Sometimes in this business, it’s who you know.
That was the essence of WCCO’s big scoop today: that Brett Favre had changed his mind (again) and would sign with the Vikings. Reporter Mark Rosen, preparing for a Hawaiian vacation set to begin Wednesday, got a call around 8:30 a.m. from a team poohbah. Fifty minutes later, the tweet heard round the world — well, at least the sports world — went out via @wccobreaking:
“A high-level source with the Minnesota Vikings tells WCCO’s Mark Rosen that QB Brett Favre is expected to sign with the team Tuesday.”
The station’s willingness to sit on a story that would quadruple its web traffic — producing a spike only exceeded by the 35W bridge collapse — reflects oft-derided mainstream newsroom values.
News director Scott Libin won’t say exactly how Rosen’s original tip was confirmed, but additional facts and/or sources were found. The result: roughly an hour of ESPN crediting ‘CCO for a story that the sports network had been all over. For a time, “WCCO” was among the top three trending terms on Twitter.
“You’re nervous to be so far out in front of a major network, but it also gets you excited,” assistant news director Mike Caputa says. “It was a lonely feeling, but there’s a validation Rosey felt when AP confirmed his report” after the wire service later got head coach Brad Childress to became the first named source on the record.
“Honestly, the information was rock-solid,” says Libin. “We could’ve gone sooner, but I’d rather be right than first. Your reputation is on the line, especially with something this big.”
[Update: On WCCO’s website, Rosen says the source spoke in “cryptic language” but ended the call by saying, “I think it’s going to be a pretty big day for you.”
[The source had told Rosen in June that Favre would be on the team barring “some unforeseen major physical setback.” Apparently that happened — ankle and knee pain that “might never subside and could continue to worsen.” The development did not undo Rosen’s trust in the source.]
WCCO director of new media John Daenzer says the web traffic shot over 100,000 page views in the first hour; traffic is normally in the 30,000 range between 9 and 10 a.m. Why did Channel 4 decide to break the story on Twitter rather than on-air?
“It was faster to get it up online, but it was almost simultaneous,” he notes. (Seconds later, WCCO added a breaking-news screen-crawl for TV viewers.) Several employees retweeted on their own accounts, Facebook was simultaneously fed, and an email alert went out.
Such new-age broadcasting stood in stark contrast to how the story was handled internally before it broke. Libin, Caputa, Daenzer and Rosen more or less kept it to themselves as they and a few other employees worked for corroboration. Such are the dangers of hasty tweets and Facebook leaks in this modern world.
While the story was initially spoon-fed rather than dug out, Libin says Rosen still earned his sourcing. “Getting this story started in 1969 — a little bit before Twitter. Mark’s been here 40 years; he started when he was 17. He’s built a reputation for trustworthiness.”
To be sure, you don’t get such calls when you’re consistently a major pain in management’s posterior, and I’ve seen Rosen do his share of “rah-rah” over the years. There will always be gripes about favoritism when big scoops leak this way, but Rosen is no Sid (who memorably got the scoop when Bud Grant returned to coaching).
In the end, WCCO handled the news like pros, making their own calls and getting the story right. Says Libin, “It’s the story about new technology and how stories spread, but it’s also about an old-fashioned, well-connected beat reporter.”