The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island vertical today features an investigative report from ProPublica and The Public’s Radio (formerly Rhode Island Public Radio) on “whether failures in Rhode Island’s 911 system are costing lives.” ProPublica stories are licensed under Creative Commons, which means that anyone can republish them for free as long as they give credit. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.)
But if you go to the ProPublica version of the story, you’ll see a note that it was “co-published” with the Globe, which suggests some sort of exclusive arrangement — or at least a head’s-up. (The Public’s Radio version is here.) I asked Globe editor Brian McGrory to explain. His emailed answer:
We’ve got a good relationship with ProPublica. Its editors were kind enough to see if we had interest in co-publishing this story, an important look at a flawed system. We were delighted to do it. and it’s getting significant readership. We’ll keep looking for other opportunities to collaborate in Rhode Island, adding to the work of the three excellent reporters that we have on the ground.
Smart move by the Globe, as it was an easy way to get access to an important investigative story as well as to give a boost to its Rhode Island initiative. There is nothing to stop The Providence Journal or other news organizations from publishing the story, but it doesn’t seem likely given that the Globe, ProPublica and The Public’s Radio have already run it.
I also asked McGrory if he could say what region the Globe might target next as part of what looks very much like an effort to expand its digital footprint in various underserved parts of New England. Not surprisingly, he demurred — and, of course, it’s possible that no decisions have been made.
No, the still-unfolding catastrophe in Texas could not have been prevented. But vital investigative reporting over the past year and a half shows how it might have been more manageable if government officials had taken heed. More important, the journalists’ findings lay out a path forward that should be carefully studied once the waters begin to subside.
The reporting is contained in a series called “Hell and High Water,” which was produced by three nonprofit news organizations: ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and “Reveal,” a public radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The journalism is impressively deep and features a number of interactive graphics that allow users to test various storm scenarios. In summary, though, the story is a simple one:
Officials have done almost nothing in the nine years since the last big Texas hurricane, Ike, to protect the state’s fragile eastern shore.
Massive development has been allowed to proceed unimpeded, as vast tracts of land have been paved over, increasing runoff in areas that once could have absorbed much of the rain.
Climate change is making all of it that much worse, with warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico producing more rain and higher sea levels increasing the vulnerability of coastal areas.
“The Texas coast powers the nation,” state land commissioner George P. Bush (son of Jeb and Columba) told the journalists. “Its vulnerability should be considered a national-security issue.”
The challenge, not surprisingly, is a broken political culture that values money over lives and that includes more than a few political figures who regard climate change — not to mention basic science and engineering — as “fake news.” Take, for instance, Mike Talbot, who until recently was head of the Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston. Talbot derided scientists and conservationists, calling them “anti-development” and adding: “They have an agenda … their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.” The article adds ominously: “His successor shares his views.”
There are two major pieces in the series. The first, published in March 2016, examines what would have happened if Hurricane Ike had directly hit Houston in 2008 rather than veering off course at the last minute, causing less damage than had been projected. (Not that Ike wasn’t devastating. Seventy-four people were killed, and damage was estimated at $30 billion.)
For the past nine years, scientists and officials have talked about plans to protect the region from such a disaster. But talk is cheap, and action still appears to be years away. The most ambitious of those plans is the “Ike Dike,” based on a project in the Netherlands aimed at protecting inland areas from a 10,000-year storm. But it’s clear that there is little political will in Texas for such an undertaking, which could cost $8 billion or more — a pittance compared to Hurricane Harvey’s eventual price tag.
The other major article, published last December, takes a look at the increase in flooding in recent years, a direct consequence of climate change and the loss of land to absorb increasing amounts of rainfall. Incredibly, Harris County’s freshwater wetlands diminished by 30 percent between 1992 and 2010. The result is that concepts like 100-year storms and 500-year storms have been rendered meaningless.
Unfortunately, the remedies suggested — tougher regulations on development, preservation of green spaces, and removing some 140,000 homes that are in the 100-year floodplain — seem marginal in the face of the challenges facing the region. Yet they probably go further than the political establishment is willing to embrace, although it’s possible that the devastation of Harvey has created a new reality.
“Hell and High Water” represents public-interest journalism at its best, but it also tells us much about the limits of journalism. Investigative reporting does not normally end with the crooked president flying off in a helicopter or the pedophile-priest-coddling cardinal fleeing to Rome. After all, such denouements are unusual enough that they make movies out of them. Most great journalism shines a light and explains. It is up to members of the public whether they will choose to be outraged enough to demand action.
Right now, the focus in Texas is on saving people’s lives, as it should be. But in a few weeks, or a few months, the public’s attention will turn to softening the effects of such catastrophes in the future. “Hell and High Water” will still be there, supplemented, no doubt, by additional reporting on Harvey and its aftermath. In it readers will learn how their leaders let them down — and how they can make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Preet Bharara in 2015. Photo (cc) by the Financial Times.
Preet Bharara was investigating Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price for possible insider stock trading at the time that Bharara was fired as U.S. attorney, according to a report by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Bharara was fired after he refused to resign. His departure was the subject of some controversy, as Trump had apparently assured him he could stay. Now it looks like Trump may have ordered all 46 to leave at once to provide cover so that he could shut down Bharara’s investigation of Price.
I’m uncomfortable with ProPublica’s apparent reliance on one anonymous source. But ProPublica is the gold standard when it comes to investigative reporting, and so I’m going to assume that the person who provided the information (Cough! Bharara!) was truly in a position to know and provided some documentation. This is not a story that ProPublica would risk having to retract.
