Future of Journalism Natural Disasters

Katrina, Triage & The Cost of Great Journalism


For the second week in a row, the New York Times Magazine
has presented a cover story that is everything that journalism should be.

The story, called “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,is about the choices some doctors and nurses made at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans after the back-up generators failed, the majority of the most able patients had already been rescued, and only the very, very sick were left behind. Days later, when help finally arrived, 45 people were dead, 17 of those patients had lethal doses of morphine and other drugs in their blood streams.

In 2007, a grand jury declined to indict the doctors accused of administering those drugs as a form of mercy killing. The New York Times cover story painstakingly and intelligently revisits the entire issue.

The article’s author is Sheri Fink, a medical doctor and staff reporter at ProPublica, the independent nonprofit investigative journalism organization that began in 2007 and launched in 2008, as the news-business-as-we-know-it was in full collapse.

In more than two years of investigating, Fink obtained previously unavailable records and spoke to dozens of people who were involved in or observed circumstances at Memorial. She paints a complex story that points beyond itself to large array of moral, ethical and legal questions.

It is a work of journalism that is important and will likely be recognized come prize time.

But the New York Times didn’t pay for the reporting and the other costs of the investigation. ProPublica did. (The NYT had to cough up some money, but not the preponderance.)

Neither did the Times pay for last week’s excellent central story on women’s rights. It was rejiggered from an upcoming book.

So, how much does such a story cost to produce? Mother Jones magazine ran its own feature to answer that question:

They estimate $400,000.

For the record, I think that’s an overblown number. (They estimate the NYT fact checking process as costing $10,000 and the NYT lawyers vetting the piece, on top of ProPublica’s lawyers, who also vetted the piece, as costing $20,000 each, respectively. (Surely one $20,000 vetting should have been enough. And, $20,000? Really? I’ve had plenty of stories lawyer vetted since I have often written about crimes, so even the single vetting price tag seems a bit…um… steep. But whatever.)

You can see the rest of the numbers here.

Yet, despite my individual quibbles, the point is correct. Good journalism is expensive.

So this leaves the question that is often asked these days: in this rapidly changing media environment, who is going to pay for the journalism that is so necessary to a healthy democracy?

Part of the answer lies in these stories themselves. They were, after all, reported and written—newspaper collapse, notwithstanding—proving that some great work is finding a way to exist and always will.

But that isn’t the whole of the answer. ProPublica is a comparatively small organization that takes on only a few select issues to investigate

And Nicholas Kristof and his wife are both top-of-the-food-chain Pulitzer winners who were able to afford to write their book in their off hours, which resulted also in the magazine cover story, in part, because they make good salaries and get a goodly amount of expense-accounted travel, all courtesy of the New York Times.

And so what of all the stories that are being ignored? Judging by the compelling tips and pleas about stories that are sent to me alone on a weekly basis…that pile is growing larger every day.


  • “And so what of all the stories that are being ignored? Judging by the compelling tips and pleas about stories that are sent to me alone on a weekly basis…that pile is growing larger every day.”

    Celeste, you have hit the nail on the head. You put in words what has been troubling me for several years. Strike that..”troubling me” is much too polite. I am scared shitless for us as a society and this issue is at the heart of it. And please (this is directed at “you know who”) this is NOT a left-wing vs a right-wing debate. It has nothing to do with it.

    I don’t know the answer, Celeste but I am terrified as to the eventual outcome. ALL freedom loving Americans should share this terror…

  • I don’t have much to say about the future of journalism, but the article itself was fascinating. Talk about difficult decisions. It seems to me like the government should focus on getting the truth at the expense of prosecutions and should make sure there are plans in place for the next disaster. Very tough issues.

  • “It’s a shame that these people died when there were so many more deserving people who stayed behind and lived.”

    Wishing death on others? That’s very un-Christian. Shame on you.

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