Launch Pad: Remapping Debate

Trying to keep eyes on the prize

CJR’s new “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. All of Craig Gurian’s columns can be found here.

I hope that someone is going to tell me that the massive two-weeks-to-launch surge of anxiety I’m feeling is all a normal part of the process. It had better be, because the “to do” lists (both the electronic one and my 5x8 index card one) are growing, not shrinking, as October 12th approaches.

It is not as though we’re getting cold feet in terms of approach or mission. As I wrote last week, each of us involved in birthing and sustaining Remapping Debate is utterly uninterested in signing on to the approach that presumes that the one who cranks out the most pieces out most quickly is the winner. Over the course of publishing on 42 Tuesdays a year, we aspire instead to produce a modest number of longer-form stories of the highest quality, stories that will lead readers to think more seriously about the establishment or maintenance of public policies as actually representing choices, not inevitable facts of life that always have been and always need to be.

Moreover, we know that we have to be able to operate in a manner that allows us to make the audacious guarantee that Remapping Debate – regardless of what short-term website “analytics” show – will have the financial stability to be alive and kicking and still asking “why” and “why not” questions five years from now. It would, after all, be foolhardy to think that capturing the interest of a substantial part of our core audience – journalists and editors, policy advocates, policy makers, and citizens seeking to be informed – would be anything other than a long process that makes headway only incrementally.

The only rock solid way to deliver on this guarantee is not to depend on support that we hope will materialize in the future, but rather to do tight, long term budgeting based entirely on funds on hand…and that is the path we have taken. The impact? We’ll have to achieve our ambitious agenda without the benefit of a large (or even medium-sized) structure of production support.

So I’ve been worrying this week about how exactly we’re going to pull together for each edition the photos, illustrations, and data visualizations we’ll need to illuminate our stories best. I’ve been worrying that we don’t yet have a solution to the very basic question of who will collaborate with us to enable a reporter of ours in New York or Washington to be able to conduct and record HD-quality video interviews with someone in Los Angeles or Denver or Chicago without getting on an airplane. (If it were not apparent already, the answer to “don’t they have a department for that?” will always be “no.”)

Most of all, I’ve been worried about filling out what will be – even at maximum size – a full-time reporting staff that is small by anybody’s standards. We are now getting a substantial flow of applicants with extensive experience (and we apologize for the slow pace in scheduling interviews), but we can’t and won’t rush the process.

First, we’ve already had too close a brush with what would have been a big hiring mistake. We had extended an offer to someone who had said all the right things about wanting to do long-form, probing journalism, and were saved from ourselves only by the candidate’s asking (post-offer) whether there was a way to make the job we had described compatible with a no-longer-able-to-be-suppressed desire to stay part of the continuous blogging club (our response was words to the effect of, “no offense, but Remapping Debate is clearly not the place for you”). Now we are undoubtedly going to make mistakes – in hiring and otherwise – that are fully (and, most often, publicly) consummated. But each hire represents a large part of our staff, and so this experience has only deepened our level of caution.

Second, quite a few applicants appear to think that we would be amenable to exempting those on some portion of the political spectrum from scrutiny and interrogation. We’re not.

Third, we believe it is essential to challenge policy makers and policy advocates to back up their positions, and for a reporter to probe even when it is likely that the person in question will either literally not respond to the reporter’s inquiry or else stick to a scripted answer. We think it is a disservice to readers to shy away from ferreting out non-responsiveness (a fact newsworthy in and of itself), and we’re hoping to find a couple of fearless souls who have the track record that demonstrates they agree.

All of this translates into the reality that we’ll be launching short-handed, a challenge that I had certainly hoped to avoid when we began the process.

So perhaps it is most precise to describe October 12th as “Launch I” (going live, but certainly not as robust as we’ll come to be); January 11th as “Launch II” (“with three months under their belts, it looks like these folks were serious about the kind of stories they would run”); and October 11, 2011 as “Launch III” or “Final Launch” (“they’re all grown up now; let’s see if they can meet or exceed the contributions they’ve made in their first year”).

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Craig Gurian is the editor of Remapping Debate. He can be reached at