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An extremely expensive cover story — with a new way of footing the bill

The cover story in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a 13,000-word investigation of the New Orleans hospital where patients were euthanized in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It’s a remarkable and tragic story that may also represent the most expensive single piece of print journalism in years.

This is the new economics of news production: The reporter, Sheri Fink, began working on the project in 2007 as a fellow at the Kaiser Foundation and stayed on the story nearly full-time after joining ProPublica, the non-profit, investigative-journalism outfit, in 2008. Later that year, Fink and her editors began collaborating with the Times Magazine, which did not pay for the piece. It’s also available on ProPublica’s site, and anyone is free to republish the article in full beginning on September 29.

Gerald Marzorati, editor of the Times Magazine, caused a minor stir this week when he estimated that the article cost $400,000 to produce. That turns out to be an exaggeration, but the order of magnitude is correct.

Every once in a while we get a new datapoint about the cost of quality journalism. The relevance of those figures is debatable at a time when we’re rethinking the how of journalism as much as the what, but they’re good to know, and I’ve filed away a few. Among them: The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau costs $3 million a year, while The Washington Post’s drains $1 million; The Miami Herald’s audit of the 2000 presidential election results in Florida put the paper out $850,000; The St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact project has been estimated in the high six figures; and Marzorati has previously said that his average cover story runs “north of $40,000.”

In this case, 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.

Grand total: a lot of money.

Marzorati told me his estimate of nearly $400,000 considered what the piece would have cost had it been produced entirely by Times staffers. He wrote in an email, “My point, really, is simply this: Investigative reporting is very, very expensive.” And no matter how you crunch the numbers, that’s certainly true.

These sorts of calculations inevitably lead to impossible cost-benefit analyses. It would be even more difficult this time: What was the actual cost to the Times? Does cost mean the same thing to nonprofits like Kaiser and ProPublica? And do you measure benefit in impact, pageviews, or what? (A Times memo this morning happened to note that last week’s cover story, an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book on global oppression of women, topped a million pageviews.) There are no answers, and I’m just filing away this datapoint with the others.

UPDATE, 3:13 p.m.: Fink emailed me to note that, in addition to what I noted above, she spent four months in 2007 covering the story at her own expense. And in the comments, Stan Alcorn of the Dart Center points to their video interview with Fink. So you’ve got Kaiser, ProPublica, Dart, and Fink on her own as a freelancer — all contributing without compensation to the final product here. New economics, indeed.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 12, 2014
The site, known for its focus on local government, was financially stable. But as with many indie local news sites, it only worked with a heavy workload for its founders.
  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Honestly, I see that price tag and I think: What an inefficient way to run a news org! That’s A LOT of work for not a lot of product.

    Sure, they’ve published a big written story. But what about the raw interviews? Where’s the source documents? Why aren’t they linking to anything?!? Where’s the audio? Why are they spending $30k for visuals and not even getting any video out of the deal???

    Sounds like a waste of money to me.

    For that much time, cost and effort, they should’ve been able to churn out a decently produced video documentary on the subject AND create a decent source archive of source material. Think about it: they did the hard part––the information gathering––and then totally failed to create or publish anything with it beyond a single text document alongside stuff some still photos. What year do they think this is, 1997?

    If that’s how they do business, they won’t survive.

  • http://dartcenter.org Stan

    Don’t forget the three interactive graphics at ProPublica (http://propublica.org/katrina). Or the video interview produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (http://dartcenter.org/node/1930), and re-cut by ProPublica. My guess is that these “extras” have a small marginal cost, but are probably worthwhile, if you’re a news organization looking to get its $400,000-worth.

    But if you’re looking for the benefit to balance with that cost, it’s long been true that reporters and editors have judged the “impact” of an investigative story by changes in policy, congressional hearings and other real world effects, not page views. I would think that would be even more true for non-profits like ProPublica and the Kaiser Foundation whose missions don’t involve making money.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    @Stan Sure, it’s not just about the money, but money and pageviews is what makes the whole concern sustainable in the first place. How can you have a robust press if the institutions that produce and support quality journalism are bankrupt?

    Do you really think the ProPublica model is sustainable? It’s essentially a charity, and charities don’t scale.

    Profitability is a requirement. It is not optional.

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  • http://www.chrisamico.com Chris Amico

    There seem to be two issues here:

    - What does it cost to produce a story of this magnitude?

    A lot, it turns out.

    - What can be done to recoup some or all of that cost?

