Thoughts on Trash Talk

garbage

Photo by Lindsey Hoshaw. Borrowed from Spot.us.

Let’s talk about garbage — namely, freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw’s project on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and no, I’m not calling the project garbage), which culminated with the New York Times’ publication of a story she wrote. The project had been receiving a lot of attention in the journalism sphere primarily because it was funded through Spot.us, an innovative platform for community-funded journalism, and because the NYT agreed to run a story that developed as a result of this platform.

The NYT story ran on Monday, Megan Garber of the Columbia Journalism Review gave it a less-than-stellar review on Tuesday, and then the fun began. Read the extensive comments on Garber’s piece to see how strongly some objected to her criticism, with complaints ranging from “You’re wrong. The piece was fine” to “Don’t blame Spot.us; blame the NYT” to the always-relevant “Well, your piece sucks much more than the NYT piece”.

UPDATE (11/13): Hosham has written a classy post reacting to good and negative feedback on her project.

Before I delve into my thoughts on the subject, the requisite disclaimer: My critique of the garbage patch project is exactly that — a critique of THIS particular project, not of Spot.us. I think Spot.us is an intriguing platform with potential and wish it the best of luck. And oh yes, the usual “I’m cool; I’m with it; I love new media” bit so as to avoid having rocks or, worse, accusations of curmudgeonry hurled at me by zealots who take any criticism of anything produced by new media as condemnation of the entire concept and their personal way of life. But then again, you are not one of those people. Right?

My Thoughts on the Project

It’s important to note — and Garber does in her critique of the piece — that the NYT story is only part of the project funded through Spot.us. The promised deliverables on the Spot.us pitch for the project also include an online slideshow and a blog. So when evaluating the success of the project, one must take into account all three components. So, let’s do that.

The Slideshow

The pictures in the slideshow were fantastic, plain and simple. Not much else I can say on that.

The Blog

Garber says in her critique that Hoshaw’s blog was a much better read than her NYT piece, and I agree. Her posts generally left me wanting more and really did a good job of taking you there. However, since we are evaluating the journalistic merit of the project, I do think it’s important to make this next point: For me at least, the blog was a riveting read as a travel blog, but not as a work of journalism about the human connection to the garbage patch. The captivating aspects of the blog posts were the “Here’s what we did today” stuff. If we are to look at the journalism being done in the blog, I would rate it as mediocre at best. Nothing there really digs far beneath the surface or goes beyond just telling us what she experienced that day.

Some examples:

  • At the beginning of the journey, we get a quick introduction to the crew of the ship Hoshaw was on, but overall, we learn very little about the ship and her crew beyond cursory descriptions of their activities on particular days. As a reader following the journey, some basic questions go unanswered: What kind of ship is this (from the posts, you can determine that it’s a research vessel, but we never get any kind of backstory)? Who are these people (beyond their names and titles)? How did they come to be on board this ship? What’s their story? How did the reporter come to be on this ship? Answering those questions would be a basic step in setting the stage for the narrative. Hoshaw has a couple of Q&A posts in which she answers questions from readers, and it’s in those posts that we find more journalism and less travel diary. It’d be nice to have gotten more of those answers without needing questions from the readers.
  • During one stage of the journey, Hoshaw writes that the ship is slated to meet up with some “mystery guests“, piquing our curiosity. When ocean conditions made a face-to-face rendezvous impossible, she writes:

So who were these mystery people? Rumors were floating that maybe the Honolulu mayor was on board or even Jack Johnson since he’s friends with filmographer Mike Prickett who helped organize the trip. But we may never know.

Here’s the problem with that: She had the name of the person who organized the meeting and the name of the film company he runs. A journalist would follow up on those leads. A simple phone call to the guy could have solved the mystery. Yes, it may not have been possible to do right then and there in the middle of the ocean, but she could’ve followed up after she got back. Instead, we’re left with “we may never know”, which begs the question: Did you try to find out?

  • In another post, Hoshaw relates the experience of catching a fish, finding debris in its stomach, and then eating it for dinner. When she expressed misgivings about eating a fish with trash in its gut, the crew quickly assured her it’s ok:

Bill and Moore were quick to reassure me that this fish is no more toxic than other fish I’m likely to eat. Are farmed fish any better seeing as they’re pumped full of antibiotics and kept in close quarters with hundreds of their brethren? Are other wild fish better even though they may also contain mercury or dioxins?

For me, that passage would set off all sorts of sirens and alarms to dig deeper. She posed those questions rhetorically, but as a reader, I would like an answer to them. And how about some background information about data on toxins in fish to put some of those claims into context? That incident is a great catalyst for more in-depth reporting about toxins in fish, but we are left with just the incident, not the follow-up.

