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Jan. 10, 2011, 2 p.m.

How Peter Maass’ groundbreaking story on Saddam’s statue found a lifeboat in nonprofit funding

Magazine awards season approaches, and one of the stories likely to be gracing best-of lists is a piece that ran in last week’s New Yorker: Peter Maass‘ epic analysis — equal parts war report, personal narrative, historical correctionism, literary journalism, and media criticism — detailing how, ultimately, the press distorted the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, in the spring of 2003.

It’s a fascinating piece of backstory journalism. And one, it turns out, with its own rather fascinating backstory: “The Toppling” was financed largely by nonprofit sources. Without them, in fact, it might not have been written in the first place.

If you’re a freelancer, or a magazine writer, or both, you may find it either reassuring or horrifying to learn that even a story as exceptional as “The Toppling” went through several rounds of rejection before it found a home. “Not every magazine piece is right for every publication,” Maass, himself a freelancer, notes, and when the story was only an idea — albeit one based on the fact that Maass had actually been present to witness the real-life events that framed the iconic images — “it was hard to get somebody to sign on the dotted line to commission it.”

So Maass turned to a place that tends to be relatively comfortable with uncertainty: academia. He applied for — and received — a Shorenstein fellowship to work on the piece, spending Harvard’s 2010 spring semester researching the events that informed the images of Firdos Square and finding, as it were, the “there” there. (We got to know Peter then, since his wife Alissa Quart was a Nieman Fellow at the time.)

And yet, even after the research was completed — gird yourselves, mag writers — the pitch was rejected again. “It’s a big story — it’s a long, complicated story,” Maass told me. “And so it’s a big investment of space and time for a publication.”

So Maass turned to ProPublica, an outlet known for its willingness to invest, financially and otherwise, in time-consuming, resource-intensive investigations. The nonprofit provided additional funding money (though both the outlet and the author are mum on the specific amount, it was “significantly less” than the $30,000 Shorenstein stipend, Maass told me, but “not insignificant”). ProPublica also provided editorial guidance as Maass completed the piece’s complex narrative.

From there, ProPublica, which aims to maximize its stories’ impact by collaborating on them with other outlets, reached out to The New Yorker about a partnership…and the magazine got an excellent story, and that excellent story got another home.

“The Toppling” came about through a funding model that in some ways mimics the funding goals of journalism outfits more broadly: diversifying — which is to say, hedging — by way of multiple financial streams. The article’s initial reporting — Maass’s 2003 Baghdad trip, during which he witnessed the statue-felling that would provide the kernel of the story — was paid for by a for-profit outfit (The New York Times magazine); its research and editing were funded by nonprofits (Shorenstein and ProPublica); and its publication was paid for by The New Yorker. (Though Mike Webb, ProPublica’s director of communications, declined to get into details, he told me of the arrangement: “We paid Peter to do the story. Then when it was finished, The New Yorker paid a portion of Peter’s fee back to us.”)

It’s a model of financial cross-pollination that not only throws a potential lifeline to the (in)famously endangered species that is the long-form investigation, but one that also, Maass notes, offers a certain kind of freedom to authors themselves. One of the more liberatory aspects of working with several institutions to produce “The Toppling,” he says, is that the collaboration gave him even more freedom than usual to re-publish — and append and expand and otherwise contextualize — his own work with photos, maps, and other pieces of background information. “I’ve got the usual, inevitable author’s website,” he notes, and “what’s been nice is that I’m able to use material from The New Yorker and material from ProPublica and then throw my own material in there. And I don’t have to ask anybody.”

Financial freedom, though, is a different matter. Magazines, Maass says, are “kind of venture capitalists of the word”: In journalism, constrained as it is by the various inconveniences of reality, stories are always uncertain undertakings. And the risk involved in that uncertainty is only amplified for magazines, which tend to deal with journalism at the highest levels of scale and cost. In the past, Maass notes, publications underwrote that risk — the time wasted, the kill fees paid — as a necessary inefficiency: If you’re going to pan for gold, you have to be willing to sift through sand.

Now, though, magazines’ financial woes often manifest themselves in their generally reduced appetite for risk — the precise kind that willingly traded inefficiency for serendipity. In today’s context, Maass notes, “it’s much more difficult for almost all of them to take chances.” Which means that it’s much more difficult for writers to take chances, as well. “The Toppling” represents, in all, “probably a year’s worth of work,” Maass says; given the Shorenstein stipend, that works out to about a $30,000 yearly salary (plus the “significantly less” but “not insignificant” ProPublica money). “If you’re 25 or 30 years old, then it’s okay to get that kind of money for a year’s work,” Maass says. “But I’m not.”

It’s to the good, then, that freelancer investigative reporters have, in nonprofits, an alternative means of funding work: little lifeboats to help them stay afloat in the choppy seas of financial adversity and risk aversion. “The Toppling,” though, represents an exception rather than a rule. Ideally, Maass says, “it would be nice if one could assemble enough financing for a story like this and be able to support a family. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But at least we’re somewhere.”

POSTED     Jan. 10, 2011, 2 p.m.
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