How NBC got beat on the Russert story

How did the New York Times and other news organizations beat NBC in reporting the death of Tim Russert earlier this month? A staffer for a Twin Cities company with whom NBC contracts to maintain its Web site. According to the Times, the unidentified employee of Internet Broadcasting Systems in Mendota Heights heard about Russert’s death and updated Russert’s Wikipedia entry.

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.

An 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.

Eleven minutes later, someone else at IBS deleted the entry, but by then it was too late. The news was out before NBC could announce it.

The blog, Silicon Alley Insider says the employee may have been suspended rather than fired, but nonetheless sees a corporate conspiracy at work.

It’s one thing for a news organization to decide to delay reporting news of a staffer’s death out of deference to his or her family (this makes sense). It’s another for the organization to expect other organizations to follow the same policy. And it is yet another thing for someone to deliberately strike accurate facts from a collective record to appease an upset client, which is what someone at IBS apparently did.

A bigger lesson here is the value of the new landscape for breaking news. Wikipedia and Twitter appear to be as capable — and perhaps more so — of delivering news to a large number of people as the large media companies who may wish to sit on it. I posted Russert’s death at 2:33 that day. And I wasn’t even the first since I prepped a News Cut entry first. It had circulated for 40 minutes before Tom Brokaw did a special report on NBC.