In every phase of my news career, I was lucky enough (relatively speaking) to work in two-newspaper environments. As much as we didn’t like the idea that TV would occasionally beat us to the punch, we always feared what the afternoon edition of our competing paper would bring. It has been years since I had to worry about getting scooped, but I could easily recall that fear this week when a story began popping up in my social media. Several former students from the Columbia Missourian shared this story about the “tragic” gutting of the paper’s competitor, the Columbia Daily Tribune.
When I took an editing job at the Missourian, the city’s a.m. paper, we’d send someone running down the street around 2 p.m. to a newspaper box that contained still-moist editions of the Tribune. When the reporter would return with the paper, we’d tear the thing into sections, looking for stories that we had that were absent from the paper or something “they” got that “we” didn’t.
When the internet became more prevalent, the Tribune would post all of its stories online just before we had our news budget meeting. Our newsroom would be filled with reporters at computers, clicking the “refresh” button on their web browsers, trying to get the first look at what the Trib had. More often than not, we were on the short end of the stick and we had to scramble to catch up.
Working for the Missourian presented a unique challenge. The University of Missouri owned the paper and staffed it with professional-practice faculty as editors and students at the J-school as reporters, photographers and other staffers. The Tribune, on the other hand, was a professional, family-owned publication.
Reporters there had years of experience under their belts, along with an extensive set of relationships with sources throughout the area. Our staffers had trouble figuring out how to transfer a phone call.
Making things worse, sources on certain beats actively undermined some of our student reporters. It was infuriating to have a reporter catch a rare tip, work on it for days and then get a “no comment” or some other denial from a source, only to have the source turn around and give the story to a Tribune staffer. It was a sick feeling to read “your story” on the front page of the Trib with the writer slathering “told the Columbia Daily Tribune” attributions all over it.
As much as I really, really hated getting our butts handed to us on a semi-regular basis, it really helped me drive the reporters working for me on the crime beat to hustle like crazy. Living with the Tribune was like being a little brother: Your older sibling kicked your keester over and over and over again at EVERYTHING you both did. But, when you managed to pull off a win, it was like a Christmas miracle, a first kiss and hitting a game-winning home run all at once.
I know that the media environment is much more diverse these days when it comes to social media, citizen journalists and news-driven websites. Turf battles over a city or town by two monolithic traditional news operations doesn’t happen anymore and there’s something good to be said about a more diverse set of niche voices gaining volume.
However, the competition that existed between the two papers in that town helped shape and grow some of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to know. The Missourian reporters knew nothing would be easy, nothing would be handed to them and they had to hustle just to tie that damned Tribune every, single day.
I don’t know if it’s possible to replicate that kind of environment any more and I think in many ways, news consumers are the worse for it.