A watchdog reporter gives up on newspapers – but sees a future on the Internet
COMMENTARY | December 04, 2006
John McQuaid, formerly of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is betting that open-sourced journalism will breathe new life into investigative and explanatory journalism.
Over the course of more than two decades at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, John McQuaid established himself as one of the nation’s finest watchdog reporters. In 1997, he and co-author Mark Schleifstein won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for Oceans of Trouble, an important series on the decline of global fisheries. He and Schleifstein also co-wrote Washing Away, the 2002 series for the Times-Picayune on hurricane preparations that presciently predicted the Katrina disaster.
So it’s a big deal when someone like McQuaid feels he needs to leave his job in traditional journalism to keep practicing his craft.
In August, McQuaid and Schleifstein published Path of Destruction, a book about what Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf and why.
But McQuaid is also turning to the Internet, with the ambition to find a new way to do investigative and explanatory journalism via the Web. That led him to NewAssignment.Net, New York University journalism professor and Pressthink blogger Jay Rosen’s bold new experiment in open-source reporting. McQuaid has signed up as a contributing editor.
Following is an abrdiged version of a Q&A that appeared on Pressthink in two parts: One and two.
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.
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.
At some point before the storm, I had begun searching for another newspaper job. But this quickly proved absurd. Several of 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: 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).
Jay Rosen: “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: 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: 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.