The morbid saga of Mark and Lori Hacking has unfolded before the American public courtesy of a dogged cabal of reporters, each racing to unveil the next lurid detail. Not since Elizabeth Smart has the local media swirl been so furious. And, as was the case then, sometimes the reporters themselves take center stage.

But this time, on the print side, The Salt Lake Tribune is playing second fiddle to its smaller rival, the Deseret Morning News. Just days after Lori Hacking disappeared, the News scooped the Trib with details of a blood- and hair-encrusted knife discovered by police in the couple’s apartment. More recently, the News obtained a probable cause statement—a day before other media—outlining the evidence police relied on to arrest Mark Hacking.

Jennifer Dobner and Pat Reavy, the News’ top crime reporters, have traded on that prowess, landing dozens of national news spots. As tasteless as the ghoulish scorekeeping might seem, it’s the competitive streaks and unflappable egos of journalists that distinguish them from the toadies who dominate the public-relations field. And, to be blunt, getting scooped smarts.

Hearkening back to the Smart case, it was the Trib’s Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera breaking the kind of stories that earned appearances on Good Morning America. Although their reporting set the pace through Smart’s return nine months later, only days after her abduction Vigh and Cantera sold their paper’s reputation “down the river,” as Trib reporter Glen Warchol puts it.

The Trib became the “poster child for f- -kup journalism,” Warchol said, when it was discovered in April 2003 that the duo accepted $10,000 apiece from The National Enquirer for providing a “road map” of uncorroborated allegations, culled from police sources, involving the Smart family. The tabloid used the information for a story, portions of which it later retracted, titled “Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring.” The Trib unceremoniously sacked Vigh and Cantera.

In a July 29 analysis piece, Warchol cited the Enquirer affair as the reason the media, “even Brigham Young University student reporters,” have been able to “pry out precious little detail” from the Salt Lake City Police Department regarding the Hacking investigation.

In an e-mail that same day, Vigh blasted Warchol for invoking him and Cantera to excuse the paper’s “shoddy journalism.”

“It’s called Journalism 101: You get stories by cultivating sources. You guys have had plenty of time to get your own sources. All I can assume is that you’re either too incompetent or too lazy to ... stay ahead of the competition,” Vigh wrote from Las Vegas, where he’ll start work as a private investigator in a few weeks, and where he’s polishing the manuscript on a forthcoming Tribune tell-all, written jointly with Cantera.

Warchol’s media sources all told him that police have been mummer than ever. But Cantera—who will shortly begin graduate studies in history at the University of Utah—notes that Reavy, Dobner and Fox 13 reporter Scott McCain “aren’t having a problem getting dish.”

Although he said he got the assignment on short notice, Warchol concedes he should have talked with the News reporters and McCain—the only TV reporter to go live from the Hackings’ apartment as police removed evidence, and the first to confirm that police found Mark Hacking milling about naked outside of a downtown hotel.

Despite any real or imagined freeze-out by police, “I don’t see a difference between then and now,” said Reavy.

Added McCain, “They haven’t thwarted my efforts.”

Matt Canham, the Trib’s lead crime reporter, said if Vigh and Cantera “want to ... say that we don’t have sources or that we’re lazy ... that doesn’t bug me at all.”

Other reporters may get a good tip here or there, but “they didn’t have a good tip today,” Canham said last Thursday, referring to a Trib article that revealed Mark Hacking had confessed to murdering his wife and throwing her body in a Dumpster.

Warchol’s conclusion that police have tightened the lid on the Hacking investigation is perfectly reasonable, Canham said, “but that is not an excuse the Tribune should use for missing a story, and I don’t think we used it that way.”

Warchol called Vigh’s shots “pathetic,” and Canham said it sounds like he’s exercising some “personal hurt” from his firing.

Vigh doesn’t mind Canham’s dig. “I trained him,” he said. But Cantera suggests that Canham direct some of his muted ire toward Warchol for lumping him with so many green college reporters.

Besides, said Vigh, the department has always been tightlipped. “We never got a piece of information from [Salt Lake Police spokesman Dwayne Baird] that was even remotely interesting.”

University of Utah assistant journalism professor Jim Fisher gives a more nuanced assessment of the dueling papers’ Hacking coverage.

On Warchol’s piece: “Cry me a river,” Fisher said. “You’re not supposed to be getting handouts from the police department ... you’re supposed to work for it.”

But even so, Fisher doesn’t think the Trib’s getting beat. In fact, he said, first to print or not, the Trib has done a better job overall.

“Canham’s description of events and ability to lay it out is just superior,” he said.

And it’s wrongheaded to gauge newspaper reporters’ pluck by how many times they’ve preened as pundits for the national media. (Canham says his team has declined many such requests.)

“You’re either a reporter or you’re a source,” Fisher said. “You can’t be both.”

The fallout from the Enquirer affair undoubtedly caused the Trib to clamp down on its use of unnamed sources, which Warchol said could account for the Trib’s “gun-shy” coverage early on.

But that newfound caution isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Fisher said. Where the Trib got scooped, he smells at least some “unconfirmed or not totally confirmed facts” attributed to unnamed sources, which can lead to reckless journalism.

“I absolutely wouldn’t call it gun-shy,” he said. “If somebody wised up to appropriate practices, to guarantee readers they’re going to get it right ... that’s an attempt at being professional.”

As to the pre- and post-Vigh/Cantera era, Fisher figures that journalists who were respected and trusted before the imbroglio have nothing to worry about. However, “If you were on the edge ... if your sources in the police department were unsure of who they were dealing with, I think it’s probably tougher out there, as it should be.”

Ultimately, Warchol defers to an adage coined by news icon Edward R. Murrow: “Journalists don’t have thin skin—they have no skin.”