Enterprise: Going the Extra Mile

Editor’s Note: The owner of her own Pulitzer Prize, Susan Q. Stranahan knows a little bit about enterprise reporting. This article concludes our series evaluating the media’s performance during the 2004 campaign.

By Susan Q. Stranahan

Campaign coverage in 2004 was a bit like a ten-month-long cocktail party — lots of little edibles to nosh on, but woe to the poor sap hoping to snag a real meal. As with any generalization, however, there were a few exceptions to this rule, some of them notable. And often those gems came from unexpected sources, proving that it doesn’t take a newsroom the size of Monaco to turn out first-rate enterprise stories. More often, all it takes is one reporter looking for the story behind the story, and one editor receptive to that idea.

Campaign Desk repeatedly has directed its readers to a year-long series by Bill Bishop in the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman examining national voting trends over four decades. With the emergence of the “moral values” issue as decisive in the election, Bishop’s careful and thoroughly-researched work in identifying the nation as two culturally opposed camps utterly out of touch with each other now seems especially prescient. There wasn’t anything even remotely like it at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Big Three networks, cable TV, or even influential magazines like The New Republic or The Atlantic.

In April, Ohio was put under the microscope (as it turned out, with good reason), by Matt Bai, who devoted almost 8,000 words in The New York Times Magazine to the “multilevel marketing” of President Bush. Bai described with eerie accuracy the grass-roots effort to mobilize the Buckeye State for Bush. The Cleveland Plain Dealer also produced a multi-part series that it called “Five Ohios,” painting vivid portraits of a state divided by region, economics and outlooks. In all likelihood, every member of the national media carried copies as they, too, crisscrossed this battleground state.

First-rate enterprise stories didn’t necessarily come in the form of major projects; often, they appeared untouted, as part of routine coverage. (That made them even more welcome.) In August, Jeff Plungis of the Detroit News’ Washington bureau produced an excellent look at the health care costs of the nation’s Big Three automakers. The story represented a thorough examination of an under-the-radar campaign issue for the national media, but one of tremendous interest to Plungis’ readers in Michigan.

As Campaign Desk noted in April, a reporter’s best tool was a sharp eye — and a willingness to actually pound the pavement to find something to focus on, instead of parroting punditry from Washington or New York. In her profile of the mood of Ohio (which rivaled New Hampshire this year for one-on-one contacts between residents and the media), USA Today’s Judy Keen neatly wove together people and numbers to capture the hopes and despair of voters. It was an excellent read.

Throughout the campaign season, writers from The New Yorker, notably Philip Gourevitch and Hendrik Hertzberg, produced extraordinary commentary and analysis, which can be found in the magazine’s compilation of its election coverage.

But perhaps the most consistent performer was Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times. Given the luxury of wearing two hats — reporter and columnist — which he studiously kept separate, Brownstein often delivered to his readers breaking news as well as thoughtful insights.

Here’s an example of a story he wrote back in May:

Headline writers understandably reached for the jumbo-sized type last week when Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft warned that al Qaeda might be planning an attack in the U.S. this year.

But hardly anyone noticed when researchers from the Urgent Matters program at the George Washington University School of Public Health released a study documenting a more insidious threat to the nation’s health and safety: the growing strain on the thin line of public hospitals and clinics that provide healthcare for millions of low-income and uninsured Americans.

Brownstein was equally adept at the breaking story, as Campaign Desk noted in March.

Brownstein’s closest counterpart on the East Coast is Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who usually could be counted on to deliver to his readers the straight skinny, even when his editors elected to bury his stories among the lingerie ads. Milbank’s ability to tell a great story — and outshine his competition — shown through often.

This is by no means a complete compendium of good enterprise reporting that stood out this election season. But these stories carry similar threads: They are original. They are thoroughly reported. They provide information and insight that — with any luck — leave the reader thinking: “Now I know something I didn’t know before. My time was well-spent.”

That’s enterprise reporting in a nutshell. It is not easy, and often it is not quick. But it is what distinguishes great reporters from good ones. We only wish that there had been more examples of it during this election season.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.