I’ve been a “traditional” journalist for more than forty years. I understand the circumstances and logic that gave rise to these journalism strategies, even as I am frustrated by how they hinder coverage. But more than two years ago, when I began writing about the coverage of the health-care debate for CJR’s Web site, I tried to use the freedom from the strictures of traditional journalism that writing online afforded to experiment with my own coverage—to try to produce the kind of coverage that I was asking the mainstream press to deliver. For instance, a tenet of traditional journalism is that we write for the average citizen, but so many of the health-care stories I was reading seemed aimed more at Washington insiders or the reporter’s colleagues and competitors. I reached into my past to find a way to do it better. I’ve long thought that Consumer Reports, where I used to work, produced some of the clearest, most useful explanatory journalism around. Once I asked then-Editor Irwin Landau who his audience was, and he said he always had in mind school teachers, people who had some money but not a lot, and who needed to understand not only what to buy and why but the economic and medical forces that shaped those decisions.
With such readers in mind, I tried to give them a thorough analysis of the issue at hand, but one that was grounded in deep reporting, not lightly informed opinion. Here the late Johnny Apple was my inspiration. His analyses for The New York Times invariably helped me understand issues I knew little about. It wasn’t simply that Apple was a talented writer, or a big enough star that he could get away with pushing opinions in the news columns; Apple was first and foremost a fine reporter, and his analyses reflected the authority and knowledge earned through that reporting.
But both Apple’s analyses and Consumer Reports stories tended to come in traditional, long-form doses. The trick for today’s audiences in my opinion is to take Apple’s trademark reporting and analysis and apply them to a series of shorter, pithier stories. Short shouldn’t have to mean shallow.
Last year, I tested that hypothesis with a nine-part series on health care in Massachusetts that attempted to be analytical and comprehensive, but broke the subject into more digestible segments of roughly 1,200 words each. I tried to report until I had a clear sense of what I thought about the key elements of the Massachusetts plan, then let those conclusions, and an explanation of how I arrived at them, drive my stories. The series became a running commentary on the state’s health-care system.
This approach worked in a way that a one-off, six-thousand-word piece would not have. Those blog posts got at the concerns of state residents, many of whom were not happy with the way health reform was affecting them—small business owners slapped with very high rate increases, older people paying several hundred dollars more for their coverage than younger ones, patients facing long waits to see a doctor—and allowed me to keep revisiting the issues, adding new context and new ideas as my thinking evolved with my reporting. Immediate feedback—another useful aspect of the Web—suggested that my readers benefited from this steady stream of more manageable bites, which is ultimately the point of what we do.