WaPo and the Freep lead the way

And show what newspapers should become

For all that the press ignores, fouls up, and under-covers when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and there’s plenty—it still gets a lot of things right.

Anyone paying attention should already know that since Sunday, The Washington Post has been running a truly amazing, multimedia series about the improvised explosive device (IED) threat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ways the Pentagon has, and hasn’t, tried to combat it. Today marks the third part of the series, “Left of Boom,” and so far it stands as the best, most thorough investigation of this aspect of the war and the men and women who have made trying to counter these deadly devices their obsession. It’s not going too far to say that the Post, which put the series in the hands of Pulitzer-prize winning staff writer Rick Atkinson (author of two stellar books about WWII, “An Army at Dawn” and “The Day of Battle” that have already become required reading for anyone interested in history), should bank on winning some awards for the series.

Atkinson’s series expertly weaves stories from the battlefield, from Congress, and from military and private labs and testing grounds into an engaging narrative that makes the technical stuff accessible and the characters familiar. It’s the kind of narrative writing that you don’t often see in the wooden prose typical of newspapers, and stands in stark contrast to the he said-she said, by-the-numbers approach to contemporary American journalism. The Post’s Web site is also full of complementary videos, graphs, charts, and further information that broadens and deepens the story of IEDs. It’s an ambitious project, and so far the Post and Atkinson have delivered a one-of-a-kind series.

But it’s not just the Post that is producing long form reports from the war zone.

The Detroit Free Press’ Web site, Freep.com, recently won an Emmy in the current news coverage category for broadband for its video series, “Michigan Marines: Band of Brothers”. For nine months in late 2006 and early 2007, reporters and photographers from the Free Press followed the story of the more than 900 members of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marine Regiment—and their families—from pre-deployment, to their tour in Iraq, right up to their return to the States this past April. While the Freep ran stories about the Marines and their families in the paper, its Web site added to the coverage by posting a series of 25 videos to supplement and expand its coverage. It’s a ton of material to get through, but there’s nothing else like it out there. If you want in some small way to understand the war, those who volunteered to fight it and the impact on the families they left behind, the Freep’s series is an excellent place to do it. It’s all right here.

In the long run, it’s projects like the ones the Post and the Freep have undertaken that will hopefully go a long way in quieting the incessant—and at this point totally redundant—hand-wringing over the “future of newspapers.” You’re looking at it. No blog or standalone Web site can yet deliver long-form, multimedia investigative projects like these two—projects that require a significant amount of time, money and investigative skill. Only big papers and magazines can make this kind of investment, and the more they embrace the multimedia approach to journalism, the more everyone benefits: the public, the papers themselves and not least of all, their skittish stockholders.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.