November 13, 2006
Top Pro Thinks Pro-Am Reporting Has Promise
"Reluctantly, I gave up on the newspaper industry as a possible employer." Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter John McQuaid, who recently left the Times-Picayune for parts unknown, explains why he's become a contributing editor for NewAssignment.Net. First of two-part Q & A.
This is John McQuaid. And this: Path of Destruction, a book about what Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf and why. In 1997 he won, with “Path” co-author Mark Schleifstein, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the highest award in the craft of enterprise reporting. It was for Oceans of Trouble, a series on the decline of global fisheries. Washing Away is also McQuaid. That’s the famous 2002 series for the Times-Picayune on Hurricane preparations (again with Mark Schleifstein.) It predicted the floods and failures of 2005.
McQuaid is a proven craftsman in a demanding form: explaining a big, complicated story that is hidden from normal view. In this two-part Q & A, (the rest is tomorrow) he explains how it became impossible for him to remain at the Times-Picayune and continue to practice his craft. “My investigative job was eliminated, and I was told that the focus was on everybody pulling his or her weight to put out the daily paper.”
But he left the newspaper world with a new ambition: “Find a way to do investigative and explanatory journalism via the web.” This in turn led him to NewAssignment.Net. It’s part of his determination to re-invent himself, After Newspapers. Our interview is about this series of events.
As a contributing editor, McQuaid will be writing for the New Assignment site and researching possible pro-am projects as he takes his own crash course in networked journalism on the open Web.
Jay Rosen: When you contacted me about contributing to NewAssignment.Net you mentioned that you were “looking at the ways that the kind of in-depth journalism I have specialized in can migrate to the web.” Tell me what brought you to that point. And why, as a reporter, have you recently grown so interested in the Web?
John McQuaid: I was with The Times-Picayune for 20-plus years— my entire career. I’d moved to New Orleans after college and loved it: both the town and writing about it. I was later the paper’s single foreign correspondent (covering Latin America) and worked in the Washington bureau. Over the last 10 years, I worked on a bunch of big investigative and explanatory projects for the paper. This was a tremendously rewarding and successful collaboration. Working with highly talented reporters, photographers and editors, I was able to probe deeply into topics of great concern to people in Louisiana and elsewhere—declining fishing communities, environmental racism, even—it sounds like a joke, but in New Orleans it’s not—voracious termites. We got recognition: The fishing series won a Pulitzer in 1997, and others won a bunch of national awards. A series that I wrote in 2002 with Mark Schleifstein, Washing Away, analyzed the growing danger to New Orleans to hurricanes and anticipated much of what happened when Katrina struck.
Before Katrina, The Times-Picayune was doing some serious cost-cutting. In the spring of 2005 I was ordered back to New Orleans. My investigative job was eliminated, and I was told that the focus was on everybody pulling his or her weight to put out the daily paper. I was given a choice of daily beats or an assistant city editor’s job. Given the overall shape of the newspaper business, this was certainly not a bad offer, and I gave it some serious thought. But it wasn’t really the direction I wanted to go in, personally or professionally. Ultimately, though, the bottom line was â€¦ the bottom line. My wife has a federal civil service job in Washington that she would have been forced to give up had we moved to New Orleans; the choice between that and a newspaper job was no contest.
I was still on the staff when Katrina hit, at which point I made use of my previously useless knowledge of the levee system from the “Washing” series and pursued the “why did the levees fail?” story. It was a great privilege to work with the TP’s heroic staff on one last, important story. Then I took my leave, and Schleifstein and I wrote a book about Katrina.
At some point before the storm, I had begun searching for another newspaper job. But this quickly proved absurd. Several the openings I applied for vanished before they were filled. Reluctantly, I gave up on the newspaper industry as a possible employer. There’s no clear endpoint to the restructuring now underway, nobody knows what newspapers are going to look like when it’s done, and in-depth journalism is in particular peril.
I arrived at the same pass that many have: You can keep plugging away, trying to do the same damn thing; or you can reinvent yourself. I’m flexible; a journalist and writer, not a newspaper person through and through. And there were a lot more opportunities in reinvention.
One ambition was to find a way to do investigative and explanatory journalism via the web and digital media.
Jay Rosen: But if you’ve given up on the newspaper industry as a possible employer, what is the future of your craft, and of explanatory journalism that reveals what the news cycles miss?
John McQuaid: This is one of the burning media questions of the moment. Newspapers remain key venues for probing, public service-oriented journalism. While the format has its problems—too many dull, interminable series see print mainly as Pulitzer bait—at their best, newspaper series can not only reveal terrible problems and injustices, but also be lively and engaging reading.
Big papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post retain the staff and resources to do these kinds of things. But no matter how important or interesting they are, investigations don’t pay the bills, and in a lot of other places there’s neither the capacity nor the will to delve deeply into both local and national issues. That’s a serious problem, in keeping politicians and other officials honest and in the functioning of democracy itself. So I’d like to help new, Internet-based forums, emerge locally and nationally to do investigative or explanatory journalism. And of course we need readers, advertisers and financial backers to go with them.
