Trash Compactor

The NYT’s “Pacific garbage patch” story: a “deliverable” that doesn’t quite deliver

Today’s New York Times features an article about a patch of garbage, estimated to be two times the area of Texas, swirling in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The piece was written by freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw, and the travel expenses for her reporting trip were covered by donations from several hundred people—a crowd-funding model—via, a site that facilitates such funding.

The article is the first piece has sponsored that has gone on to and into The Paper of Record, and is thus big news—a milestone for a model of news funding that has been the subject of much optimism since announced itself, and its Knight Foundation financial assistance, last year. And today’s news-about-news headlines reflect that bigness: “New York Times publishes community-funded journalism,” notes CyberJournalist. “Spot.Us Delivers Crowdfunding to The New York Times,” declares Poynter.

In a blog post—entitled “We did it! NYT article out today!”—Hoshaw announces the article as the culmination of her reporting trip, thanking the people who made the financial contributions that enabled her voyage:

After weeks reporting and interviewing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the New York Times article appears online today (Mon Nov. 9) and in print tomorrow! Also view the accompnaying [sic] photo slide show.

This is such an exciting moment since this idea started a year ago when I decided I wanted to write about the garbage patch first hand. I wasn’t sure how I’d pay for the trip or even how I’d get there. Little did I know that hundreds of people would rally to support this pitch.

Thank you to everyone who made this project possible. The video below recaps the trip and sends out a heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported me, and my interest in the garbage patch. This story isn’t mine but ours.

Your reporter,

Lindsey Hoshaw

This is a nice sentiment—and certainly in line with the “community” element and ethos that stresses. But—a question that seems to have been asked all too infrequently today—what about the substance of the reporting, the content of the Times article in question? Stripping away the context and the back-story…was the journalism any good?

The answer, unfortunately, is: it could have been much, much better. [Addition, 11/11, 7 p.m. (see comments section for more on the addition): And that is particularly so when compared to the personal blog Hoshaw kept during her month at sea—which was compelling and personal and picture-filled and information-packed in a way that the Times piece wasn’t.] Much of the information contained in the Times piece, after all, is already (and readily) available on the Wikipedia page for the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”—only with more detail, more nuance, more context. Particularly since the garbage patch story has already gotten plenty of press coverage—perhaps much more coverage than it merits, given the volume of other stories that are under-covered in an age of shrinking science-news budgets—a $10,000 article funded by hundreds of different people (among them: Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibarguen, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt) needs to do more to justify itself than simply restate what is already known about the garbage patch.

In the summary of her pitch, Hoshaw wrote: “I will focus on the human connection to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” And she does—in the broadest sense of the term—emphasizing the general ties between ourselves and the trash patch (we create the trash; this is a human mess; and so on).

What we get less of is the “human connection” in the narrower sense of the term: the compelling little details that tie readers to a story and make it immediate, and emotional, and real to them. Which is not to say that the story is devoid of all detail. We do, after all, get this illustrative description of the trash in question:

Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.

But such put-you-there depictions—the kind of from-her-senses-to-ours reporting that was, ostensibly, the purpose of Hoshaw’s journey—are rare in the piece. Much more common is reporting of the more could-be-done-from-anywhere variety: reporting, in other words, that could have been done over the phone or via email, and that therefore didn’t require participation in a month-long voyage to and through the garbage patch. The piece is heavy on expert testimony of varying strains—contributions from oceanographers and research foundations, etc.—that put the garbage patch in context. Which is, on the one hand, illuminating and helpful (the piece’s stated goal, after all, being to “educate the public about marine debris”), but on the other…disappointing.

“Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash” is less a compelling new take on a widely reported story…and more a dryly summative one. A “newspaper article” in the most caricatured sense. As Times science editor Laura Chang told me in an e-mail, emphasizing that the publication of the story was contingent on whether “the material met our standards”: “Both the article and photos went through our normal editing process. Aside from financing her travel, Spot.Us had nothing to do with the actual editorial content.”

The article, to be fair, does accomplish the basic goals Hoshaw articulated in her pitch to potential funders back in July:

How Will This Reporting Help?
This report will educate the public about marine debris. It will bring new light to ocean pollution and provide one of the first reports about how toxic chemical are entering our food chain. Many scientists believe that ocean pollution will be one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, this slideshow will be one of the first to show direct footage from the Garbage Patch.

Deliverable: Online photo slideshow and an article that is under consideration by the NY Times. I will also provide separate photos, blog posts and a debriefing for the Spot.Us community that will be made available via Creative Commons. Time frame: The reporting will take three weeks (on site); background reporting is ongoing from June-August. Hours: This story will take 150+ hours.

But, then, “deliverables” and “compelling journalism” aren’t instantly compatible; educating people and telling a good story aren’t necessarily the same thing. Though ideally, of course, the two goals are realized in combination—seamlessly—in a particular journalistic narrative, when one has only 900 words to tell a story, choices must be made.

As the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit put it: “This piece is illustration of the ferment in news delivery – a story in a traditional, big paper by a freelancer reliant in part on grants to do the reporting. The article is not particularly long or sweeping. One suspects Hoshaw will be writing more on the expedition.”

The ‘more’ in question comes into play in the Times article’s supplementary components: the slideshow featuring pictures of the trash in the patch—including disintegrated, toxic plastic shards, which “look like confetti in the water”—and, more significantly, the personal blog Hoshaw kept during her month at sea. I followed the blog as Hoshaw updated it in, pretty much, real time—she connected to the Web via satellite phone—and found it at once educational and enthralling. And now that Hoshaw has returned from her trip, the blog offers a new focus on contextualizing her on-the-sea reporting (November 3: “The Garbage Patch Starts Here”). It’s good stuff. It’s what the funders paid for. It would have been nice if the Times article—the principal “deliverable” in the pitch—had resembled it more.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.