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Aug. 28, 2009, 4:37 p.m.

In defense of bullet points

A quick addendum to Zach’s post on The New York Times Magazine’s great Katrina story. While some will argue that one epic story isn’t the best journalistic use of $400,000 (or whatever the final bill is), I think the folks at ProPublica and the Times are right to point out how expensive quality investigative reporting can be. And as a Louisiana native, I’m personally glad they decided to spend that coin on my home state.

That said: I wonder if the Times is really maximizing its return on its (and ProPublica’s and Kaiser’s) investment.

The 13,000-word story — about a New Orleans hospital where, while awaiting rescue, a doctor was alleged to have euthanized some very ill patients — produced some significant investigative findings. Author Sheri Fink reports on:

how more patients than was previously known were injected; how some were not on their deathbed at the time of the injections; exactly what was injected into some of the patients; [and] which doctors were involved and how they came to their decisions…

That’s really interesting stuff! But you wouldn’t know it from the headline: “Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices.” That’s a headline you could have written just from the public record, without any reporting at all. (What happened at this hospital has been a point of public discussion for over three years.)

You also wouldn’t know it from the cover copy, which again revealed no new facts. You also wouldn’t know it from any of the promo or link text I’ve seen on the Times’ site. The quote above is actually from a press release ProPublica emailed to news organizations about the story — which quickly and smartly highlighted the key points of the story.

In the main body of the story, the first details of those findings are about 500 words in. That’s a perfectly reasonable place for them to be in the context of a print magazine story, where someone has already made the choice to pick the magazine out of the Sunday paper, flip to the appropriate page, and start reading. But on the Internet — where a thousand distractions are one click away — I think it would have been great to do a better job of highlighting Fink’s major findings.

Maybe that’s in a prominent sidebar; maybe that’s in a summary graphic; maybe it’s somewhere else that no one’s thought of before. But I think it’s a void worth filling. For an adult with average reading speed, this article requires a time investment of over an hour. Online, a reader expects clear indicators that her investment will be rewarded.

Otherwise, a 13,000-word story like this is almost asking for some blogger to read, summarize, and highlight the best parts — the kind of thing newspapers hate. I’m reminded of the recent dispute over Gawker’s quoting and summarizing of a 1,500-word Washington Post story. The Post article’s author thought Gawker’s post was an unfair appropriation of his labor — but Gawker’s post also attracted a lot of readers who wouldn’t have read through the original.

Doug Fisher responded, in essence: If someone is going to be summarizing the juiciest parts of Post stories, shouldn’t the Post do the job themselves? Shouldn’t they build their own summarizer and excerpter, to point out the nuggets of gold that might get lost deep in stories? Fisher:

Maybe consumers are telling us something, namely that a lot of them don’t want to read a river of text…because they have other things to do with their lives. Gawker et al. wouldn’t survive if they didn’t meet a need.

POSTED     Aug. 28, 2009, 4:37 p.m.
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