Long-Form Stories-Enterprises And Investigative-Still Making Marks

May 15, 2008

 

 By BILL DAWSON

Layoffs and buyouts. Orders for shorter stories. Proliferating blogs. MoJos (that's "mobile journalists" for the uninitiated) hunting for breaking news.

That's not all there is to American newspapering in 2008, of course, but such developments seem to foretell a future for newspaper journalism that's dominated by the quick and the terse. In an ideal world, a greater emphasis on immediacy and concision wouldn't necessarily mean a reduction in newspaper stories and projects that are labor-intensive, long-form, in-depth, explanatory, context-heavy, investigative, or some combination of those qualities – in a word, enterprise.

Even so, no newspaper journalist – or any thinking person who's aware of the current ferment in American newspapers, for that matter – should doubt that such a reduction, if it's not already happening, could well be on the near horizon if current trends continue.

Enterprise work costs money. Sometimes, it's money spent on stories and projects that just don't pan out. Money that could be spent on snippets of streaming video or other website features to lure the eyeballs of potential customers away from YouTube and MySpace and the myriad other manifestations of the New Media that newspapers now compete with for an audience.

Regardless of whether enterprise reporting in newspapers is or is not on the wane, such journalism continues to show up in a variety of forms – in unexpected, as well as predictable, places.

In the Winter 2008 issue of SEJournal, The Beat presented evidence of an apparent upsurge in various kinds of magazine journalism on the environment. This installment focuses solely on investigative and other enterprise journalism with a hard-news edge, produced recently by one traditional magazine and a diverse array of other Old and New Media outlets working the broadjournalistic territory beyond the pages andWeb sites of daily newspapers.

It's no surprise that The New Yorker would be weighing in with a long explanatory piece explaining and weaving together thecomplexities of measuring carbon footprints, setting up carbontrading systems, reducing tropical deforestation, and more in its Feb. 25 issue.

The magazine is synonymous with long-form non-fiction, after all, and some of the most memorable environmental reporting to appear anywhere has been published in its pages over the years by writers such as John McPhee and Elizabeth Kolbert.

The Feb. 25 climate change story, "Big Foot" by Michael Specter, ranges from the British supermarket chain Tesco's project to put carbon labels on all its products, to the floor of the Chicago Climate Exchange, to a discussion of how logging in Brazil and Indonesia might be reduced.

The article features arresting passages such as this one: "Possessing an excessive carbon footprint is rapidly becoming the modern equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter. Because neither the goals nor the acceptable emissions limits are clear, however, morality is often mistaken for science."

It's probably fair to say that a long investigative piece on Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who called manmade global warming a "hoax," would not be expected by most people unfamiliar with it to turn up on a website called The Daily Green: The Consumer's Guide to the Green Revolution.

That assumption would be underscored by a cursory glance at the animated succession of headlines on the site's home page, which recently included "Green Remodeling," "Green and Gorgeous," and "30 Days to Green Your Diet. " But assumptions can be dangerous, as all journalists know. The Daily Green, a product of Hearst DigitalMedia, published a report on Jan. 11 that dug well beneath the surface of the assertion by Inhofe's staff in late December that "over 400 prominent scientists from more than two dozen countries recently voiced significant objections to major aspects of the so-called 'consensus' on man-made global waring."

 Examining the names that accompanied that claim the Daily Green investigation concluded that the ranks of the 400-plus individuals included "economists, amateurs, TV weathermen and industry hacks." Extensive annotated lists of the "prominent scientists" were included in the presentation. The main story was written by Dan Shapley and prominently credited research by Mark V. Johnson of AOL'sPropeller.com.

CNN describes its hour-long program "CNN: Special Investigations Unit" as a "long-form investigative series" that features "CNN's top correspondents delivering in-depth hours on pressing issues currently in the news.

"On Feb. 21, the show had an environmental theme and was hosted by correspondent Miles O'Brien, who presented four stories under the unifying title "Broken Government: Scorched Earth."

The first piece took a sharply critical look at claims made for ethanol. The second dealt with ASARCO's controversial bid to reopen its shuttered copper smelter in El Paso, Texas. The third was about two government programs that separately kill prairie dogs and help the endangered black-footed ferret, which preys on them. The fourth focused on a NASA public affairs officer who was unhappily caught up in the clash between politicallyappointed superiors and NASA climate scientist James Hansen over his statements to the media.

"Reporter Miles O'Brien and I want to give full credit to Mark Bowen, who first told (public affairs officer) Gretchen (Cook-Anderson)'s story in his book Censoring Science, and to Andrew Revkin, The New York Times correspondent who firstreported the political machinations going on at the NASAHeadquarters Public Affairs Office," wrote Kate Tobin, senior producer in the CNN Science & Technology Team, on its SciTech Blog.

Keith Schneider was a national environmental reporter for The New York Times who went on to found the non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute, a "smart growth" organization that includes journalism as a key element in its mix of activities. Now, besides writing as a regular correspondent for the Times, he serves as senior editor and producer for Circle of Blue, self-described as "an international network of journalists, scholars and citizens that connects humanity to the global freshwater crisis."

 On Jan. 21, the non-profit Circle of Blue'sWeb site published "Reign of Sand" – a multimedia report with articles and gallery of stunning photos and video reports – about interrelated problems facing Inner Mongolia that include water shortages, desertification and pollution.

In the lead article, W. Chad Futrell wrote: "Many of the same conditions that produced the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, an environmental calamity and human tragedy that journalist Timothy Egan called the 'worst hard time' in United States history, are being replicated in China with even graver consequences for the land, and for people in and outside China who are directly affected by the sand storms. "

Schneider, who served as senior editor and performed other roles for the project, announced it on his blog with this observation: "As environmental reporting and most other important journalism is gradually pushed out of the newspapers and television reports of America's mainstream news business, it is flourishing in independent news organizations, among them Circle of Blue. " 

An older, independent journalism organization, the non-profit Center for Public Integrity, in February posted an article and podcast atop the home page of itswebsite concerning government research on environmental hazardsintheGreatLakesregion–"GreatLakes Danger Zones?" by investigative journalist Sheila Kaplan. (Personal disclosure: I worked as a seniorwriter for theCenter from2001-03.)

Kaplan's lead: "For more than seven months, the nation's top public health agency has blocked the publication of an exhaustive federal study of environmental hazards in the eight Great Lakes states, reportedly because it contains such potentially 'alarming information' as evidence of elevated infant mortality and cancer rates."

Published along with the article were downloadable excerpts from the report produced by a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the twenty-six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern." Public radio veteran Bill Buzenberg, now executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, handled correspondent duties on the accompanying podcast.

Following disclosure of the study, other news organizations reported that congressional investigators were examining the CDC's withholding of the report and its reassignment of the lead author. 

Beat story urls:

New Yorker article: http://tinyurl.com/32aoum

The Daily Green article: http://tinyurl.com/2g8kh4

CNN story transcript: http://tinyurl.com/2z4gzt

CNN blog: http://tinyurl.com/ysn3gg

Circle of Blue project: http://tinyurl.com/34xvc5

Schneider blog: http://tinyurl.com/33c26t

Center for Public Integrity story: http://tinyurl.com/2x2982

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 isssue