The lifespan of a scoop

When Maddie Ellis’ story about the Disaster Girl made the New York Times on Thursday, it was a sweet, sweet moment for her and for me. Except it wasn’t Maddie’s story; it was a story written by a Times writer.

But Maddie’s story — a scoop, if you will — started it all.

Welcome to story sharing — story adapting, really — in the media ecosystem. The lifetime of a scoop — an exclusive — is short and soon forgotten.

It started when one of my Media Hub student teams was sitting around talking about stories last week. One student heard that Zoe Roth, aka the Disaster Girl, and now a senior at UNC, had just sold an NFT of that image above for half a million dollars. For the uninitiated, the Disaster Girl photo became a viral meme a decade ago. An example:

I know a national story when I hear one. I mean, $500,000? In crytocurrency? For a hot new type of collectible? I gave two seconds of thought about treating it as if it were a typical news story, getting the who, what, when, where, why and how in the first couple of paragraphs. But any first-year journalism student can write that. I wanted to tell Zoe’s  story, as well as report the impact.

That student who found it didn’t have time to do it, and I passed it to Maddie, who is a student in my feature writing class. I knew she could tell the story the way I was thinking about it and that Zoe deserved. We needed a quick turnaround on it; news doesn’t lay low for long on a 25,000-student campus, especially one with as good a news organization as the Daily Tar Heel. Maddie is a writer for the DTH, and I made her promise not to leak it to her colleagues.

As expected, Maddie nailed the story, as did Nash Consing, who shot photos. We published it on the Media Hub website last Sunday afternoon. I emailed Jessica Banov, an editor at the News & Observer who works with the Media Hub class, to consider it for publication.

The N&O published it online Tuesday and on the front page Wednesday. Maddie got the byline, and it was attributed to UNC Media Hub, which is what we ask when news outlets publish the class work. The story took off from there.

First, the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, MarketWatch and Gizmodo picked up the storyline. The storyline, not Maddie’s story. They all rewrote Maddie’s story — shortened it — and linked to her story in the N&O. (The N&O said later that her story received  thousands of page views.)

Thursday, it appeared in the New York Times. By Friday, it had spread to NPR and the New York Post and the New York Daily News and the BBC, and People, among others. And in Spain and France and Germany. By this time, the link to the N&O had been dropped, presumably because the reporters had talked with Zoe or they added additional information about NFTs or the buyer.

Take a moment to note that, as far as I can tell, the N&O, Durham Herald & the Charlotte Observer — all in the McClatchy group — are the only North Carolina newspapers that published the story, which, as a former newspaper editor, is a mystery to me.

This is the way the news ecosystem works and has worked for year. Once the story is out there, it’s fair game for picking up entirely, reworking it and giving credit to the original source, or rereporting it and making it your own. Many outlets feel the need to put their own byline on a story when there is no obvious need. Granted, Maddie’s story was longer than the publications above wanted. And she wrote it as a narrative rather than a news story. So, the rewriting is warranted if you want a news bite.

But then, this happened: Sonia Rao, a classmate of Maddie’s tweeted at the writer of the New York Times article.

Actually, it was a link to her story on the Media Hub website, which is nice.

Maddie’s story noted that with the sale, Zoe could finally control her own image. It didn’t escape either Maddie’s notice or mine that Maddie lost control of her own scoop, which is the way it goes with scoops.

“I learned so much by writing this story, not just about cryptocurrencies, but about what happens after news breaks,” Maddie told me. “I looked obsessively for links to the original story in national outlets, because I wanted to still feel like I owned that story.

“But I never owned that story — I was just fortunate enough to get to tell it first. It’s just surreal knowing that I made something trend on Twitter. I’m so grateful Zoe shared her story with me, and that I got to write it.”

Here is Zoe now. (Photo by Nash Consing.)

Zoe Roth. Photo by Nash Consing.