What is an exclusive, anyway?

This is more than journalism competition issue. As readers sort through the news gusher, it’s getting harder than ever to figure out what the new news is.

The Toyota story is a perfect illustration. The carmaker is caught squarely in a global media storm and has been for weeks. Any business news outlet worthy of the name is competing to advance this story, even a little bit. Put it this way, Factiva finds 1,558 Toyota stories—today.

On February 13, Bloomberg ran a story tagged “exclusive” under this headline:

Regulators Hired by Toyota Helped Halt Acceleration Probes

Actually, nothing in the headline is exclusive at all.

And you’d really have to squint to find anything exclusive in the story, which starts this way:

Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) — At least four, U.S. investigations into unintended acceleration by Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles were ended with the help of former regulators hired by the automaker, warding off possible recalls, court and government records show.

Christopher Tinto, vice president of regulatory affairs in Toyota’s Washington office, and Christopher Santucci, who works for Tinto, helped persuade the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to end probes including those of 2002-2003 Toyota Camrys and Solaras, court documents show. Both men joined Toyota directly from NHTSA, Tinto in 1994 and Santucci in 2003.

A reader complained to Bloomberg, and copied me in, pointing out that Reuters had already found Santucci three days before, on February 10:

In one case Chris Santucci, a former U.S. safety regulator hired by Toyota in 2003, played a role in discussions with NHTSA during a 2004 probe in which the agency sharply narrowed the scope of its inquiry, according to his deposition in a lawsuit seeking damages from the Michigan crash.

A couple days earlier, on Feb. 8, The Wall Street Journal, had already found both Santucci and his current boss, Tinto.

NHTSA officials worked on the probe with their main contact at Toyota, Christopher Santucci. The NHTSA team knew Mr. Santucci: He had worked there from 2001 to 2003. Mr. Santucci’s supervisor at Toyota, Mr. Tinto, had worked at NHTSA in the past, too. Messrs. Santucci and Tinto didn’t respond to requests for comment.

This Associated Press story the same day named Tinto, though not Santucci:

Its main liaison to the federal government on vehicle safety issues is Christopher Tinto, who worked for several years in NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation as a vehicle defect investigator and in its Office of Vehicle Safety Standards, where he mostly worked on heavy-truck braking standards.

And before that, on February 4, ABC News had reported, in “Revolving Door: From US Safety Agency to Toyota Representative,” on Santucci meeting a former colleague:

Scott Yon, met with two former NHTSA colleagues who worked for Toyota, including Chris Santucci, who had left the agency only six months earlier, according to his testimony in a civil lawsuit.

Which of the above news organizations broke the Toyota/NHTSA story? None of them. As I’ve written, everyone here is following The Los Angeles Times, which started its reporting back in October.

It had a Santucci sighting on Dec. 31

When attorney Edgar Heiskell went to a Washington law office this month to depose a Toyota Motor Corp. executive, he said he was met by a virtual NHTSA alumni club now working for Toyota. It included at least two former agency attorneys and former defects investigator Christopher Santucci.

In the deposition, Santucci said he negotiated a job with Toyota while he was still employed at NHTSA and gave the agency two to three weeks’ notice.

And the NHTSA reporting goes back further. This from November 8:

Federal officials eliminated broad categories of sudden-acceleration complaints, including cases in which drivers said they were unable to stop runaway cars using their brakes; incidents of unintended acceleration lasting more than a few seconds; and reports in which owners did not identify the possible causes of the problem.

NHTSA officials used the exclusions as part of their rationale to close at least five of the investigations without finding any defect, because — with fewer incidents to consider — the agency concluded there were not enough reported problems to warrant further inquiry. In a 2003 Lexus probe, for example, the agency threw out all but one of 37 customer complaints cited in a defect petition. It then halted further investigation, saying it “found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend.”

Meanwhile, fatal crashes involving Toyota vehicles continued to mount.

But, this is not about credit, believe me. For one thing, plaintiffs’ lawyers had known about Toyota’s problems for years, but that’s another column.

Joe Winksi, who heads Bloomberg’s regulatory coverage, said in a note to the reader and me, that the wire advanced the story on a couple of key points: the specific number of probes the ex-NHTSA people hindered and the fact that other major carmakers don’t employ ex-NHTSA people the same way:

Bloomberg News was the first to show the public that Toyota is the only carmaker who currently employs former NHTSA employees to help it deal with that agency on defect issues. We also were the first to determine and show the public the specific number of investigations such personnel helped quash, which shows the scope of this constantly unfolding story. Bloomberg’s policy is to always credit prior scoops by other news organizations. Our exclusive showed new facts in this continuing story. We take your comments seriously and will update our “exclusive” tag to better show readers where we succeeded.

He adds to me, “We recognize that defining an ‘exclusive’ isn’t always a clear-cut thing and that we welcome [the reader’s] comments on the matter.”

Fair enough. A few thoughts:

First, it’s good for news organizations to compete ferociously for news and to advance investigations that are already underway.

Second, there’s nothing sacrosanct about the word “exclusive.”

Third, the Bloomberg story is a good, strong story. There’s nothing wrong with it.

Fourth, many news organizations, including Bloomberg, have internal pay incentive systems that track journalists’ performance by many metrics, including sheer quantity, as well as scoops, “exclusives,” and participation in time-consuming projects and investigations, etc.

Journalism metrics, both of quantity and quality, are problematic for a number of reasons, but that’s also another column. For now, if metrics are used, they should be weighted materially in favor of initiating original probes, where no one else is looking, as the LA Times did on the Toyota story.

Finally, that all said, given what’s been printed on Toyota, Bloomberg’s incremental advances on the Toyota/NHTSA story push the definition of “exclusive” to the edge, if not over. The problem isn’t that Bloomberg is claiming credit it doesn’t deserve. The problem is that readers have no chance—zero—of figuring out what’s new here.

At a minimum, there was nothing preventing it from just spelling out what was new and adjusting the headline to reflect it.

In the particular case, Bloomberg probably committed a foot-fault, not a flagrant foul.

In a larger sense, though, this can been seen as an abuse of readers’ time, which, these days, is no small thing at all.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.