Despite the swirling criticisms of “the media” these days, there have been several recent examples of high-quality public service journalistic efforts. They provide good opportunities for a closer look at how this important work gets done.
News flash: It’s not cheap. It involves big investments of people, money, and time.
Here are a couple of case studies.
Trump Tax Returns: NYT Team Effort
On October 1, the New York Times published revelations about Donald Trump’s 1995 tax records that suggested he may not have paid any federal income tax for almost two decades.
The next day, Times reporter Susanne Craig detailed the process of publishing the records, from the day she found them in an anonymous envelope in her mailbox to the publication of the article eight days later.
Four reporters were involved in the effort to authenticate and research the documents, Craig writes. The paper hired tax experts to help the journalists in their work. One of the reporters traveled from New York to Florida to interview a key source. Craig doesn’t even mention the editors and other people who were no doubt involved in the story before it went to press.
This was, quite obviously, an important effort to provide the American public with a key piece of information about a presidential candidate. But it didn’t happen on the cheap.
NPR Real-Time Fact Checking: An Even Bigger Team
NPR is providing real-time fact checking on its website for all of this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates. It’s the first time the news organization has tried something like this, on this scale.
I’ve found the product to be a little clunky, but it’s still an important service during a high-stakes presidential campaign that’s been beset by, let’s say, a particularly high number of prevarications. It’s also been great for NPR’s web traffic – the organization set a record for website visits on the day of the first debate in September.
Nieman Lab recently revealed what went into NPR’s online fact-checking effort for that first debate.
Twenty reporters contributed fact-checks to the real-time debate transcript. Thirty other people – including editors, copyeditors, researchers, and visuals experts – vetted and cleaned up the annotations before and after they went live.
If You Can’t Do It Right, Don’t Do It … Yet
When the New York Times and NPR undertook these projects, they understood the significant investment of people, time, and resources they’d have to make to do them well. They knew they could make those investments without compromising their regular service.
Most of my clients are local news organizations with much, much smaller staffs than NPR or the New York Times … and many of them have ambitions far beyond their size. That’s not a bad thing! I never discourage big thinking. I do, however, discourage acting bigger than you are … and doing things on the cheap.
When newsrooms consider launching new projects or initiatives, I urge them to ask themselves several questions:
- How many people will be required to do this project and do it well?
- What additional resources will you need, besides people?
- If you pull existing resources into this project, what will be the implications for your current service?
- Do you need to stop doing something in order to prioritize this project? Is this project worth that sacrifice?
- If you don’t have the resources for this project now, can you involve your development team in a fundraising effort, so you can do it in the future?
- Can you form a partnership with another organization that might increase your available resources for this project?
For smaller organizations, major undertakings may require a little more planning and budgeting. And there may be some projects that smaller organizations simply can’t do. And that’s ok! It’s all about making the best use of scarce resources to create the very best and most meaningful journalism you can create, either with the resources you have or the resources you can plan to obtain.