All in all, the blog did a great job chronicling Hoshaw’s experiences on the expedition, but from the standpoint of reporting about the human connection to the garbage patch — how this floating debris affect us —  it went barely an inch deep. I explain in this comment below why I feel this is a problem (starting with the third paragraph of the comment).

The NYT Story

To put it bluntly, the piece that ran in the New York Times is pedestrian by most newspapers’ standards, much less the NYT’s. The piece tries to tackle too many aspects of the story within a limited amount of space (it came in just under 900 words). As Garber says in her critique, it reads like it could’ve been written from anywhere. It jumps from a general overview of the garbage patch to its history to a few paragraphs about the researchers on the boat to something about how celebrities are using the patch to promote their causes. None of the topics get much in-depth attention.

If this piece was intended to be an overview, then one must ask, “What’s the point?” As Garber pointed out in her critique, there has already been a good amount of reporting done on the garbage patch, and a lot of information is already available on Wikipedia. In fact, the NYT piece reads a bit like a Wikipedia article, with a few quotes added for a “human” touch and a few sentences thrown in for transition.

Some commentors on Garber’s critique have said that it’s the NYT’s fault for trying to force Hoshaw’s reporting into a format that may not have been friendly for her content. There may be some merit to that, but since I have no insight into the behind-the-scene workings between the NYT editors and Hoshaw and how the piece developed, I won’t comment on that. I will just say this: Good journalists and good writers adapt to whatever format they have to work in. Is reporting via blog posts different from reporting via a 1,000-word narrative in print? Of course! But when you know that you have to work within particular confines, you must adjust how you write to get the most out of it. So when given a 900-word limit, maybe instead of trying to address everything, Hoshaw could have picked one particular topic and drilled deep into it, producing a piece that would add much more unique value rather than becoming another generic overview story.

Update (11/19): In her post about the reactions to the project, Hoshaw wrote this about her NYT story:

I wrote what I believed the Times wanted though they never specified the type of article they expected.

The Project as a Whole

I’ll evaluate this project based on how well it met the goals it set out to accomplish in the original Spot.us pitch. First, the deliverables. I would say the project met this goal since it produced what it said it would: a blog, a slideshow, and an NYT story.

Now, let’s take a look at another part of the pitch, one that goes beyond just line items on a proposal and gets at what the journalist was hoping to accomplish:

I will focus on the human connection to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a vast accumulation of floating garbage located within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. This swirling current keeps marine debris, mainly plastic, floating together in what amounts to an enormous maritime landfill.

Though the media has covered how plastic is affecting marine life—that animals are strangled by soda rings and that fish and birds die with bellies full of indigestible plastic trash—reporters haven’t focused on the garbage/human connection. This is because no one knows how this trash is affecting us—until now.

On this front, I feel like the project fell short. After reading the blog, viewing the slideshow, and reading the NYT story, I really don’t have a better idea of the human connection to the garbage patch aside from what I already know — garbage breaks down in water, toxin gets in water, fish is in water, fish ingests toxins, humans eat fish, toxins get into humans, bad. Looking at the pitch, I would’ve been expecting much more on how the garbage came to be in the ocean, how long it would stay in the water, and much much more information on how serious a problem this is for human health.

Then, let’s look at the “How Will This Reporting Help?” section of the pitch:

This report will educate the public about marine debris. It will bring new light to ocean pollution and provide one of the first reports about how toxic chemical are entering our food chain. Many scientists believe that ocean pollution will be one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, this slideshow will be one of the first to show direct footage from the Garbage Patch.

Frankly, I don’t think it shed any new light on the issue. It treads on where many other reports had treaded before, albeit with nice pictures and a good first-person view of the garbage. I really didn’t learn how toxic chemicals are entering our food chain except the most basic idea of garbage breaking down and getting in via fish. Really, all we learned from the project on that front was: “Today we caught some fish. We cut them open and found garbage in them. Scientists think this toxin could filter into fish tissue and on through the food chain, but the crew tells me the fish is as safe to eat as any other seafood.”

So all in all, here’s my take on the project: It produced the deliverables it promised, but it didn’t meet the goals it laid out. It showed me marine debris, but didn’t educate me much. It touches on the issue of toxic chemicals entering the food chain, but doesn’t dig deep into it. On a side note, all the buzz about the project did make me look up “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” on Wikipedia, so I did learn more about the patch.

In the end, what we ended up with here was a terrific travel blog with a dash of journalism about the garbage’s effect on humans thrown in. If that’s what the donors on Spot.us thought their $10,000 were going toward, then great (and I’ll scramble over there right now and put up a pitch to fund my next trip to China). However, I think most of them were expecting more journalistic bang for their buck.

