Journalism in the Public Interest


Familiarity Breeds Content

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 When I was a young reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, I once proposed a succession of stories on an incompetently run federal program that was supposed to insulate housing for the poor. My editor, a tweed-clad Timesman who smoked a pipe and had decades of experience, told me to pack my findings into a single story.

"Why not drive home the point with three or four stories?" I asked.

He winced at the idea. "No," he said. "We are NOT a crusading newspaper."

That ethos has evolved considerably since the 1980s. Times editors would probably still insist that they do not embark on crusades in the manner of early 20th century tabloids. But the Times is now comfortable relentlessly following up on subjects like the handling of concussions by professional football or the dangers of driving while talking or texting on a cell phone. The follow-up stories serve two purposes: They break news and they keep the issue on the minds of readers.

There is a blurry line between editorializing and pointing towards solutions. In my view, investigative reporters have no business advocating a specific change. But there is every reason to use the tools of journalism to spotlight an obvious gap in regulation or oversight.

Historically, many journalists have had the fantasy that readers and viewers consume the news as if they were the proud parents of the authors clipping the work for a family scrapbook. (Full disclosure: My late mom did just that.) The truth, which was clear even before the rise of the Internet, is that harried readers seldom "get" the full implications of an issue from a single exposure to it.

And why would they? On an investigative story, reporters and editors have spent weeks or months mastering a subject. Readers fly through it in minutes. Research shows that only a small proportion read every word of a long story.

That's why follow-up stories are an essential aspect of our work at ProPublica. We have published more than 50 stories about gas drilling over the past year or so. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing stories that identify clear opportunities in which this growing and essential industry can better protect the environment. Separately, we will show how the states' budget difficulties are making it even more difficult for regulators to do their jobs.

These stories are part of a continuing conversation about one of the most important environmental stories of our time. They will keep the issue front and center. And they reflect something essential about investigative work. As reporters pursue a story, their knowledge deepens – and so does the public’s.

It’s good to see again a proactive approach to journalism.  Three years or so ago, I saw the retiring editor from the WSJ on C-SPAN (Brian Lamb was interviewing him) discussing setting up ProPublica, and I was delighted to see that insiders were well aware of the sorry state of journalism, and that goes triple for what passes for news on TV.  For months I’ve been watching MSNBC, and lately I noticed that all the programs at night are covering the same three or four stories, all chattering about the same thing.  I decided I’d had just about all I can take when over the last few days, they’ve all been discussing ad nauseum this couple who crashed the White House dinner.  You could swear it was the biggest story since 9/11.  It’s an frivoulous story treated with embarrasing gravity.  It’s junk.  While I’ve been aware for some months of ProPublica, I’ve only recently begun reading it.  Now THESE are important stories.  Thank you.