How in the world did voiceofsandiego.org and the San Diego Union-Tribune wind up publishing independently researched versions of the same major investigative story on their websites on the same day?
The odd timing of the stories' publications—within hours of one another Friday following months of work by reporters from the rival news outlets—casts a rare spotlight on the highly competitive nature of journalism.
The dueling articles exposed an elaborate real-estate scheme in which mortgage companies were allegedly defrauded and numerous investors saw their credit ruined by a Bay Area man with a strangely appropriate surname, Jim McConville.
The stories' reporters—voice staff writers Will Carless and Kelly Bennett and U-T staff writers Mike Freeman and Lori Weisberg—all say they were tipped to the story by a North County source who'd noticed a pattern of unusually overpriced condo purchases in Escondido. Unaware that their competitors were chasing down the same lead, the reporting teams threw themselves into ferreting out the mystery of the purchases—pulling deeds and trust records, running down addresses and interviewing.
At some point in their investigation, the U-T reporters—still oblivious that voice was on the story—decided to stop their research and wait for more of the purchased condos to go into default, says the U-T's Freeman.
“At the time, there were a few properties in the foreclosure process, but not many,” he says. “So we decided to wait and see what happened.”
That decision should have resulted in a scoop for voice reporters, who kept on digging. But a few weeks later, Carless and Bennett made what in hindsight can only be considered a colossal mistake: They each posted on their blogs that they were working on “something big.” That tipped off the U-T reporters, who, with a little effort, realized the “something” was the McConville story.
By this point, Carless and Bennett had unearthed documents showing money from the condo purchases going to a company owned by McConville. The reporters thoughtfully shared the documents with three of the investors, one of whom then thoughtfully shared them with the U-T.
“It was no secret the voice was working on the story—they had broadcast it online maybe two weeks ago,” Weisberg says. “Obviously, if you're working on a story and are aware your competitor is working on the same story, you jump on it.”
The first part of voice's two-part story on McConville appeared online Friday afternoon. The U-T's story, crediting voice for those juicy documents, appeared online a few hours after.
While technically having scooped the U-T, voice reporters hands-down win this week's award for the most frustrated journalists in San Diego. When interviewed, Carless was magnanimous: “The main thing is the story is out there—it's a big story.”
On Saturday, however, Carless posted a comment to the U-T's article online: “For the full story go to www.voiceofsandiego.org.”