Los Angeles gossip site TMZ got the scoop that Michael Jackson died. They had it about half an hour after paramedics arrived, and about 15 minutes ahead of the LA Times. When the LA Times blog was just reporting that MJ was in the hospital, and then in a coma, TMZ already had a headline that said “Michael Jackson Dies.”
That’s a great hed, by the way: It’s direct and to the point. What more do you need?
But few people believed TMZ because the story didn’t say what the sources were, or at least not very clearly. And despite its excellent track record of shoe-leather reporting, TMZ doesn’t have enough of a reputation in most people’s eyes to be considered a reliable source on its own. That may change, since getting “the scoop of the decade” has done a lot to augment TMZ’s reputation.
But yesterday afternoon, it was only after an LA Times blog confirmed the death, citing “city and law enforcement officials,” that the story was credible.
Lesson #1: Your sources matter. And readers will pay attention to who those sources are. If TMZ had stated its sources more clearly in the story, more readers would have believed them.
Lesson #2: Reporting counts for a lot. TMZ has worked really hard, doing serious, old-fashioned, shoe leather reporting, to get this and other scoops, as the Guardian describes. There’s no substitute for developing and maintaining sources, knowing your beat, figuring out how to get ahead of the news, and laying the groundwork so that you’ll be ready when the big story breaks.