CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—“Where do you go for great health care in Las Vegas?” Answer: “The airport.”
That local joke set Las Vegas Sun reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards on a two-year quest to figure out what was wrong with medical treatment in Las Vegas—and why. The result, after a digital dig into 2.9 million inpatient hospital records and more than 250 interviews, was a five-part series that earned them one of the most prestigious investigative prizes in journalism.
Using an impressive armory of multimedia tools, “Do No Harm: Hospital Care in Las Vegas” combined compelling patient stories and medical statistics to tell the Sun’s readers about one of health care’s most insidious problems: preventable life-threatening infections or injuries acquired while undergoing hospital treatment. A landmark 1999 Institute of Medicine study calling for a stronger patient protection strategy estimated that there may be as many as 98,000 deaths in U.S. hospitals annually related to medical errors.
“Everyone in health care knows about this except the patient,” Allen said yesterday at a Harvard Kennedy School symposium featuring eleven journalists who worked on the six entries selected as finalists for the 2011 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. “I write from the point of view of the patient” and try to be a “representative of everyday [people] as they encounter the healthcare system,” he said.
The Sun’s impressive hospital series won the $25,000 top Goldsmith prize over blockbuster exposes involving all levels of government that were produced by reporters at several well-known American newspapers, NPR, and ProPublica.
“You have to have a lot of humility to work at the Sun,” said Allen, thirty-eight, a former youth minister turned reporter who came to the paper five years ago. “You never see a front-page story on a newsstand, and a lot of people in Las Vegas don’t know we exist.” But, he added, that “allows us to be more nimble and flexible . We’re not the paper of record, and there’s a lot of freedom in that.”
In fact, the sixty-year-old Sun has an unusual distribution model. In 2005, it amended a joint operating agreement with its rival, the Las Vegas Review-Journal (which is the newspaper of record in town), and is now published as a daily eight-page insert inside the Review-Journal. The Sun remains independent in content and news staff, and the place where it really shines is its own website, LasVegasSun.com, where it has adopted all the bells and whistles of the digital age to bring analytical enterprise stories to life. The paper drew national attention in 2009 when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigation of construction deaths on the Las Vegas Strip and the failures of government, management, and labor unions to protect workers.
“It’s the most integrated print [and] web operation at any newspaper in the country. There may be others like you, but I don’t know of one,” said Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which administers the Goldsmith Prize. Jones calls the Sun’s approach “the future of news.” As he noted yesterday, the paper is currently losing money, but enjoys the generous support of publisher Brian Greenspun, who joined reporters Allen and Richards on their trip to Cambridge for the Goldsmith award ceremony Monday night.
Jones called the Sun’s prize-winning hospital series an example of “dogged reporting and sophisticated analysis” that accomplished what state government regulators had failed to do: create a transparent public platform to provide consu to mers with access quality-of-care information that would help make local hospitals more accountable.
When Allen was first asked to cover health care in the notorious American gambling town, his first reaction was “I can’t imagine anything more boring,” he recalled in an interview here yesterday. But, he added, “I could not have been more wrong.” When he dove in, Allen found fertile ground in a beat with rich story possibilities that resulted in several prize-winning series and the Association of Health Care Journalists’ top prize for beat reporting in 2009.
In the “Do No Harm” series, Allen and digital reporting wizard Richards, twenty-nine, made a public records request to Nevada officials that yielded a database with 2.9 million inpatient hospital billing records reported to the state from 1999 to 2009. “We decided we could impose transparency on them,” said Allen, by opening up the state data to the general public.