Sunday, January 19, 2014

Preserving journalism as a public good: NYTimes, ProPublica, and

(This post is not just about infographics or visualization. Read at your own risk!)

This morning I had breakfast reading the latest installment of NYT's 'Paying Till It Hurts' series, on the cost of healthcare in the U.S. It's titled 'Patients' Costs Skyrocket; Specialists' Incomes Soar.' As usual, it's a magnificent example of public service journalism of the kind only a well funded and socially conscious media organization can pay for. I really hope that the Times and the author, Elisabeth Rosenthal, will consider putting all these reports together into a book soon. It'd be a precious document to explain to future generations how crazy the healthcare system their forebears had to endure was. I'd say more: It reveals the immorality of transforming what should be a basic human right into a for-profit industry controlled by powerful guilds. But that's not what I'd like to write about.

The Times' piece also got me thinking about something I've repeatedly mulled over in the past: "What if the kind of media organization the Times represents vanishes in the future?" No matter how much you sympathize with independent truth-tellers and small, loose groups of journalists (I do, as I've written in the past,) and no matter how much you believe in the power of open data and open-source tools to analyze them, the fact is still that investigative —public service— journalism is hard, time-consuming, expensive, and likely to make you powerful enemies.

It's true that investigative reporting, which includes data journalism and visualization, can be done by very small teams; just check the Sun-Sentinel's Speeding Cops Pulitzer prize-winning series, which was done by a couple of reporters. Still, those reporters were backed up by a network of other journalists and by the resources of a big organization similar to the ones that the Economist disregarded here. This type of work is becoming somewhat less common nowadays, unfortunately, because it's ROI is either negligible or not immediate —it may help strengthen your brand in the long term, though, something white men wearing expensive suits willingly ignore.

So how do we, as a society, maintain serious journalism? You'll get different answers depending on whom you ask. The authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, for instance, say that public service journalism, as any other public good, should be supported with taxpayers' money. They admit that this isn't palatable for most U.S. citizens, but their argumentation is solid. I'm not as pessimistic as they are about nonprofit journalism, though. ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times, and some tiny operations Dan Kennedy describes in The Wired City are worthy experiments.

New for-profit organizations may have a role in the future, as well. In Spain,, which has a staff of 25 people, is doing some of the best investigative reporting about corruption and social conflict in the country. is a publication created and owned by journalists who used to work for a now gone print paper, P├║blico. It keeps costs under control by paying modest but decent salaries: the lowest is $1,600 a month, and the highest —the managing editor's— is $4,300. They disclose this information regularly. became profitable a year after being launched, and it's investing all of those profits in hiring more journalists.

How do they get their money? There are ads in, but nearly 30% of the budget comes from the 6,300 readers who have become "partners" (subscribers) by paying $80 year (full disclosure: I'm one of them.) Even if all articles in are free, being a subscriber gives you some privileges: You can read some pieces before occasional visitors can and, more interestingly, you get a quarterly print magazine with original content, and some books published by itself. I got mine yesterday, and they are gorgeous. They showcase some pretty good infographics, too. See photos below.

Will the future of professional journalism be online, nonprofit (or barely profitable) and with print being used just for luxury products that only your most ardent followers will get? Who knows. What I do know is that I want to see as much journalism of the caliber of 'Paying Till It Hurts' as possible, no matter who publishes it.