Go with your gut

Last week marked an interesting development in the UM System presidential search, or did it?

I’m not sure I know, and even though Janese Silvey of the Columbia Daily Tribune did know, it seems to me now that nobody actually knows what happened, err — can speak to what happened.

This whole thing reminds me of that great scene in the beginning of State Of Play, when Russell Crowe's character tells the cop, "Let's play a little game of 'Confirm or Deny.'"

Wednesday afternoon we got word that Janese, the education beat reporter for the Trib, had published the name of one of the potential candidates for the UM System president position. [The UM System Board of Curators has been in search of a new president since former president Gary Forsee stepped down in January. There’s been a lot of coverage, so it’s easy to catch up!]

Naturally we scrambled to follow up on the story ourselves, and advanced reporter Abby Eisenberg and I frantically called everyone we could to confirm the story. Though we expected a lot of “no comment” responses, we did expect to be able to corroborate Janese’s report — if only to run her story on our site.

In fact, we had a good debate with our editor Liz Brixey about whether or not linking to Janese’s story was a good idea; and if it served our audience to at least get the information out, event if it meant posting a competitors article (and thereby catapulting visitors to our website in the exact opposite direction we want them to go: to the Trib’s).

In the end, Abby and I agreed we didn’t feel comfortable running her story without confirming the basic facts on our own. Despite the frustration of missing out on what we thought was a great development in the search, we went home byline-less and chose to wait things out.

Turns out a whole night was the exact amount of time we needed to let the story incubate, because Thursday afternoon a Kansas City Star report opposed Janese’s story:

But in a telephone interview this morning, Van Matre denied saying that Hoenig, 65, is a presidential candidate.

“I said just the opposite,” Van Matre told The Star. “I don’t want to be in the middle of this. I can’t say either way.”

Stunned, Abby and I beamed at our Wednesday afternoon gamble to forgo linking to the Trib’s story on columbiamissourian.com. I’m not a gambler, nor a confident decision-maker (ex-girlfriends can/will whole-heartedly confirm), so guessing right was a fantastic relief to the otherwise frustrating storyline of chasing down news broken by other local outlets.

For me, the incident highlights two fundamental things of my time at the Missourian, and my (cross-our-fingers) entire career as a journalist:

1) Being a rookie sucks. Janese’s career isn’t broken up into 15 week increments, so she has time to develop relationships with regular sources and earn their trust to get tips like Hoenig’s (potential) candidacy. At the Missourian, we’re perpetually at a disadvantage in that arena because we’re always cycling new reporters in and out of the newsroom, and consequently, in and out of relationships with sources.

2) If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. I have a healthy skepticism about a lot of (OK, most) things, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with trusting your gut—and I need to do it more often.

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