June 26, 2013

(Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post)

Persistent mistakes by news organizations on big, national stories have spawned a growing consensus in journalism circles. Better to be right than first, goes the thinking. People won’t remember who was first to report a Supreme Court decision, says a corollary of this school of thought, but they’ll surely remember who got it wrong. Like CNN and Fox News around this time last year, when the Supreme Court announced its decision on the Affordable Care Act.

The conventional wisdom on speed, alas, hasn’t prevented news organizations from going fast. Following the release of this morning’s Supreme Court ruling in the DOMA case, here are the finish times of some key organizations:

Bloomberg: 10:01:13
Reuters: 10:01:32
AP: 10:02:27*

All three organizations confirm those times.*

The winner among these outlets, Bloomberg News, put a three-person team on today’s rulings: Supreme Court reporter Greg Stohr, who’s been on the beat since 1998, plus editors Laurie Asseo and Bob Drummond. Once the decision became available this morning, Stohr grabbed it and hustled over to the cubicle in the Supreme Court’s press area, where he worked with Asseo and Drummond to assess the document and what it said.

Stohr checked that the ruling said “affirmed.” He checked on the headnotes. He checked how the various justices lined up on the decision. Then he and the team pushed out their take on the situation.

Total elapsed time: 30 seconds. Says the 46-year-old Stohr in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog: “I’m going to guess that it was something like 30 seconds between the time that they gave us the opinions and the time that the headlines went out.”

That’s not to say, however, that Stohr’s work on the story started this morning at 10:00 a.m. No, he began working on the story a month-and-a-half ago, he says. Much of the work consisted of thinking through all the intricate legal scenarios that the Supreme Court could possibly concoct in deciding the DOMA case and the Prop 8 case, which also made news today. The brainstorming process, says Stohr, ultimately yielded 18 story ledes and many more headlines — all of which were ready for publication this morning. “We had ledes written for what do we say if we had a DOMA ruling but not Prop 8,” says Stohr, who emphasizes that Asseo and Drummond were critical to the effort. “What do we say if we have Prop 8 but not DOMA? And what do we say when we have both of them?”

The yeoman’s labor behind Bloomberg News’s Supreme Court agility — it beat the competition on the healthcare ruling last year as well — helps restore a bit of glory to the old-fashioned objective of being first. It’s not just about moving fast and seeking recognition; it’s about methodical preparation and understanding of the issues.

A fast-twitch approach to large stories makes sense for Bloomberg News, whose dispatches can affect financial markets within seconds of their publication. Such was not the case with the gay-marriage cases, however, which don’t particularly have a trading-floor dimension to them. Not that Stohr relaxed too much as a result: “I can get competitive,” says Stohr.

When asked if he takes pride in beating the pants off Reuters and other wire services by seconds, Stohr pauses, then says: “I guess you’d think I’d have a good answer to that question. Obviously the single most important thing is getting it right,” he says. “Above all else, if I get it right and I’m fast, the day ends well. I feel like I sound like a baseball player: I can only control what I control.”

*UPDATE 6:12 p.m.: AP confirmed the 10:02 time, but not the 27 seconds.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.