This is a great era for news— government accountability has all but disappeared. Doubtless, there are dozens of government meltdowns — on top of the ones that we already know about — already underway or about to happen.
That said, I’m not sure how what this new form will look like. The newspaper investigation is basically a static form: journalists work for weeks or months on a story. For the most part, nobody in the wider world even knows what they’re doing. Then they publish it. It makes a splash (or not). Maybe it has a broad impact. After the publication date, on some basic level, it’s over.
But the web is so dynamic — an ever-unfolding conversation. So I was intrigued by NewAssignment.Net, which offers an opportunity to figure out how to harness that dynamism in the service of journalism.
Jay Rosen: That’s the idea, yes. We’re still trying to bring it into vivid practice. I think you are on the money when you said that in its classic, paper-bound form the investigative work is “over” after publication. The story has repercussions or doesn’t. This may be a major difference for investigative journalism on the Web. Maybe in the newer styles, the work starts with publication, and builds from there.
Traveling back a bit to 1996-2004, can you recall what you initially thought about the Web, what you knew of it, and what you thought it would mean for your newspaper, for journalists like yourself? What was the state of mind back then?
John McQuaid: Newspaper journalists watched the revolution unfold on their desktops along with everyone else, and rejoiced. But, of course, without knowing it, we were also watching our own relevancy decline.
When I started out, we got “the wires” on our office computers, and I thought that was pretty amazing back then — AP dispatches and updates in real time! When news broke, you could watch the coverage unfold, see depth and context added into stories. You could compare the dispatches from rival publications. Later, my office got modems, then broadband. The web was a great reporting tool — you could connect with infinite ease to sources and colleagues, get documents, read websites, find important details posted publicly.
But of course, a great tool for us was equally great for everybody else. Readers now have access to almost all the information that journalists do, and they began sharing it, commenting on it and picking apart the stories. Hence many problems bloomed for the mainstream press, which declined in relevance and lost some credibility.
But a lot of that loss was refreshing. I never much liked the “Voice of God” emanating from the NYT and other influential institutions. It was entertaining — and often useful — to see platoons of bloggers pick it apart and puree the pronouncements (sometimes fairly, sometimes not). Reading some of those critiques made me increasingly dissatisfied with newspaper conventions. In a highly partisan landscape, straight newspaper accounts of political fights that dutifully parroted “both sides” or interviewed a bunch of talking heads offering differing perspectives often did a bad job of capturing what was really happening. But a single blogger could often get to the nub of an issue in a single paragraph (usually, of course, by analyzing the journalism).
My most immediate concern with Internet journalism was how to make the Times-Picayune’s website better and more easily navigable, so as to better present our work, which was suddenly being read not just in New Orleans but in Washington and around the country. The idea was pretty simple. It was basically just getting newspaper stuff up on the web in a presentable, findable form — not changing the form itself to fit the medium, or making use of the emerging array of technologies and people able to use them. I didn’t appreciate how profound the Internet-driven changes were until they reared up and bit me in the you-know-what.
Jay Rosen: If you don’t mind I want to press on that last statement: what you didn’t realize about the Net, first time ’ round. Why did you initially miss how deep the changes were to your craft? (You were not alone!) What were the concealing facts?
John McQuaid: Part of it was, I worked for a slow-moving institution that covered other, even slower-moving institutions — school boards, federal agencies. And such institutions, by their nature, aren’t good at detecting revolutionary changes bubbling up from below.
It also took a while for various changes to percolate and reach critical mass — and when they did, they all did at once. One was the rapid decline in the traditional newspaper (or, more generally, dead-tree) business model. In the 1990s, we heard the Internet would change everything, telecommunications companies sank billions into broadband networks of various kinds, and web businesses bloomed all over the place. Then the dotcom bubble burst. Everybody biting their nails about the looming end of paper publications breathed a sigh of relief. We were still there — there was life in the dead tree biz yet! That’s what we thought the Internet bust meant.
But of course, the technological and social transformations proceeded apace, and kaboom! The model began to collapse. Second, those transformations didn’t always appear to be a single phenomenon. They were happening everywhere — politics, blogging, music and video sharing, Google, eBay, global supply chains, to name a tiny fraction — but to most people, journalists included, they appeared to be a bunch of different things, tangentially related by their reliance on digital technologies and the web. In other words, many of us were aware of a whole world unfolding online — and participated in it in our off-hours in various ways — but didn’t put it together with what we did at the office.
Jay Rosen: The missing dots are interesting.
“I’m flexible,” you said earlier, “a journalist and writer, not a newspaper person through and through.” I think that’s a wise attitude. As a journalist and writer, a public explainer, what does the Web offer you that’s genuinely new in your professional experience? That will force you to stretch?
