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November 14, 2006

Pro Thinks Pro-Am Reporting Could Work: John McQuaid Interview, Part Two

"With connectivity anywhere and everywhere, journalists tapping into networks can have eyes on the ground in a lot of places simultaneously. That has all kinds of potential for assembling a broad picture of what's going on." Plus: Has investigative reporting been innovative enough?

This is part two of my interview with John McQuaid, formerly an investigative reporter for the Times-Picayune. Part one is here. McQuaid is a contributing editor for NewAssignment.Net.

Jay Rosen: You talked about the emerging array of technologies and the people able to use them because we have the Web. Which of those technologies and which of those people seem most promising to you as writer and journalist looking for a new assignment, if I may put it that way? Which ones are you most excited about?

John McQuaid: Ten years ago, when I began researching our series on fishing, I signed onto a listserv called Fishfolk, for people involved in the study, management and practice of fishing. This was a great introduction to journalism via the digital community. I would post messages asking for advice on issues, seeking sources of data, offering up ideas for discussion. I’d get rapid, smart feedback. That sparked threads that led to other questions. (I also met my wife, who was one of the founders of the list.) By today’s standards, it was a very simple tool, but it was very powerful one – a community with both book knowledge and practical knowledge, at my fingertips. So the ability to access and mobilize communities and social networks — whatever the technology —is obviously the most important. Journalists are in the business of assembling and refining knowledge — not just facts, but ideas — and we need allies of all stripes.

Jay Rosen: Fishfolk is a good example of a smart mob. Clearly, it worked for you as a reporter. They’re not “new” but now we have much greater means for putting such a network to work.

John McQuaid. With connectivity anywhere and everywhere, journalists tapping into networks can have eyes on the ground in a lot of places simultaneously. That has all kinds of potential — for assembling a broad picture of what’s going on nationally, for individual tips and stories. During election season, for example, we theoretically could find out what’s happening today, in every congressional district, on some issue. We can have photo or video (remember “macaca”?) of campaign events. We can track political ads and the reaction to them. Political blogs, like Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, are doing some of this already.

Jay Rosen: You said too many projects stop at “something about the FDA.” They don’t go on and try to say something no one has ever said before. What I meant by innovation is that without intending to do this, perhaps, enterprise journalism in the metropolitian press stopped at a certain point in what it could tell us about the world. It exited the explanatory game, letting readers fend for themselves. When we complain about he said, she said journalism we’re complaining about a tired and formulaic version of this exit strategy.

Yet it was always apparent how you “get beyond” that formula. You do he said, she said, we said. Why can’t the press investigate something like “Did the president mislead the country into war?” and come back with an answer? Yes, he did mislead us into war. Or no he didn’t.

Or let’s take a story you know well: Katrina and its lessons. Why shouldn’t I expect my Pulitzer-class newspaper to go in there and tell me, based on its own investigation, its own authority, exactly how much responsibility it says the feds, the state and the locals should get for what happened in 2005? (In percentages, like 40/25/35 percent.) Or take No Child Left Behind. I would sure like to know if it’s succeeding or failing as legislation. If I ask the honchos at my Pulitzer class newspaper why I can’t get answers like that, as against stories about…. what are they going to tell me?

Most likely, they will valorize the missing answers as an act of principled restraint. “We let the readers decide.” “Hey, this is news, not opinion.” “You’re asking us to come to a judgment, and we don’t do that.” And yet they won’t ask whether their authority is diminished by going a certain distance and stopping, whether greater innovations are necessary to maintain public confidence, and a given level of truthtelling. There is nothing newspapers are more proud of than their investigative reporting. But wouldn’t real pride have brought more advances in this art?

John McQuaid: Correct me if I’ve got you wrong, but one good example of the kind of reporting you’re talking about is the team of Donald Bartlett and James Steele. They worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, then Time (where they were forced out due to budget cuts), and recently moved to Vanity Fair. They dig, dig, dig, assembling vast amounts of statistical data, documents, on-the-ground reporting, etc. and it leads them to expose patterns and take a position — typically, a broadly populist one. You don’t get a lot of newspaper series posing, then answering the question, “America: What Went Wrong?” I liked that, even if I didn’t always agree with what they were saying. But as we’ve been discussing, their technique brings research to bear on national issues and makes an argument. And look at their career path — it’s taken them away from newspapers, where it’s impossible to imagine them working now, to newsweekly, to glossy monthly. VF is a great platform, but it’s a shame to think that a handful of high-end magazines — and, of course, books — may be the last refuge for this kind of journalism..

To return to your point, I agree that investigations should be bold, draw conclusions, make judgments. What’s the use of digging otherwise? It can be clarifying, say something new, and it makes interesting reading. That’s what journalism is all about.

But there’s a lot of skittishness in the newspaper industry now because the old “objectivity” model is under assault. There are legions ideologically committed bloggers and commenters ready to slice and dice anything you put out there, especially stuff that has an edge. But there are also individuals and online communities that will take a more considered approach, take your findings and expand upon them, offer feedback. Maybe I’m being naive, but I think it’s all good — if the work is sound and you’re ready and able to defend it.

We could go off on a tangent about whether newspapers and newsmagazines should cast off the objectivity cloak altogether and wear their politics on their sleeves, like the British press – or political bloggers. I’m open to the idea, but still like the American model. Reality is always more complex and surprising than the crimped ideological formulas that define our political debates.

Jay Rosen: Bartlett and Steele are an excellent example, yes. I take it you don’t like my suggestions for Answer Journalism all that much?