I would suggest that maybe Spot.us should explore requiring more detailed deliverables than just “a blog and a slideshow”. From my experience with working with vendors and proposals listing deliverables, you must be specific. Saying “I’ll produce blog posts from the trip” is akin to a Web design firm handing me a proposal that just says “We’ll make you a Web site.” Having more specific deliverables will help both the donors get a return closer to what they were expecting to get when they ponied up the cash and help steer the journalists toward accomplishing the goals they laid out in their pitches and not veer off in other directions where they might produce something good, but it’s not what they were promising.

Thoughts on the CJR Critique and the Critiques of the Critique

For the most part, I think Garber’s criticism of the NYT piece is spot on, and I give her credit for standing her ground in the face of a lot of backlash. However, I will say that the subhead on the critique — “The NYT’s “Pacific garbage patch” story: a Spot.us “deliverable” that doesn’t quite deliver” — does sound like it’s criticizing Spot.us for the quality of the article, even though Garber maintains she is not criticizing Spot.us. Now, as far as whether that subhead is the main cause of the critics’ ire, well, even if that’s the case, good luck getting them to cop up to it. My personal feeling is that some of this backlash is probably an overreaction stemming from over-sensitivity toward any criticism of Spot.us, one of the bright stars in the search for new models of journalism.

The exchange between David Cohn, the founder of Spot.us, and Garber on the comment thread is worth reading, especially the distinction Cohn tries to make that Spot.us is a platform, not a news organization (it’s a way to fund journalism, not an organization responsible for producing it). While I definitely see Cohn’s point (and have tried to stay away from implying the project was produced by Spot.us throughout this post), I do have to ask this: If the NYT piece had been a sterling example of journalism and drew all-around rave reviews, would the “This isn’t Spot.us editorial” trumpet be blown as loudly as it has been on the comment thread on Garber’s critique? Or would it be, “Congrats to Spot.us for the prize-winning piece”? I’m thinking the latter. If you don’t want to be blamed for a mediocre piece, then please be sure to disavow credit for a great piece as well.

One Additional Thought

Perhaps the problem here is that the donors funded the wrong thing to reach the goal. Instead of a trip to the garbage patch, perhaps what they really should have been funding was an investigation into the human connection with the patch. By that I mean perhaps chronicling the expedition isn’t the best, or primary, vehicle for reporting on this issue. Maybe instead of paying for someone to go take pictures of the patch, that $10,000 should go to paying for a reporter to sit in a room somewhere, sift through reams of research data on the subject, visit fisheries, interview scientists, doctors, policy makers … It’s not as exciting as a trip to the garbage patch and certainly lacks that “once-in-a-lifetime” appeal, but it may be the better route toward actually getting good journalism on the subject.

OK, Two Additional Thoughts (Update, 11/13)

In my discussion with Spot.us founder David Cohn in the comment thread below, I said that the degree to which the project focused (or did not focus) on the human connection — a key point in the original pitch — is not a matter of opinion but rather something quantifiable. So, I quantified it.

I went through the NYT story and all the blog posts from the first one on the trip to the one marking the end of the trip, highlighted the passages that dealt with the human connection — or as the pitch said, “how this trash is affecting us” — and compared the word count for those passages to the overall word count for everything written from this project. Here’s what I found: In the NYT article, 109 out of the 886 words (12.3 percent) dealt with the human connection. In the blog posts, that count was 463 out of 10,340 words (4.5 percent). Combined, 572 out of 11,226 words (5.1 percent) in the written deliverables for this project deal with what was supposed to be the focus of the project. If you want, you can see the passages I counted as dealing with the human connection in the NYT article and the blog (highlighted).

If you want those numbers visualized (click to zoom in):

blog_chartnyt_chart

combined_chart

Umm … Make That Three Additional Thoughts (Update, 11/13)

Another angle to consider on this project: The more I think about it, the more I can’t help but think how much this project ended up resembling something an old-media company would do in terms of how it produced the content: We want a story about X. Others have written about it or are writing about it, but let’s send our reporter out to X to send back reports and pictures.

In the new world of collaborative journalism, it seems like the better route to go about procuring the deliverables in this project might be something like this:

