow-up post, Lessin added, “From my point of view, they updated their comment with more information, and it was important to us to get that new information out as quickly as possible.”

Lessin didn’t put it quite this way, but you could make the case that we as readers are, in the end, more informed than we would have been if the original post were never published. Indeed, in journalism’s pre-Web days, it’s likely that this sort of anonymous rumor would have remained the province of reporters’ happy-hour chatter. Instead it was brought into the light, debated, and ultimately refuted by Amazon in a statement that shed more light on the company’s plans than we had before. On the other hand, there are probably some readers who read the initial scoop but missed the follow-up and are now holding out for the coming wave of free smartphones.

Again, this is not really about Lessin and Efrati. Obviously both of them care deeply about getting things right, and my impression based on their track record is that they tend to be very good at it. This is about a deeper question: In the hypercompetitive online news landscape, is being first and wrong sometimes better for business than being last and right?