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 Spot.us, a site that facilitates such funding.
The article is the first piece Spot.us 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 Spot.us 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 Spot.us 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, Spot.us and my interest in the garbage patch. This story isn’t mine but ours.
This is a nice sentiment—and certainly in line with the “community” element and ethos that Spot.us 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 Spot.us 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.