By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The future of investigative reporting?

propublica_20090831If you looked closely, you may have noticed that the cover story of the New York Times Magazine yesterday — a long, harrowing examination of accusations that the staff of a New Orleans hospital euthanized several patients following Hurricane Katrina — was a collaboration with ProPublica, a non-profit investigative-reporting foundation.

According to Zachary Seward of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the 13,000-word story may have cost as much as $400,000 (perhaps a bit of an exaggeration) to produce — a huge chunk for the Times, but in this case the paper spent nothing: a grant from the Kaiser Foundation paid for much of the reporting. It’s the sort of alternative funding model that may help to ensure the future of investigative journalism.

The story, by ProPublica’s Sheri Fink, is available not only on the Times’ Web site, but also at And starting Sept. 29, anyone can run it for free as long as proper attribution is provided.

Fink’s investigation centers on Dr. Anna Pou, a cancer specialist who may have killed several patients who, in her judgment, were near the end of their lives and could not be rescued. As with much good investigative reporting, the story is inconclusive, yet absolutely riveting in describing the despair that had settled over Memorial Medical Center — sweltering, without power and all but abandoned.

Implicit is that regardless of Pou’s actions, the real blame should be laid at the feet of incompetent government officials who abandoned New Orleans to its fate for days on end.

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  1. I looked at this online but the thought of reading the whole thing was so daunting, I skipped to the last page to see if I could figure out the conclusion. (This is why I love those succinct AP stories that summarize these mega projects in a couple of paragraphs.) But I think you’re probably right on the bottom line – whatever the medical staff did or didn’t do, it’s the government’s fault for abandoning people.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Esther: If you choose the single-page view and set aside some time, you shouldn’t find it too daunting. Among other things, it’s a great read.

  2. Brad Deltan

    I don’t think this is a good idea for objective journalism. Foundations, by definition, have an agenda…and it will, by definition, eventually start to shape the news when papers know they’ll get funding for topic A but not for topic B.

    Just look at the problems bubbling at most major universities these days, with faculty getting more and more outraged with how colleges are “chasing the grant money” and ignoring non-revenue-generating disciplines, particularly in the humanities.

    I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing…but it IS a bad thing to present yourself as a UNIVERSITY, and thus giving attention to ALL avenues of education, but really be nothing more than a research university, solely interested in business and natural sciences.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Brad: Point taken, but news orgs — especially smaller ones — regularly take into account the agendas of their advertisers. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

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