John McQuaid: Divvying up the blame up for Katrina is interesting. I like it: Let’s go ahead and play the blame game! I’d say it sounds more like a starting point for the inquiry than the conclusion, though. What if the feds take 45 percent of the blame— or 10, or 80? What does that say, beyond finger-pointing? If it’s 80, why, and what does that mean for the next time something breaks, blows up?

“Did the President Mislead Us Into War?” is on some level too facile, maybe unanswerable (never mind that at this point, it’s also nearly beside the point — whether we were misled or not, we’re now stuck there and have to figure out what to do). It depends on what was going on in the president’s mind, which we’ll never find out. Even if we could, what if the president was sincere, but exaggerated his case? Is that misleading us, or is it just what politicians do all the time — albeit in a far grander scale than we’re used to?

To return to the main idea: If you make a provocative idea your assignment, you’ll be led down an interesting path. Maybe the research leads in a completely different direction than what you thought. But the idea should be to challenge people. In a society where people are raising walls to argument, tuning into media sources they agree with, tuning out those they don’t want to hear, journalism needs to cut across the barriers, not hide.

Jay Rosen: When I say, organs of the press could have tried to answer the question: did the president mislead us into war? what I mean is treat it as an urgent but also an open question, a matter unsettled and in need of calm, clear-headed investigation. Then investigate. Answer the question. Then defend the answer. True, you might discover something else is “the story,” leading in a different direction. I’d argue the nation still deserves an answer to the question.

John McQuaid: I agree. There’s no weightier decision than going to war, and the public traditionally places a lot of trust in the president — and the presidency itself — to make those choices wisely. Now Iraq is a giant mess. It would be great to unravel what went wrong back at the beginning, arrive at some kind of bottom line as to whether that trust was abused. What you describe is more like interpretive history than journalism — though that’s in some ways an arbitrary distinction, another barrier we might want to blow up.

What I worry about is: the issue is still very divisive, so that even a cool, probing account would get chewed up in the public square by those with strong feelings and lots of bandwidth. It may take more time and distance to be able to spark a more serious debate, history rendering a verdict, etc. (Though everything moves so much faster these days, it may be that historical verdicts are now reached in months, not decades.)

Jay Rosen: Your principle of follow the story where it leads is basic. I think you’re right about that. As a reporter, what kind of “distributed social network” or “smart crowd” would be most valuable to you, given the kind of stories you want to tell?

John McQuaid: Depends on the story, right? As I mentioned above, communities of experts are especially valuable. The world is complex, and increasingly run by subcultures of people with very specialized knowledge. In most cases, they’re already wired together – fisheries specialists, scientists and engineers, federal regulators, political operatives. If you make an entree into these groups via listserv, blogging, website, and they’ll work with you in either an organized or ad hoc way, you’re halfway there.

The other half of the equation is volunteers — interested people who are drawn into your work somehow. In the course of their day, maybe have some time to do some digging on their own, providing data, tips, photos, video, ideas, feedback.

How do you put all this stuff together? That’s what we’re trying to find out now. I imagine you post your intentions, the questions you’re trying to answer. You persuade affected and interested communities to contribute. You pursue their leads and your own, post on your progress. At some point you put it all together and unveil the “findings.” Then the discussion takes off, maybe users drive it somewhere else.

But there are a lot of unknowns. Like other open-source projects, the ever-evolving organism of the story may grow in unpredictable ways. How does the transparency issue affect that trajectory? There’s a value in assembling information privately, then unveiling the findings. It’s straightforward. It can pack a big wallop, make news. If you’re doing everything out in the open, that may draw sources to you but scare others away, maybe those you really need. And what if you reach a conclusion that some community you’re working with collectively disagrees with?

Jay Rosen: I addressed some of those items here, but I don’t mean to say that fully answers the questions. Can you recall any stories you have worked, or let’s say run across, where an army of volunteers would have made a big difference?

John McQuaid: Environmental stories are ideal for this type of pursuit. Over the past generation, the desktop computer revolutionized local environmental activism, and Bush administration policies have stimulated it further. There are hundreds, thousands of local environmental organizations routinely accessing state and national databases on pollution, regulations, companies, lawsuits, etc., and many are starved for media attention. (I recently spoke at the meeting of one of them, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.) Debates about growth, sprawl and gridlock have produced a similar explosion of activism — on all sides.

Jay Rosen: I have been telling people that NewAssignment.Net is not trying to equal or duplicate what the established I-teams in professional newsrooms have done, but to report stories that the news media would find impossible or impractical to do. Do you think this is plausible, or should I stop saying it?

John McQuaid: It’s plausible, but I don’t think we know the answer to this yet. Certainly on the kind of short-term story mentioned above, the windows-on-the-world, real-time pulse of the Internet cannot be matched. On something more long-term, the form will be different from what you get in a newspaper, the experiences of reporting and reading or viewing will be different. But will the basic subject matter be different? Sometimes, yes. If your information sources are numerous and widely dispersed, you’ll get a bigger, brighter pallete of raw material to work with. In theory, you’ll be able to more easily identify below-radar trends or connections between things that don’t appear to be connected.

On the other hand, you’ve still got to shine the light in that same cobwebbed closet.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

John McQuaid spent twenty years at the Times-Picayune as a reporter. Path of Destruction is his 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 for Oceans of Trouble, a series on the decline of global fisheries.

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.

Dan Kennedy was there when I explained NewAssignment.Net to the Berkman Center on Internet and Society. (Here’s the mp3 for audio; the webcast for video.) Kennedy writes:

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 14, 2006 8:31 AM