    Foundation money, fellowships and other bits of generosity paid for this one. There’s ad revenue in print and online, plus pre- and post-roll on videos.

    What other products could be spun off this? Is there a book in the works? What about a photo book? Is there enough video for something to get on TV?

  • http://www.bobdunn.com Bob Dunn

    I applaud ProPublica for working at finding some new way to pay for investigative journalism. Having said that, I think they’ve made a big mistake by only partnering with existing media organizations.

    Why reward the very organizations that caused the undeniable need for more investigative reporting in the first place?

    Why not partner with innovative journalism organizations working at moving the media forward online?

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  • rguillory

    Matt

    Please reread the article.

    The author started off by doing this without compensation (and possibly without even any hope of any compensation).

    Sometimes you have to actually think about something before publishing it.

    As a print journalist and video documentarian, I can tell you that some people will agree to be interviewed with you holding a pad and pen, but absolutely will not be taped and videotaped. Sometimes you *can’t* get an evenly reported video as deeply reported as you can a print piece.

    Finally, the costs are distributed, with different organizations taking them on. It’s not that the Times mag laid out that much money. Again, take another look at the piece.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    @rguillory For one, the update posted (3:13pm) after I made my comments (2:48p & 3:09pm).

    As you put it, it is best to think and read before you publish.

    Secondly, I know what you mean about people shutting up when you bust out the video camera. I’ve been there––it happens. So when that happens, why not put the camera away and just record audio. It’s not hard to put a small-ish shotgun mic on someone’s coffee table and then forget about it (you can use earbuds if you need to monitor the sound). Worst case scenario, you can combine the audio with photos and turn it into a slideshow, or better yet, you can dub the sound over some b-roll and a video portrait and splice that into your larger video piece. It’s called improvisation. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

    Third, my point was really that regardless of who’s paying for it (propublica, NYT, Kaiser), all this reporting churned out a pretty poor ROI. People actually spent over $300k and just got a single print piece and some photos out of the deal. That just boggles my mind. There’s gotta be a more creative, productive way to operate.

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  • JHMcFadden

    Isn’t the math way off here? If this was the only story that Sheri Fink was reporting on during this period, then the math would be applicable. However, that is likely not the case. A quick look at her bio on ProPublica’s site shows her byline on at least 25 other articles over the past year. If you are going to create a fair estimate of her salary expense/article, you really need to figure out how this expense is amortized over all of these articles. Or, more simply, figure out how many hours she spent reporting on this story and what her hourly rate is and do the math.

    http://www.propublica.org/site/author/sheri_fink/

  • JoAnn Kawell

    as someone who has worked in both “msm” and “alternative” media for the last three decades, and often tried to raise funds for investigative work, it seems to me that if it really cost those involved $400,000 –or half or a quarter of that– to produce this story *something* is drastically wrong.

    This was a worthwhile piece but lots of media orgs
    with annual budgets that are smaller than that produce equally good investigative work and manage to distribute it.

    And if the idea is that investigative reporters should be able to make a decent living –and they absolutely should– then the $31,000 a year paid to this reporter is pretty pitiful. Really not clear to me from this article where the bulk $$$ supposedly went –editors and lawyers? and how much is *their* annual salary?– but if I were a foundation officer worried about how efficiently my bucks were being used, the NYTimes would not be on my list for repeat grants.

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  • http://invisibleinstitute.com David Eads

    I have to say, Matt Mireles is right on about the ROI here, though I’m not sure profitability is precisely the goal (I’d say it’s more like survive-ability) given the rapidly shifting conditions and the fact that at points, “charities” will probably be subsidizing some of this work.

    Assuming that all the reporting and lawyering has a somewhat fixed cost (and it sounds like the lawyers must have done pretty well on this piece), they still could have done far more with this piece, especially when judged by the standards of changing policy, perception, and discourse, which is also a quirk of the piece itself.

    It seems to me that the article ends right where, in a way, it should be beginning. You have a doctor who gave instruction and provided information on how to end the patients’ lives. You have a doctor who helped carry that out. You have a hellish situation in which they were working. But the final piece of this story, which is mentioned at the beginning and the end but never fleshed out, is that Pou is now advocating for immunity and broad discretion to be allowed to medical professionals in crisis situations. Pou has used her situation to frame the discourse and advance a particular argument about transparency and accountability of medical personnel during crisis situations. I believe, though I have no way of knowing, that Pou acted in good faith and in what she considered the best interest of the patients stranded at the hospital. But without a paper trail or proper documentation of what she ad her staff did do, we cannot assess either the criminality or the nobility of their actions.