John McQuaid: The main thing, I think, is to wade into the conversation. Like many journalists and writers, I relish mixing it up, debating. The web means flexible, open-ended exchanges, instant critiques and feedback, more transparency, a more informal, conversational style of writing. But newspaper reporters are encouraged to remain in the background, let their stories speak for themselves. I understand the reason for that — after all, you don’t want to step on your own message — and at times I found it useful. But it was also frustrating.
Jay Rosen. Meaning, I think, that you welcome the chance to open it up, mix it up, drop the lecture, be part of the conversation. I think your opinion is becoming the majority, John. The voice needs to be renovated.
Investigative journalism in the Pulitzer tradition has a distinct voice. How would you characterize its record on introducing innovation in the craft? And having stepped away, how would you evaluate the native strengths and weaknesses of the genre— enterprise reporting at the American newspaper?
John McQuaid: If you go and read the Pulitzer site, which is naturally very text-centric, you’ll probably miss one of the biggest changes: the growth of storytelling through photos and graphics, something which is a natural to migrate to the web. It started in the 1980s with the advent of color printing, USA Today, flashy redesigns etc. — events most tie to the dumbing—down of newspapers. They weren’t. At the Times-Picayune, to use the example I know best, photos and graphics became powerful tools for investigative projects. Photographers were assigned early in the project lifecycle in order to explore the issues and get to know the principal sources and subjects. Graphic artists would come in early on as well (sometimes not as early as we wanted) and develop their own take on the story too, creating illustrations that integrated data, maps, and photos. Ever-more-powerful mapping and database programs were great for both reporting and for presentation. (For me, working with people coming at a story from these different angles was tremendously helpful in figuring out how to organize ideas and reach an audience.)
But the digital element has evolved slowly. Maps and graphics are migrating online like everything else. Starting in the 1990s, many newspapers, the TP included, began websites where people could discuss stories — especially big series. Sometimes you’d publish something and there’d be a huge response. Other times, not so much. But such features were usually sort of tacked on, after the fact — not used proactively to stimulate a discussion or guide the coverage.
Jay Rosen: It’s true: graphic display has advanced a lot, and that’s innovation in explanation. What about the stories themselves?
John McQuaid: Like you, I don’t know that there has been much innovation. On some level, there doesn’t need to be. Some subjects are perennials — politicians and businesspeople are always going to engage in illegal or questionable shenanigans, bureaucracies are always going to break down, wars and natural disasters are going to erupt, poverty and exploitation aren’t going away. And people want to know about these things (well, some people, anyway). You have to keep shining the light into those cobwebbed closets — new things are always flying out.
But you also risk falling into a “formula” — bureaucratic failures, victims of one kind or another — that can be worthwhile, but isn’t very interesting reading. Institutions covering other institutions. You can miss what’s really going on — locally, nationally, globally — if that’s your approach.
Some of these big stories lack a clear point of view. A big investigation is an opportunity for journalists to become as expert on a subject as the experts themselves — or rather, less so in some ways, more in others. A journalist covering the FDA won’t get to a Ph.D in chemistry, but she or he can learn a hell of a lot about how the system works, without the prejudices of people who are part of the system and know a single slice of it really well. That level of expertise and perspective means that, depending on what you find, you can say something nobody’s said before, about the agency in question, about politics today, America today, the world too. But too many projects stop at “something about the FDA.” They figure exposing a snafu is enough. This is a big problem, because the “product” tends to be pretty dry and heavy going.
For a while, Mickey Kaus had a feature on his blog called SeriesSkipper, in which he’d sit down and read a long, boring newspaper series for you, summarize the key points, and then recommend whether you should actually sit down and spend hours reading it. In most cases, he recommended against.
Personally, I’d like to see more ideas in the storytelling. One series I loved, to give an example, was the 1997 Baltimore Sun series The Shipbreakers, about how giant ships are dismantled abroad in extremely hazardous conditions. It told you something surprising about the world — what was going on down on the docks in Baltimore and how it was tied to what was going on the other side of the globe.
In a digitizing, globalizing world, there are a lot of opportunities to expose problems and explore the connections linking what’s going on in Washington, at the community level, and around the world — problems NewAssignment.Net is particularly well-positioned to explore.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Part-two of this interview is here.
Jeff Jarvis says McQuaid is “a poster child for newspaper cutbacks done wrong.”
I have been arguing that cutbacks are a good thing if they are used to boil a paper to its essence, to get rid of the useless stuff and decide what a paper’s real value is: reporting. Cutbacks are bad if they maintain the commodity stuff at the expense of reporting.
What I find most interesting about Rosen’s idea is that he wants to figure out how to add professional journalists to the mix. Given the current economic decline of the news business, getting this right strikes me as essential both for preserving journalism’s public-service mission and, frankly, for helping the next generation of journalists find jobs. Indeed, Rosen welcomes help from journalism students.
Howard Weaver: “I’m not sure about Rosen’s ambitious plans for a national network of journalists and citizens joining to produce enterprise stories and investigations. But I am pretty sure there’s productive ground to plow in what he refers to as ‘Pro-Am’ journalism, where professionals guide the work of contributors.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at November 13, 2006 1:01 AM Print