LAKE JACKSON, Texas — When Lisa Kelly learned she had leukemia in late 2006, her doctor advised her to seek urgent care at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. But the nonprofit hospital refused to accept Mrs. Kelly’s limited insurance. It asked for $105,000 in cash before it would admit her.
Sitting in the hospital’s business office, Mrs. Kelly says she told M.D. Anderson’s representatives that she had some money to pay for treatment, but couldn’t get all the cash they asked for that day. ‘Are they going to send me home?’ she recalls thinking. ‘Am I going to die?’
Re-reading Barbara Martinez’s recent page-one story in The Wall Street Journal about a Texas woman’s Kafkaesque experience with the U.S. healthcare system, even proponents of long-form journalism can see the obstacles that story presents to a reader.
The first is the subject, the U.S. healthcare system, which we already know is screwed up. So the chance of finding a surprise in the story, that is, some news, seems scant.
The second is its length: 2,408 words, about fifty-three newspaper inches, which cover about half a page in gray type.
The third obstacle is the reader’s natural skepticism: a nonprofit hospital asks for $100,000 in cash that very day before it will admit a very sick patient. That can’t be completely right, can it?
But it can.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the replacement of one editor at The Wall Street Journal with another.
One goes, another comes. What of it?
Good coverage of the greased exit of Marcus Brauchli, including in the Journal itself, revealed that the dispute, for all its media-power-play aspects, is in the end actually an argument over journalism, of all things—more esoterically, even, over journalism forms.
Sure, there were some turf issues, but in the main Brauchli had tried—half-heartedly, it turns out—to mediate between the Journal’s tradition of longer-form, fully developed stories and demands from News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and the publisher he appointed, Robert Thomson, for something else:
The new owners were demanding newsier stories and more general news. Mr. Thomson, who took the floor after Mr. Brauchli, noted that some Journal stories appeared to have the ‘gestation period of a llama’ (that is, nearly a year). He said ‘the New York Times and the Financial Times are the enemy, but the real enemy is time’—by which he meant the risk of wasting the reader’s time. He said stories needed to be shorter and more alluring, and warned of ‘articles unread, jumps un-jumped, wisdom untapped.’
And here is the Journal editorial rank-and-file’s reaction to Brauchli’s exit, nicely summed up by The New York Times:
The news cast a pall over the newsroom, where Mr. Brauchli is liked and respected, and his exit reinforces fears that The Journal is retreating from its focus on business and sophisticated, in-depth reporting.
And they’re right. The Journal is retreating from sophisticated, in-depth reporting.
It’s not hard to see what Murdoch and Thomson have in mind for the new Journal. A blizzard of shorter stories that don’t jump and that take no more than a day to report, with a heavy emphasis on scoops, adds up to
John Gapper, the Financial Times’s chief business commentator, has it right: the FT itself.
He wants, in other words, to put shorter and pithier news stories on the fronts of the news sections. This is destined to cause huge uproar at the Journal because it conflicts with tradition but, to be honest, I think he is right.
This is an Anglo-Australian newspaper model—straight, wire-service-type business news coupled with extensive and often smart analysis inside.
That’s fine, except what’s lost in this scenario is what makes American newspapers distinct from and superior to their Anglo-Australian counterparts: fully developed features, investigations, and just plain original reporting—that is reporting that takes longer than a day.
These stories aren’t about deals, typically.
They do more than report what some institution did yesterday.
They don’t offer warmed-over political analysis you can get anywhere.
The American model offers—requires—the kind of reporting that won The Washington Post three of its six Pulitzer Prizes this year: investigations of deplorable conditions at Walter Reed hospital, Vice President Cheney’s behind-the-scenes influence, and unaccountable security contractors in Iraq.
Prizes aside, it is also a form that American readers across the country have understandably come to expect, indeed demand.
It is why the Charlotte Observer embarked on a massive project—yes, it took a year—exploring soaring foreclosure rates in its communities.
It’s why the Palm Beach Post spent two years—two llamas worth, by Thomson’s metric— exploring corrupt land deals involving local public officials.
It’s why the Los Angeles Times scrutinized U-Haul’s unsafe practices.