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.
A column by ProPublica's editors.