Iraq and the Cost of Coverage

Serious stories, serious money
December 5, 2007

The debate about the ramifications of the U.S. troop “surge” that began last winter in Iraq is both highly politicized and highly significant. Critics from the right assail the press for failing to report signs of progress from the surge, while critics from the left fault it for failing to convey evidence of its futility. It falls to journalists to try to cut through the cant and figure out what’s actually happening. Iraq is nothing if not complex, and reporting it no less so.

And it’s expensive. We were struck by the effort that The New York Times made in early September, two days before General David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, reported to Congress about the surge. The Times focused mostly on Baghdad, which President Bush had put forth as the centerpiece of the strategy when he announced it back in January. The paper zeroed in on three districts—Huriya, a once-mixed Baghdad neighborhood fallen under the control of the Shiite Mahdi Army; Sadr al-Yusufiya, a Sunni town southwest of the capital whose residents have forged a tenuous partnership with the Americans; and Saydia, known as a tolerant, mixed district until Sunni militants, driven out of nearby Dora by the surge, began attacking Shiites there. There are many strong articles in print and on milblogs that look at individual slices of Iraq, but by deeply examining three different kinds of areas, the Times was trying to be comprehensive.

The story—AT STREET LEVEL, UNMET GOALS IN IRAQ—ran 102 inches in the paper and included an impressive Web version as well, with maps, photos, and video that put the reader inside Baghdad. We can get some sense of how much this cost by considering the manpower. According to their editor, the writers, Damien Cave and Stephen Farrell, spent more than half of their time for nearly two months on the piece, including a number of days as embeds. Their research was supplemented by the work of twenty-nine other reporters, photographers, videographers, editors, and members of the graphics staff. The foreign editor, Susan Chira, devoted roughly the equivalent of two weeks to the story. Just to maintain a bureau in Iraq these days, between life insurance and blast walls, guards and transportation, guns and generators, takes more than $3 million annually at the Times—plus staff salaries.

So, not cheap. Why do we mention it? Only to remind ourselves that at a time when so many others want to claim journalism’s mantle, it still takes the beleaguered MSM to do the big jobs. Morgan Stanley and the like may see things differently, but this kind of investment is an act of faith in democracy.

Transition Watch

The crisis of resources in journalism, brought on by a market that is reluctant to bear the cost of ambitious efforts such as the one described above, is beginning to produce some experimental endeavors that are worth cheering on. This month, MinnPost, a nonprofit, Web-based, daily news operation, goes live in Minneapolis. With a sizable cast of experienced journalists as contributors, editor Joel Kramer promises “great journalism” built on original reporting. Paul Steiger’s ProPublica, another nonprofit, announced in October, promises to be something of a wire service for investigative journalism. The former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal plans to hire two dozen journalists to produce the kind of “deep-dive” stuff “that is most challenged in the budget process,” and either give it away to news outlets or publish it on ProPublica’s own Web site. Finally, ABC News is using technology to begin to reverse twenty years of retreat from foreign coverage by our TV networks: one-person micro-bureaus. Initially there will be seven such bureaus—in Seoul, Rio, Dubai, New Delhi, Mumbai, Jakarta, and Nairobi—staffed by reporter-producers who will report, write, shoot, and edit their own pieces. These efforts represent the kind of creative thinking and risk-taking that is needed in the search for ways to sustain good journalism. 

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.