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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.

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  • Patrick Thornton

    Great post Josh. I like how CNN puts bullet points at the top of all their major stories. Shouldn’t this be mandatory?

    Unfortunately, I think the issue is that many journalists value writing over reporting. If reporting is the ultimate goal, we’d see a lot more bullet points, more summary stories, etc. Instead, we’re left with 13,000-word stories that are just begging for a blogger to summarize.

    News orgs owe it to themselves to do what bloggers are already doing. The reason why bloggers are getting so much traffic for these summary posts is that a lot of people — I’d say the vast majority — are not interested in 13,000-word stories. That doesn’t mean we should abandon long-form products, but rather we need to have complimentary products that appeal to people who aren’t interested in long-form journalism.

    Personally, I’m much more likely to read a long story in print than I am online. I don’t enjoy staring at a computer screen that long. Plus, on a story that has new findings and data, I want those findings and data broken out from the general narrative structure.

  • michael

    I agree and I disagree.

    1. On one hand you make some good points, on another you’re second guessing people who’s job it is to write Headlines and Summaries (specific for web and print) that they feel are appropriate. It might be that they know what they’re doing?

    2. The actual publish date is this Sunday. Up until then its really still a ‘preview’. Who knows what else is planned for it between now and then, and once its ‘live’? Maybe nothing, maybe not.

    3. Once a story is on the NYT homepage it going to receive a HUGE amount of attention, no matter what else is done to promote it. That in itself probably eclipses any other promotional work that could happen.

    4. Should the NYT give this more attention simply becuase some non-profits have put a lot o work into this? Or do you think they might be giving it less for this same reason? It came across to me that you felt the NYT ‘owed’ them – is that the case?

    In addition I would note that it has already received close to 300 moderated comments – again, for what is right now a web-only article until Sunday.

    There is also a ton of photos etc in the inline area of the Article which suggests tome there there may be other multimedia features to go with this (could be wrong, but looks like the material is there to do so)

    To the first commenter, Patrick, you also make some good points but I disagree here and there. One small point:

    “a lot of people — I’d say the vast majority — are not interested in 13,000-word stories”

    Agreed. But lets say 10% or even 20% are. We’re still talking millions (for the web, not NYT).

    (Disclaimer: I work for the NYT but not in any editorial or writing capacity. This is solely my own personal opinion and interest)

  • Joshua Benton

    Hey Michael: I should be clear I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a 13,000-word article in the Sunday mag or on I read a lot of long magazine pieces online every week.

    What I’m saying is I think it makes sense for there to be other products of the reporting labor that went into this that can either (a) stand on their own for people who don’t want to read 13,000 words or (b) be a point of entry that encourages people to read those 13,000 words. In this case, I’m talking more about (b). As a certain colleague of yours says, byte, snack, meal!

    I have no doubt this great story will still get lots of attention and traffic online, both because it’s good and because the front page is a traffic firehose with few peers in the news game. But I also think there will be a lot of people who might have found the piece interesting who won’t read it because there isn’t that quick point of entry.

    And on the nonprofit point, I didn’t mean to imply there was some special obligation to promote the story because ProPublica or Kaiser were involved in the reporting. I just think there’s a special obligation because it took that much time, money, and effort to get, and it’s a shame if it doesn’t get in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

    There are plenty of magazine stories for which a very print-style approach works fine — long profiles, descriptive narratives, pieces where the reward really is in reading all the words. But this piece, while it had that element, also had some real news, the result of real investigative work, and I think there would have been room to highlight that and attract another slice of audience.

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