February 13, 2016

Gary Martin, the government and political editor for the San Antonio Express-News, was working the weekend shift this afternoon when he got a tip from a federal source bearing big news.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who had been a conservative fixture on the high court since his appointment in 1986, was dead, according to the source. As Martin would later report, Scalia had died of “apparent natural causes” at a luxury resort in West Texas.

Martin, who spent 23 years in Washington as the paper’s D.C. correspondent, instantly knew it was big news. A vacancy on the Supreme Court during an election year was sure to send reverberations far beyond San Antonio.

“I first came up to Washington when Clarence Thomas was nominated,” Martin said. “It was my first time in Washington, watching that unfold.”

He called up Mike Leary, the editor of the Express-News, and repeated the tip. Leary said the information rang true in part because of Scalia’s advanced age. His competitive urge kicked in.

“I realized that this was our ground,” Leary said. “We needed to be number one on this story. Nobody covers that area like we do.”

To break news this big, they needed at least two sources, Leary said. In a week or so, nobody might remember that the Express-News broke the story. But everyone would remember if Scalia was still alive and the Express-News inaccurately reported word of his death.

They began assigning staffers who worked feverishly to confirm the news. A reporter and a photographer who were covering a feature in West Texas’ Big Bend area were diverted to the resort to get confirmation. When they arrived, they glimpsed a hearse.

In the meantime, Martin was nervous that his team would be scooped, so he and reporter Guillermo Contreras began writing background material for a story in anticipation of a second source. Reporters Vianna Davila, Tyler White, Richard Marini and John MacCormack began working the phones.

Finally, just after 3 p.m., the team got confirmation from a second source they trusted. It had been about two hours since the original tip. The Express-News published the story at about 3:30 p.m., and the story was followed quickly by The Associated Press, Reuters, and The Washington Post, which credited the Express-News.

Leary said the Express-News’ coverage of Scalia’s death shows the rewards that come with cultivating experienced, well-sourced journalists. In the days of dwindling ranks in the newspaper industry, there’s no replacement for having reporters on the ground whom people trust.

“We had local sources,” Leary said. “I’m not surprised we broke the story.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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