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Newspapers sometimes stumble in race for news

Newspapers have always loved to break big news stories.

But lately, some have gone so far out on a limb that they crashed to the ground. Others are twisting in the wind as their scoops are scrutinized and criticized.

Just in the past few weeks:

The Dallas Morning News reported that Timothy McVeigh confessed to the Oklahoma City bombing. His lawyer threw a fit, said it is not true and it would prejudice the trial. Subsequent news stories seem to be vindicating the Dallas paper.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise in California wrote that a missile might have brought down TWA Flight 800 and quoted sources who think there is a coverup. Government officials rejected the evidence and bristled at the conspiracy theory. The jury is still out on this one.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that independent counsel Kenneth Starr ran four mock trials to see whether he could convict the Clintons in Whitewater. The newspaper's anonymous source was wrong. Story retracted.

What's going on here? Newspapers have always taken risks to break news, but is it happening more often? Are they making more mistakes, like Arkansas?

The people paid to think about these things say newspapers probably are more aggressive than 10 years ago and do stumble sometimes as they run to keep up with the increasing velocity of news. And the rules are changing.

Gone are the days when newspapers competed directly against each other, with two or three in one city. Papers have been dropping like flies for decades, and most cities now have only one.

Instead, newspapers compete for people's time, for attention. They are up against scores of TV channels, talk radio, tabloids, movies, books and magazines.

Now there is the Internet.

Newspaper executives have worried for years what their role would be _ even whether newspapers could survive _ if people began to get their information from a computer screen.

They comforted themselves that there would always be a role for gathering and delivering news, even if the form changed. And that is where newspapers are today. It's a whole new world figuring out what to print, publish or post, and when.

Dallas did not break its McVeigh story in the pages of its newspaper. It put the story on the Internet on a Friday afternoon, without waiting for Saturday's paper to be published. That's rare so far. Most newspapers won't post stories on their Web sites before publication, lest competitors steal them.

It's not clear why the Dallas editors made that decision, and they are not talking anymore, now that McVeigh's trial is a week away.

One theory is that by hurling the story into cyberspace, they did not give McVeigh's lawyers a chance to go to court to try to stop publication. Another theory is that it made a bigger splash for the newspaper.

"It seems pretty clear the Dallas Morning News, by putting it online, managed to dominate the news cycle much more than they otherwise would have," said Adam Clayton Powell III, a new-media expert at the Freedom Forum.

Regional papers _ those in Dallas, Little Rock or, for that matter, St. Petersburg _ love to scoop the big guys in New York and Washington. It's a prestige contest, and it is magnified when a story is quoted on television and circulated on the Internet.

If Dallas' example is followed, newspapers could turn into 24-hour-a-day news machines.

Once, reporters and editors had all day to produce news stories, and even that seemed hectic. Now the same people can put instantaneous, global, irretrievable news on their Web sites as soon as the stories are ready. Space and time are unlimited.

The media thinkers say it may be tempting to get a little reckless.

The Internet is known as a hotbed of rumor and slander. Anyone with a modem can say whatever he wants. Newspapers will have to fight to keep their credibility in that arena, said Ellen Hume, who has studied new technology in journalism and runs PBS' Democracy Project.

"I guess the troubling questions are, "Are people using the Internet for something that has a reduced threshold for relevance and facticity?' " she said. "Are our standards being lowered because everyone knows the Internet is full of crazy stuff as well as good stuff?"

And who will sort the crazy from the good?

"This is a moment, with all this competition, we need journalists more than ever to help us separate what's rumor and what's fact," Hume said.

The rumors flying on the Internet may force mainstream news organizations to write about them, the way supermarket tabloids originated the stories about Gennifer Flowers and Dick Morris.

For months, the Internet has been rife with the theory that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a missile, an idea promoted by former ABC newsman Pierre Salinger in Paris.

But the Riverside paper, outside Los Angeles, was working separately when it analyzed federal documents and quoted a former accident investigator who says he has classified information about TWA 800.

The story was published and posted on the Press-Enterprise Web site. Managing editor Mel Opotowsky said he hopes people will be able to tell the difference between good journalism and Salinger's theories, which he considers junk.

"We hope because of the professional guidelines we follow of attribution and checking things out as carefully as possible and being as specific as possible, (we) will persuade the reader that in fact our article is credible," he said.

Even with the best intentions, reporters do not always know what is true right away. Look at CNN. It reports news immediately but often has to come back with corrections and revisions as the story develops.

Sometimes reporters or their sources are simply wrong. The Little Rock newspaper has virtually no competition in the state and was not driven by TV, tabloid or Internet pressures when it reported that Starr had run mock juries on the Clintons.

"That's not a pertinent excuse for us," said managing editor Bob Lutgen. "That would be the easy way out, to say that's why we did what we did."

What they did was publish a story quoting one anonymous source without backing it up from another source. Other details in the story had checked out, and the source had been reliable in the past. It seemed reasonable at the time, Lutgen said with a sigh.

Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia and frequent press critic, said all this is the continuation of "lowest-common-denominator journalism."

But it's not entirely journalists' fault, he said. "In an ideal world, (journalists) would carefully check out stories before printing or airing them. But that would mean the public would be patient and understand the essence of good journalism is good research."

The public sends mixed messages, said Tom Rosenstiel at the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Sensationalism sells in print and on television. Yet people were appalled when Richard Jewell was named as a suspect in the Olympic bombing before he was charged. (He was later cleared.)

"They want us to be responsible, "They want us to be responsible, but they don't want us to be censors," Rosenstiel said.

He figures the old-fashioned values of accuracy and restraint will benefit newspapers even in cyberspace.

"You can establish a presence for yourself in the communications business by standing naked on a street corner and shrieking," he said, "but my guess is you will not have a long-term future as a responsible purveyor of news."