Paper Wins Justice (Scoop)

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By: Joe Strupp

If you don’t think little community newspapers can compete with major dailies on a national story, you haven’t seen The Courier-Gazette in Rockland, Maine. The thrice-weekly paper may have only eight newsroom staffers, but that didn’t stop it from breaking the late-July story that Supreme Court Justice John Roberts suffered a seizure at his vacation home.

As is often the case in such situations, it was simple shoe-leather reporting and longtime local sourcing that allowed the Courier-Gazette to scoop ABC News, The New York Times, and every other major news outlet. “It is just gumshoe work, contacting your sources,” says Stephen Betts, editor since 2006 and a 25-year veteran of its newsroom. “The Courier-Gazette is an institution in this area.”

Those sources and relationships paid off on July 30 when the paper learned of Roberts’ fall at about 2 p.m. via a police scanner in the newsroom, which is always on. “It said a 52-year-old man had a seizure, fell five to 10 feet on a dock, backward,” Betts recalls. “We kind of let it go because it was not something we would cover, it did not give his name.”

Soon after, though, the newsroom received a call from ABC News asking if Roberts had fallen, having gotten a report from a Supreme Court-related official ? but no mention of a seizure. “We knew it was connected, and we made some phone calls to confirm,” says Betts. “We made the staff make phone calls to everyone under the sun.” Although the Courier-Gazette was not set to publish for two more days, the paper placed a story on its Web site by 4 p.m., the first report about the incident to say it had been a seizure. Betts would not reveal how the paper had learned that information, but said it was a trusted source.

More outside media began calling to check on the seizure aspect of the story, Betts says, noting that CBS News called at 6 p.m. and others from AP and ABC News called again. “They said people they had spoken to at the Supreme Court had not mentioned the seizure,” Betts recalls. “We told them we were confident.”

Betts says the Drudge Report soon linked to his account, drawing more interest about the seizure angle. He says when ABC’s “World News Tonight” led its 6:30 p.m. newscast with the story, the anchorperson stated that “one media source had reported it was a seizure,” but did not identify his paper.

“Within an hour of that, the hospital released a statement saying it had been a seizure,” Betts says. “We knew our source was correct.” In addition to getting the Courier-Gazette some news-breaking credit, the scoop also spiked its Web traffic, which reached 150,000 unique users during the first 24 hours after the story went up ? an increase of five times the usual 30,000 for the same time period.

Betts says the paper actually had a previous scoop about Roberts; it reported in June 2006 that the Supreme Court justice had purchased the Hupper Island-area home. He says his staff made that discovery during its routine weekly review of the local deed registry, which lists the newest land deals.

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