Newsroom vs. newsroom: listening, or not listening, to the scanner

The defining characteristic of the newsroom is the steady sound of dispatch traffic from the police scanner. The newspaper in turn dispatches reporters to cover incidents of note, and relies on its proprietary access to this information to make decisions about what to consider news.

In the presence of internet-ready scanner rebroadcasting systems like Radio Reference, which offers listeners the opportunity to listen to scanner traffic worldwide, the newsroom editor no longer has a proprietary edge on hearing the news first compared to everyone else tuned in. They may have more context of the local situation, more access to people in positions of leadership, or more ability to get someone on the street to see something interesting, but they are not there first on the scene with exclusive coverage.

Last night, over ten thousand people listened in live and in real time as a hostage situation in Grand Rapids, Michigan came to a violent end over the police scanner. Everyone listening heard it first hand, before the news media had a chance to interpret it for them.

The best account of listening to the scanner is Mark W. Smith's Detroit Free Press piece, "Online police scanner an eerie window into gunman's standoff", which paints a vivid picture of what it was like to be in a newsroom listening to scanner traffic from hundreds of miles away. In contrast, Nathan Bomey's piece "Grand Rapids murders terrorize, but Jennifer Granholm tweeting about her new Chevy Volt" is noteworthy primarily for not sounding like it was written with the scanner going in the background – because if you were paying attention to what was happening in Grand Rapids while it was happening, you'd never even have noticed that some people weren't yet tuned in yet.

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5 thoughts on “Newsroom vs. newsroom: listening, or not listening, to the scanner

  1. Ryan

    That is easily the kindest thing to say about the Bomey piece. That article was the last push I needed to unsubscribe from TheCom’s RSS feed.
    That said, I was listening to the RadioReference feed last night, when the GRPress twitter account asked people to stop tweeting what was happening to “protect Grand Raids Police”. Considering actual police traffic is publicly available, asking people to stop tweeting about (or Facebooking or is pointless and was summarily ignored. (The tweet:
    It also smacked a bit of paternalism; we, a member of the Fourth Estate, have taken it upon ourselves not to spread around information and you should do that as well. Considering that news media in Detroit were actively watching Twitter for information, The Press’s plea for restraint landed wrong, at least in my view.
    Thanks for clueing me into the internet police scanner.

  2. Ryan

    If you were listening to the scanner all night, please explain why you ran a story at nearly 9 pm — about an event that had been happening for less than 6 hours on the other side of the state — critical of a non-active politician who was obviously not watching the news.
    Really, please help me understand the reasoning that led to your story, Nate, needing to run _while_ the event was unfolding. I assume anyone inside the city of Grand Rapids who tweeted about anything other than the murders is equally as “inappropriate as… the community copes with this astonishing tragedy.”
    That story was shameful. If you were made to write it by editorial staff, you should protest, publicly, to at least attempt to maintain some credibility. If you ran it on your own, a serious evaluation of your journalistic integrity is in order. This is tabloid journalism (if not yellow) and nothing more.

  3. Edward Vielmetti

    A followup from, written by Tony Dearing:
    “Based on feedback from the community, as well as our own internal discussions, we plan to establish a set of guidelines for staff-written columns. While these guidelines are being developed, we will limit the number of opinion pieces by staff members, and the ones we do offer will be put through a more stringent review process before they are published.”


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