    Which makes me wonder: Where is more of the source material? Why was’t ProPublica publishing more over the entire span of the investigation. Surely they could have worked with the lawyers to write some stories, and instead of licensing a piece that spends almost its whole length on the material evidence, spent the past couple of years publishing stories establishing and complicating the material evidence, culminating in a piece that provides more analysis and insight into the broader issues, something with more of a chance to reframe the discourse and to argue for, or at least raise and define a debate, around what kinds of standards of transparency, documentation, and prioritization apply to doctors in these kinds of crisis situations.

    I have no doubt that the fixed cost of this project may have been in the hundreds of thousands by necessity, but the additional cost of publishing that information online is very, very low, and the possibilities for a searching analysis, better discussion, and the potential for changing, reframing, and improving the public discourse would be much greater.

    Perhaps the prior problem here is is that the culmination of the project would be an NYT mag story, instead of a public investigation that builds an audience of people with influence over the situation, or others like it. How the hell does a single piece in the NYT mag and a few graphics that most people will forget in a few weeks really help to reframe the discussion? Did anyone ask the about project’s relationship to the power structure, and how best, strategically, to address those issues?

    It’s an amazing piece (one that made be seriously reanalyze this event, which I watched unfold closely), and a worthy experiment, but I think in terms of what is necessary and what is possible, the initial indication is that this piece fails, pretty hard, to provide a create, smart, and sustainable model for investigative journalism in the coming decades, and, depending on the outcome, may also fail as a piece of investigative journalism.

  • Owen

    Frankly, I see it as a failure. Complete and utter. I already could have surmised that this was a huge gray area awash in questionable decisions and complex issues. But really what I got out of the article was something that could have been achieved in a one hour interview. That Dr. Pou is making a great deal of headway in changing the law about responsibility under duress. And frankly, whatever the ethics of the situation that led to this might have been, what Dr. Pou is doing right now is not just right but worthy of a lot more attention that the main article.

    If the piece had been a really punchy summary of what is being changed and why with a grabby headline then not only would more have been achieved in the way of public attention and policy change, but it would have cost a few thousand dollars at most.

    And no, I am not missing the point here. This work is appropriate for a BOOK, where the details can be chewed more thoroughly.

    Want to investigate the moral dilemmas of emergency care? Audit all the major ER center records. Visit ten of them and observe and document. Interview ten lead ER doctors. Do it anonymously if you have to. And take the trouble to look at the money trail. Who pays what and who keeps what. That would have twenty times the impact for less cost (although as spelled out this would be an expensive article as well).

    Then do it again for non emergency care. This time really all you would have to do is follow the money, look at the flows and see who really gets what.

    Those two (series of) articles would have the potential to inform and impact the full national healthcare reform debate.

  • http://www.markfollman.com Mark Follman

    @JoAnn Kawell- I couldn’t agree more — when I saw the $400K number I couldn’t really believe it. This was a great piece of investigative journalism… but great investigative journalism, while never “cheap,” can be produced for far less. During my years as an editor at Salon, I worked on several investigative projects that made an impact as measured in public debate and/or government action/reaction. (As well as getting wide distribution and many page views.) The budgets for them were a very small fraction of $400K.

  • http://invisibleinstitute.com David Eads

    @Owen: I think it’s a little misleading to mention a general story on the issues in emergency care — I can accept the premise that along with other pressing issues of the day, this story — about emergency care during conditions of extreme crisis — deserves a little air time.

    That said, you are right — the whole story at this point is what Pou is doing now. Also, as your follow the money comment points out, now I’m dying to know: Who is backing Pou? Why? Is this backlash against the threat of devastating malpractice lawsuits? What does her fancy PR firm see in her?

  • http://www.intermediatorgroup.com Henry Scott

    Matt Mireles:
    Interesting comments re video and audio. But there are lots of busy people (myself among them) who don’t have time for audio or video stories because of their linear nature. It’s much more efficient for me to read. If I have to sit and watch an audio story unfold, inevitably the phone rings, I get a beep announcing an important email, or the dog throws up and must be dealt with. Sometime (for me often) text beats other forms. And also, it’s possible to produce a much more refined and polished story in print. Even the best video and audio pieces lack subtlety and depth.
    Best
    Henry

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  • Anonymous

    Marzorati said, almost $ 400,000, it is estimated that this will be part of the cost of staff time if it is generated completely.

    Table Cover

  • gamine.ro

    i should start writing books just as well then