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How local news site nailed NBC News top doc

Back on Oct. 3, Krystal Knapp of Planet Princeton happened upon a story that mixed her local beat with the national media beat. NBC News had announced that crew members who had accompanied a freelance cameramen infected with Ebola in Liberia would return to the U.S. and be placed under a 21-day quarantine. Among those affected would be Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the NBC News chief medical editor who resides in Princeton, N.J.

About a week after the story landed, a commenter posted this note on Planet Princeton:

Quarantine? What quarantine?
She–or someone who is a dead ringer–has been spotted in public in the area as recently as today.

Planet Princeton founder Krystal Knapp read that comment, as she does all comments — about 50 per day on Planet Princeton and its Facebook page. She moderates the comments and zaps the ones that don’t meet her standards. “I moderate comments heavily. When someone crosses the line, I delete them,” says Knapp, who won plaudits from community-engagement champion Steve Buttry. Upon seeing the “dead ringer” comment about Snyderman, the 47-year-old Knapp “didn’t think anything of it,” she says.

Then came e-mails alleging the same thing about Snyderman. Getting warmer.

Warm turned to hot in an episode that merits first-ballot consideration in the Hyperlocal Reporting Hall of Fame. Someone whom Knapp describes as an excellent source ended up in line right next to a man who ducked into the Peasant Grill in Hopewell Borough to get a take-out order. He had emerged from a car in which Snyderman was also spotted, an otherwise innocent act that would have been a violation of her voluntary quarantine. The source gave Knapp information on the car — a black Mercedes. Also, the following detail wound up in Knapp’s piece on Snyderman’s alleged outing: “Snyderman had sunglasses on and had her hair pulled back, the reader said.”

The way Knapp tells it, her source noticed Snyderman’s presence in part because the car was double-parked outside the establishment. “Not subtle,” notes Knapp.

A former Times of Trenton reporter who took a buyout from the paper at the age of 39, Knapp did what she calls “due diligence” on the tip. She made sure that the car “fit the description” of a car chez Snyderman; she checked with local sources who indicated to her that Snyderman “had been confronted. She was told, ‘You gotta lay lower.’ ” From NBC, Knapp got nothing but silence, she says. After waiting four or five hours, Knapp hit “publish” Thursday evening on a piece titled, “Dr. Nancy Snyderman Back from Africa, Seen in Public.

It blew up her site. Planet Princeton gets between 3,000 and 5,000 visits per day on average, says Knapp. Over the weekend, it tallied 47,000, driven by follow-up in the New York Post, New York Daily News and others. TMZ posted this headline: “NBC Dr. Nancy Snyderman: I’d Like Ebola Soup, Please.”

Impact ensued, as the New Jersey Health Department tweaked the quarantine for Snyderman et alia from voluntary to mandatory. NBC News has issued a laugher of a statement on the matter:

We cannot comment on any individual case due to privacy concerns. Upon returning from Liberia, our team was deemed to be low risk, and agreed to follow guidelines set by local health authorities. We fully support those guidelines and continue to expect that they be followed. Our team are all well with normal temperatures, which they check multiple times a day, and they are also in daily contact with local health officials.

So NBC News is falling back on a privacy dodge when its star doc was outed as inappropriately appearing in public.

As to the credibility of Knapp’s scoop, CNN media guy Brian Stelter today said, “If it wasn’t true, NBC would be out denying it.” He also said this of Snyderman’s actions: “It goes to her credibility as the chief medical correspondent of the network, to appear to be breaking a quarantine.”

One hundred percent correct. At its core, the charge of a network’s chief medical editor revolves around judgment — that is, striking the right tone on public health hazards, urging folks to take proper precautions, carrying at all times scientific gravitas. From here on out, watchdogs will be monitoring Snyderman for any and all medical advice she dispenses on air. Were she to counsel the Erik Wemple Blog to drink lots of fluids and get some rest, we’d stay up all night eating ham.

Media ethics aside, there’s a taxpayer dimension to the Snyderman story as well. As Planet Princeton reports, the Princeton cops and health department are now enforcing the mandatory quarantine.

In bringing the Snyderman scoop to light, Knapp pierced what she calls a very competitive regional news environment, complete with titles like the Times of Trenton, the Star Ledger, the Princeton Packet and the Princeton Sun, among others. Given that mob, Knapp says that she’s “not really earning that much off the site directly right now,” though she has used it to bootstrap her way into social-media consulting and teaching gigs.

She’s about to launch a crowdsourcing campaign for contributions, something of a “voluntary membership model,” she says. A suggested fundraising pitch: Planet Princeton, where we actually read your comments.

Updated to add the part about the double-parking.