If you’re first, you’re fired

What a message in the breaking news age. The person who posted the death of Tim Russert on Wikipedia has apparently been fired, least that’s what NBC sources say they’ve been told.

The Wikipedia entry on Tim Russert seems to be first report of the death, well before NBC, other TV networks or the Associated Press reported the death. NBC said it was waiting until the family could be notified.

The New York Times reported Monday that:

Looking at the detailed records of editing changes recorded by
Wikipedia, it quickly emerged that the changes came from Internet
Broadcasting Services, a company in St. Paul, Minn., that provides Web
services to a variety of companies, including local NBC TV stations.

I.B.S. spokeswoman said on Friday that “a junior-level employee made
updates to the Wikipedia page upon learning of Mr. Russert’s passing,
thinking it was public record.” She added that the company had “taken
the necessary measures with the employee and apologized to NBC.” NBC
News said it was told the employee was fired.

The story notes that the New York Times and New York Post also posted stories before NBC. The other networks have a tradition (that seems all too quaint in the Internet Era) of allowing the network who suffers a death to announce it first.

That it was on Wikipedia before NBC wanted to announce it “flabbergasted” an NBC spokeswoman. And MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann did his best self-righteous indignation over someone not playing by club rules.

Most of those who posted comments on an earlier post I did thought NBC had done the right thing in being  respectful to the family by making sure the family got the news before it had broadcast it. I can empathize with the family, but we’re long past six media outlets controlling news flow.

It was fine for NBC to hold the information until the family was notified, but it’s ludicrous to be flabbergasted by being beaten on news you were holding. And it’s plain dumb to fire someone for getting it first and right.

(via J.D. Lasica)


  1. That’s crazy and completely contrary to the current attitude about news. The Wikipedian getting fired, that is. On the networks yielding to NBC: if they feel that’s important, then more power to them. They also need to accept that they’re going to get beat nine times out of ten.

  2. Yep. One wonders how long NBC would have “held” the story had the family been inaccessible? Another hour? Another four hours? And would the other networks have observed their good ole boy rule even as Wikipedia, the New York Times, the New York Post, AP, Twitter, Facebook .. the list goes on .. reported it? Talk about flabbergasting.

  3. My opinion: it doesn’t matter why or how long your boss wants to hold a story. If your boss tells you to hold a story, you don’t then go give it away to Wikipedia or your neighborhood listserv or post it on your personal blog. Those things are all, in essence, NBC’s competitors. Your boss may be dead wrong in her judgment not to release the story yet, but as an ***employee***, you don’t just defy her judgment by releasing it anyway via another outlet.
    We get stuff in our newsroom all the time that we hold for brief periods for one reason or another (to better confirm, to wait for family notification, etc). Sometimes I am itching to go ahead and publish it at WBIR.com, but I’d be in serious hot water if I basically said “Screw you, News Drector. Because I disagree with you, I am going to go ahead and publish this info despite your exlicit instructions to wait 30 minutes.” I’d be in even HOTTER water if I published the info elsewhere before WBIR.com moved fwd with it.
    Do you see where I am coming from? The distinction here is that the person who did this was an employee. She only had the info at all because of her status as an employee. An unaffiliated person getting hold of the info and publishing to WIkipedia wouldn’t be the same.

  4. @Katie:
    Sure, I agree you don’t give scoops to your competitors. And, yes, if someone in charge decides to hold a story (even if that’s the wrong decision), that’s what you do. And there are many valid reasons for holding a story, starting with making sure you’re right.
    But this case is not that clear. The employee didn’t work for NBC, but rather a vendor to affiliates, Internet Broadcasting Services. And, according to the New York Times article, the “junior level” person thought the death was already public. And, by golly, they did have it right.
    It certainly is a case of someone whose news instincts were better than their career judgment.
    And it brings up the whole issue of company policies (or lack thereof) regarding journalists posting on other sites, having personal blogs and being involved on social networking sites. At many places, it’s a very gray area governed by commonsense rules.
    Still, to me, the firing comes off as a capricious reaction to something the “powers that be” failed to grasp they can no longer control.

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