ink-stained wretches

How the New York Times Got Scooped on Its Own Story

Pedestrians pass in front of the New York Times Co. building in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, April 27, 2011. New York Times Co., publisher of the namesake newspaper, said more than 100,000 people signed up for new digital subscriptions, a sign online revenue may help offset a decline in print advertising and circulation. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo: Michael Nagle Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter is almost unrivaled in its capacity to create inside jokes, usually in the form of hashtags whose origins require research. One such inside joke that neared the top of Twitter’s “trending” list on Sunday night was #nytguesses, which stems from a couple of tweets by one New York Times editor, Carolyn Ryan, who flogged an impending story about which she was excited, but which the paper decided to hold until the next morning. The Internet being what it is, it wasn’t long before someone found a publicly available version of what is probably the story Ryan was tweeting about — a feature on an 11-year-old girl’s life in New York’s homeless shelter system — and in the process helped the Las Vegas Sun beat the Times to its own blockbuster story.

Ryan’s initial tweets sparked the #nytguesses hashtag:

The game was to make some (mostly) good-natured fun of the paper of record by “guessing” at the headline.

But then BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski noticed that the Times News Service’s raw budget appeared on the website of the Las Vegas Sun, and that one story sure seemed to fit the bill, as described by Ryan.

The story, which ran in its raw form (editors’ notes included) on The Sun’s website, follows a girl named Dasani through a life in city shelters defined by the harsh limits of poverty and neglect:

Dasani’s own neighborhood, Fort Greene, is now one of gentrification’s gems. Her family lives in the Auburn Family Residence, a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.

It is no place for children. Yet Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.

Ryan had every reason to be excited about the story, which she predicted “may change things.” It really is a fantastic piece of journalism, and shines a light on a troubled shelter system that seems like it could use some changing in a big way.

But the story, and the attention the #nytguesses hashtag gained on Twitter, may also change things for The Sun, which appears to have violated its contract with Times News Service. Toward the bottom of the budget, a paragraph stipulates that sharing the document constitutes a violation of the contract terms. Just after midnight The Sun pulled the story and apologized, appropriately, via Twitter:

Either way, the whole hashtag-mystery-solution saga certainly got a lot of media types talking early about the kind of story that sometimes gets overlooked. So mistake or no, it’s garnered some unique buzz.

How the New York Times Scooped Its Own Story