So let’s keep this in proportion, OK? If this were any other president, we would be talking about a scandal of epic proportions. If this were President Hillary Clinton, well, good God — the subpoenas would be flying by this afternoon. Don’t let all the other stuff going on distract you into thinking this isn’t a big deal. It is a very big deal. Or at least it should be.
Organized by BU journalism department writer-in-residence Mark Kramer, the conference drew some 400 writers and editors from around the world. They discussed everything from viral content to social justice reporting to humanizing even the worst criminals.
Kramer preached his well-known gospel of “austerity of language: elegant, taut” prose that convinces readers they’re in the hands of an engaging storyteller. “Go on a to be hunt,” he said. “Get rid of whens and as’s. Lose clichés and metaphors.”
Keynote speaker Jill Abramson, a former New York Times executive editor now teaching at Harvard, repeated the good writing mantra: “Show, don’t tell. Collect anecdotes and revealing detail.” She called Gay Talese’s 1966 classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” the epitome of the narrative genre.
Abramson had good news and bad news as journalism faces a “rapid riptide of change.” The good: long, ambitious reporting is in high demand. She singled out BuzzFeed’s “wonderful” criminal justice series and former Times colleague Jeff Gerth’s exposé of Hillary Clinton’s private emails as exemplars of excellent coverage delivered over new platforms. Gerth, a two-time Times Pulitzer winner now with ProPublica, co-wrote the March 27 article with Gawker reporter Sam Biddle.
The bad news, according to Abramson: worldwide legal threats to freedom of the press. She noted that a study of corruption in Russia under President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been published in Britain because of fears of legal action.
Abramson sees storytelling platforms consistently shifting, with platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram giving nonfiction writers new tools and outlets.
One of those is BuzzFeed, where Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer winner at The Village Voice, now leads an investigative unit as the site augments viral content with some 130 domestic and foreign news staffers,
Schoofs said social justice reporting hasn’t changed much since Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and others started muckraking powerful institutions more than 100 years ago. As ever, he said, it is based on “the desire to change, to expose a wrong, to have your journalism matter.”
He said these stories may start with “outrage,” but you have to skewer sacred cows if their assertions are incorrect. “You’re not in the tank for any one ideology or group. Test your assumptions versus whatever you see on the ground.”
He loves immersive participatory journalism and stories that have wrongdoing at their heart, calling David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times series on Wal-Mart bribery one of the best in recent years.
Exposing wrongdoing? Fine. But why humanize evil-doers?
Beth Schwartzapfel examines the inner lives of rapists and murderers because “just calling someone a scumbag is lazy, way too easy. He’s a person” and understanding him can be a valuable way to examine what made him do it.
Schwartzapfel is a staff writer with the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the criminal justice, system; she is also a frequent freelancer. She tries to get beyond obvious good guy/bad guy distinctions, asking what if Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “In Cold Blood” had ignored the killers and concentrated only on their victims.
“Don’t give [inmates] a soapbox,” she said. “Being sympathetic is not being their advocate. Let readers come to their own conclusions” about whether they deserve parole. “Show how they’re human, not how they’ve been wronged. That’s up to the reader to decide. I tell them ‘I see it as my task to make you human.’”
Some dismiss memoir as an unreliable narrator’s narcissistic ramble through the past. But in “Big Little Man,” Alex Tizon created a highly praised blend of history, memoir and social analysis.
“Many people dismiss memoir as easy, and a lot of the time memoir is just a cheaper form of storytelling — but it doesn’t have to be,” said Tizon, who won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while at The Seattle Times. “Report the hell out of your own story,” he advised, having interviewed about 40 people for his book’s exploration of Asian-American masculinity.
To write a memoir, he said, “you have to risk being a fool unless you’re writing public relations. Include the painful parts. I put my siblings at a certain risk — what to leave out? I had to ask, ‘Could I live with this if a sister never spoke to me again?’ The truth is impossible, but my aim is to be as truthful as possible.”
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.
For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.
For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.
The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:
Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.
That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.
“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”
To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:
It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.
There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.
Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.
It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.
Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?
Can professional journalists and citizen volunteers play well together? It’s a question that has come up repeatedly in recent years. According to Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting for the non-profit Web site ProPublica, the answer is yes — but only for projects that are properly designed.
Speaking earlier today at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, Michel described one example — the Stimulus Spot Check — whereby volunteers examined databases and interviewed local officials to track the progress of 520 of the 6,000 or so transportation projects that are part of the federal government’s $787 billion stimulus package.
By summer, she said, ProPublica’s citizen-assisted reporting had revealed that ground had been broken on 30 percent of the projects — behind the timetable Vice President Joe Biden had publicly announced.
Currently, Michel said, ProPublica is basing its reporting on health-care reform on concerns raised by people in a survey developed in conjunction with American Public Media.
The idea, said Michel, who was head of the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project during the 2008 president campaign, is to “report stories that are beyond the capacity of a single reporter.” And it turns out that a number of volunteers will step forward, contributing some labor, she said, as though they were giving to their church, or to a local animal shelter.
So what doesn’t work? At Off the Bus, Michel said she learned that not everyone wants to be a reporter or a writer. Of the 12,000 people who signed up for the OTB e-mail list, only 14 percent ever wrote anything. Instead, she said many volunteers merely wanted to give some time and help out — as with the 220 folks who gathered data for profiles of nearly 400 Democratic “superdelegates” during the 2008 primaries.
Projects must be carefully designed to account for bias, she added, sometimes by assigning more than one citizen journalist (a term, I should note, that she disdains) to the same task. And the serendipity of old-fashioned reporting is lost when volunteers are asked to carry out very specific tasks that have been carefully designed in advance.
“You can’t always delegate what you don’t know,” she said.
If 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 ProPublica.org. 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.