The Fifteen Minutes Problem

From the NYT Magazine profile of Mike Allen:

Allen is a master aggregator, which leads some to dismiss Playbook as a cut-and-paste exercise. But that ignores Allen’s ability to break news (even if by only 15 minutes), to cull from e-mail only he is receiving, to get early copies of books and magazines and to pick out the prime nugget from the bottom of a pool report. He has a knack for selecting the “data points” that an info-saturated clan cares most about and did not know when it went to bed. Playbook’s politics are “aggressively neutral,” and Allen says his are, too — he refuses to vote.

I think the 15 minutes thing is really pernicious and by no means restricted to Allen. Journalism, as a vocation, highly valorizes breaking news. In part this is about making money, but it’s more fundamentally about the value system of the profession. You defend someone’s work by saying “that ignores Allen’s ability to break news” because breaking news is what it’s all about—the journalism equivalent of collecting championship rings.

But there are really two ways to break news. A Type 1 scoop is a story that if you don’t break, just won’t be broken. A Type 2 scoop is a pure race for priority. You get Type 2 scoops by becoming the favored destination for deliberate leaks, or by ferreting out information that will be officially announced soon enough (Joe Biden will be Obama’s VP pick!), or by chasing down an obvious-but-arduous-to-follow lead. These Type 2 scoops are structurally similar to “breaking news” but they don’t have any real value. Far too often in Washington we have a dozen reporters following something, and then at the margin three more tag along. Meanwhile, almost nobody is doing enterprise work around investigating non-obvious issues. You have way more people covering the White House’s response to the latest attack from Liz Cheney than covering the entire Department of Agriculture and nobody knows what scandals or stories or whatever we’re missing. And it’s largely because we place undue value on the idea of beating the other guy by 15 minutes.