Anyone who cares about journalism should read Al Tompkins’ post examining the innovative storytelling techniques that empowered the Las Vegas Sun series “Do No Harm,” a project by reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards. The reporters analyzed 2.9 million hospital records that revealed systematic, preventable errors at the local healthcare system. They found more than 300 patients who died from mistakes in 2008 and 2009 that could have been prevented.
Rather than rely on anecdotal sob stories that would be dismissed as scare-mongering by hospitals, the reporters used reader-friendly multimedia presentations to make the data come alive and show, in a powerful way, the scope and human toll of the problem. Thanks to the project, Tompkins writes, six pieces of legislation have been filed in the Nevada Legislature to reform and bring more transparency to the hospital system.
The project took two years — an eternity in journalism time. But it still offers important lessons for journalists. We’re no longer chained to simply telling a story with an 80-inch news article and a few pictures and graphics. We can use the Internet to let readers look over our shoulders and check out the raw documentation and data and videos for themselves. One of the most creative things the Sun did was make it incredibly easy for readers to offer feedback:
When the stories started running, the paper’s phones rang off the hook. Rather than let the calls fall into the digital abyss, the team edited some and provide a sampling of the public’s reaction. They also posted reader reaction to the website, allowing people to share their personal experiences with Vegas-area hospitals.
Marshall Allen invited readers to share their stories using an easy online form.
Because of these storytelling techniques, the project was impossible to ignore. It could prompt change — and save lives.
Nothing about a physical newspaper inherently makes it better suited for doing great reporting. Print and online are just mediums, and as consumption patterns shift towards online, we should see more of this in the future.
As Yang notes, it’s unclear whether blogs that aren’t affiliated with a newspaper would be eligible to win the prize under the current Pulitzer rules. But putting that issue aside, Yang is right — there’s nothing stopping a blog from producing top-notch journalism. All it has to do is generate enough money to produce top-notch journalism. And there’s the rub.
Fink was paid $33,000 plus $10,000 in expenses for her Kaiser fellowship, according to Steve Engelberg, her editor at ProPublica, where she’s been for 14 months. Engelberg, who was kind enough to go through these figures with me, said, “Fourteen months of salary plus benefits for us easily gets you north of 100 plus, 100, 150 or something.” He threw in another $20,000 to $30,000 for travel expenses, in addition to three months of editing and lawyering at ProPublica and the Times, which also spent $25,000 to $30,000 on photographs, he said.
Those sky-high expenses are simply out of reach for the majority of bloggers who care passionately about their niche, but who blog on a part-time basis, and often for little or no money. That doesn’t mean they can’t produce an interesting, valuable blog. But it does make it exceedingly difficult to devote the time and effort it takes to interview sources, unearth hard-to-find records, overcome legal hurdles, and tell compelling stories. That takes time — and money.
Let’s say you care about local politics and you blog about your local city council. If you’re like most people, you’re blogging as a hobby and you have a full-time job. Right out of the gate, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have the luxury of attending the weekly city council meetings that usually last all day. Not to mention the countless subcommittees that meet every week. And you can’t capitalize on all the time spent hanging out at City Hall, where you meet sources, learn new things, get story ideas and tips, and start really understanding what makes City Hall tick.
Newspapers have traditionally paid the most money in their communities for reporters to pay attention to what’s happening at City Hall. And the police department. And the local utility. And so on. That’s why the slow demise of newspapers worries people like Clay Shirky, who argues it could take a very, very long time until anyone figures out how to consistently produce the kind of expensive, accountability journalism that newspapers funded but are cutting back:
Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.
This YouTube video features Shirky’s entire talk — it’s worth a listen.
Shirky isn’t arguing that we need to save newspapers to preserve journalism — we just need to preserve journalism. And there’s the rub.
The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to some outstanding journalists today. Long before the awards were announced, several of the reporters had already been interviewed about how they chased down difficult, complex stories that made a difference:
Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore interviewed Daniel Gilbert about how he found the time at a small newspaper to uncover and master a complicated story no one had noticed. “During 13 months of reporting on a story that had been largely left untold, he found that lingering conflicts over the ownership of coal-bed methane gas meant thousands of owners weren’t getting paid for the use of their property. Instead, Virginia had funneled millions of dollars in royalty payments into an escrow fund that owners couldn’t access without first clearing significant legal hurdles,” Tenore wrote. Gilbert explains how he did it.
Bruce Shapiro at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma interviewed Sheri Fink, a reporter for ProPublica who wrote a 13,000-word narrative about how patients died at a New Orleans hospital that was isolated after Hurricane Katrina.
I had recently blogged about Rosland Gammon’s interesting Q&A with investigative reporter Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who uncovered rampant fraud in a $350 million, taxpayer-subsidized child-care program. Her series of stories, Cashing in on Kids, led to criminal charges against the scammers.
A video profiling Rutledge offers a glimpse at the tedious grunt work required to get the story. Rutledge relied on insiders with access to key documents, and she staked out people who were abusing the system.
NPR’s On Point interviewed the New York Times’ Michael Moss, who exposed the dangers of E. coli in hamburger meat: “Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.”
To reveal how cutbacks are damaging the newspaper industry, John Temple is profiling talented, Pulitzer-prize winning reporters who are no longer in the business:
How best to get at the cost for society, for journalism and for journalists of the loss of thousands of jobs at American newspapers? This series tries to do it by asking journalists who have shown themselves capable of producing work of the highest caliber – winners of the Pulitzer Prize who are no longer at a newspaper – for their reflections on what happened to them, what it’s meant and how they view the future.
He interviewed Deborah Nelson, who won a Pulitzer in 1997 with Eric Nalder and Alex Tizon for their stories about abuses in a federal Indian-housing program. She left the news business to teach.
Where did the news business go wrong? I’d start with the growing obsession over the past couple decades with short-term earnings, and a corresponding neglect of the long view. I remember feeling unsettled back in the early 1990s with how near-sighted the corporate financial model had become. I didn’t have a business degree, but anyone with a driver’s license knows the importance of keeping one eye on what lies ahead.
Eric Nalder wrote this great lede on the Seattle Times’ Pulitzer series on oil tanker safety after the Exxon Valdez disaster. He described standing on the deck of an oil tanker “as long as three football fields” with the lone crew member assigned to watch the distant horizon for small boats and icebergs – and discovering that the guy couldn’t see, that he suffered from double vision. That kind of describes the last 20 years of the newspaper industry. The iceberg was in view long before we hit it, but no one with any real vision was looking that far ahead.