As a former card-carrying member of the Mainstream Media, or the Liberalmediaelite--whatever you want to call it--I've been as dismayed as anybody about its performance in recent years, most notably its near-total lack of skepticism about the buildup to the war in Iraq. But.
A story in the Washington Post today by Dana Priest and Anne Hull is a flawless example of why the mainstream media still plays a vital role, even in the age of the Internet, citizen journalism and blogs. The story is about a returning veteran of that war and his wife, who live in West Virginia, and their travails in trying to get even minimally adequate health care for his severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. (An aside: just in case there's anybody out there who thinks this is a "new" illness suffered mainly by a generation of wimps, I could tell you someday about my daughter's former nanny, now in her mid-80s, who lost her first husband in World War II--not because of combat, but because he lost his mind upon his return and died in somewhat murky circumstances while a patient at an Army hospital. He'd served in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy's Seabees, and drove a bulldozer. Among his duties were digging mass graves. Need I say more?)
Anyway. I will not editorialize here about the disgrace that is our so-called system of health care for military personnel, because lots of people who know more about it will do that. Let's just talk about what it took to present this extremely well-done piece of journalism to the American public--and, most important, to the inside-the-Beltway public. (Are you reading, Mr. President?) That I know something about, having worked at the newspaper in question for seven years, albeit about 11 years ago.
There are two bylines on thisi story, plus that of a photographer, the incredible Michel du Cille. Let's just say that, speaking extremely conservatively, each one of these persons makes, oh, $80,000 a year. Eighty Gs times three is $240,000. Divide that by 52 and you get a weekly salary cost of $4,615 a week.
A story like this is incredibly labor intensive. The reporters would have spent a lot of time just hanging out with the couple in their West Virginia home, observing their lives, learning the cadences of their speech, getting a small peek into the landscape of their marriage. This isn't being nosy; it's making sure that the people you are writing about are, in fact, the real deal--i.e. really disabled by the war and weighed down by its consequences, and not dragging around the baggage of a prior drinking problem, for instance. Not dealing with creditors and worrying about getting their utilities turned off because they are spendthrifts, or have a gambling problem, as opposed to just plain not having enough money to live on because our government is so disgracefully stingy with its veterans. This level of intrusiveness is necessary not just in order to avoid getting misled yourself, but in order to present a true picture of the situation to your readers.
Reporting a story like this also involves talking to neighbors and employers and former employers, perhaps, as well as a few relatives and friends, because you never know who will be the person who will give you that vital slice of insight that helps you see some person or some fact in the story in a new way. It means checking out the Wal-Mart where the wife worked. It means sorting out the meaning of various psychiatric medications, so you can write knowledgeably about what Zoloft is for and why a person might be taking, say, Klonopin. Or Seroquel. And it means becoming familiar enough with some very arcane VA regulations that you can write with authority about what the veteran qualifies for and what he doesn't qualify for, and why.
The photographer has a job to do, too, and the additional problem of being a fly on the wall in a very small house with tons--well, okay, half a ton--of camera equipment while attempting to take photographs that honestly depict the people in question. Which don't look staged, or boring, or simply noninformative, but which are arresting and candid and technically flawless. I wish I could say more about how this is done, but the truth is photography is like magic to me. All I know is a good photographer can vault a so-so story onto the front page; a not-so-good photographer can stink up even the best writing.
Anyway. If I said you could do all that reporting in a month, I'd be lying, but just for argument's sake, let's say it takes a month. And then there's the writing and editing process. Just to be extremely conservative again, we'll say that takes two weeks. (Anybody who has ever worked in a newsroom, and at the Washington Post newsroom in particular, will be guffawing right now.) But let's just say that altogether, you could put this pile of information together in six weeks. Six times $4,615 is $27,690. And we're not even talking about the people in the Post's research department, who probably put in quite a few hours on this, or the cost of the equipment it took to produce all those words and pictures. For simplicity's sake, let's just round things off and say that this was a story that, at the barest minimum of minimums, would take $30,000 to create.
I don't know about you, but I don't know too many people out there in blog-land who have that kind of money just lying around to put into one story. In fact, there are alarmingly few newspapers left these days who would do it. There are, though, a few publishers left in this country who see newspapers as more than just another profit center, who are not dealing with intense shareholder pressure to maximize returns, and who are willing to shell out the big bucks to produce quality journalism. You can count them on the fingers of one hand these days, but Donald Graham is one of them. And no, I'm not letting the Post off the hook here, because it has a great deal to answer for in its coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq. It's a deeply flawed institution. But, as this story shows, it's also still a great one.
The democratization of the media is a great thing and I'm glad I've lived to see it; in the long run, I think it will be a much-needed corrective for the arrogance of the traditional mainstream media and its disconnect from ordinary people. But just as all the local dance studios in the world cannot replace the American Ballet Theater, neither can the resources of the Internet, at least as it is presently configured, replace the role played by giant old-media institutions like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Somehow or the other, they've got to survive, or we are going to be in a kind of trouble that makes our problems now look small.