  • Seek out research teams that are already planning to go to the garbage patch, get some of their members to blog about the journey and send back photos. For instance, the SEAPLEX expedition (whose chief scientist, Miriam Goldstein, has comments in the thread below and a blog post discussing the science in the NYT piece), has photos and videos from its August expedition to the patch. I’m sure there are others doing similar things. Partner with them to get that first-person-perspective content. I would guess the cost for doing that would be considerably less than sending someone out there.
  • Link to previous media coverage of the patch rather than have your journalist write the same overview story. Get scientists studying the issue to weigh in via blogs and other online discussions.
  • Spot.us would raise money to fund a journalist to examine the research data about the patch, interview people, and pull together an explainer that can either be a comprehensive overview that goes beyond what the previous media coverage has done or specifically focuses on a single aspect, such as the patch’s effect on humans, and goes deep into it. The journalist’s responsibility could also include arranging the partnerships and finding and curating the existing content mentioned in the previous two points. The bottom line is: The journalist would be paid to produce content that does not yet exist and cannot be produced without significant time and money, rather than to duplicate content that already exists or can be had for free or significantly lower cost than sending the reporter on an expedition.
Bookmark the permalink.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. There is so much misinformation on this topic (as a researcher in this area, I spend far too much of my time arguing with people who should be allies), and it desperately needs a serious investigative treatment. I was hoping Hoshaw would be that person, but I was very disappointed in both the blog and the NYT article. Hoshaw's blog did not add any more depth than past AMRF blogs, and the NYT article presented inaccurate and speculative talking points as facts. I hope that Hoshaw will use her experience to continue this work in a more serious and objective way.

    • Hi Miriam. Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that the issue needs a serious investigative treatment, and that's why I think maybe funding a trip to the garbage patch is the wrong approach to getting that, since it invariably places the focus of the reporting on the trip. Ideally, the trip should just be a minor part of the report, used to inject first-person perspective and complement the reporting about the science with something tangible.

      • You know, (here's where I take off my science hat & put on my regular-commenter-possibly-talking-out-of-my-hinie hat) maybe going to the garbage patch IS the problem. Hoshaw was essentially an embedded reporter, and it's really hard to spend a month on a small boat with people and then criticize them. Algalita Marine Research Foundation does great work, but many ocean scientists (including myself) do not think some of their claims about the environmental impact of the trash are supported by current data.

        I wonder if a reporter who didn't go out there would have been more critical? I did find it extremely puzzling that Hoshaw didn't talk to any non-AMRF scientists.

        • I think the problem isn't so much that the reporter went on the trip, but rather that the trip was all she did before producing the bulk of her deliverables. If she wanted to really dig into the human connection with the garbage patch, the time she spent on the boat should've been merely the beginning of the process, not the bulk of it. I don't want to speculate too much here, but I think this might be a case of the reporter thinking, "I want to report on the garbage in the ocean, and this trip will be a great opportunity to do that," but then falling into the trap of reporting more about the trip than the topic that was the impetus for taking the trip. The three weeks on the boat should be just a small fraction of the time spent on reporting on this topic. But of course, the trip IS the sexy item that likely brought in the funding. If she had posted a pitch saying she intends to mainly sift through data and talk to scientists, I'm not sure if it would've brought in anywhere near as much money.

  2. I've been moaning about this project for quite some time. I'm not a fully-fledged ocean scientist like Miriam, but I have worked on ocean modelling, and I know enough about the Pacific to know that a lot of the claims being made about the garbage patch are, well, garbage.

    I would bang on here, but It needs an article and graphs, so I'm going to get a post up on layscience.net tonight, and I'll post a link here when I'm done if you or your readers are interested….

  3. John
    I feel like I am starting all comments with the following apology: I am running around all day today and not able to give the appropriate time/attention to this comment.

    But to start: The only thing that bugs me about the comments in all of this is the idea that I or spot.us has thin skin. I think it's totally fine to be taken to town. I also think it's fine for us to take those who take us to town…. to town ;)

    I also think it's possible for that to fly both ways without any venom flying around. I know in my first comment on CJR I was a bit hasty – but I have tried to apologize for that as well…. as I started this comment off: I feel like all I've been doing the ast 24 hours is running around.

    So I'll try and circle back to this post more later.

    Until then: Be well. Also – I did respond to the "if this had been a sterling piece of journalism would spot.us take credit for it." in the CJR thread. Basically it goes like this.

    No. We wouldn't take credit for it.

    Would we hold up the person who did an award winning piece of journalism who used our platform: Of course. They used our platform.

    Would we disown a person who didn't do award winning work no. We wouldn't disown them. I'm sure we wouldn't be able to hold them up in the air and cheer and if that's what we are doing with Lindsey and it turns out the work isn't that good. Fine.

    But – lots of other folks do think it's good.

    You can't please everyone and it's especially hard to please journalists when they are critiquing journalism.

    As for me: I just want to stay focused on what we need to do. Improve the platform so that more folks like Lindsey can do their work.

    Final thought and I think this is key (really running out the door).

    Just as the critique of Megan's piece was that it judged the NY Times piece in a vacuum and ignored the blog (until people pointed that out) – it might be too early to judge Lindsey's work on this. Gratned: Spot.Us is done funding her trip (obviously) she is now out pitching more and doing more. She actually wants to do an infographic, she wants to do follow up reporting, etc etc. If anything – perhaps we enabled the start of a career… if that is the case. There might be no way to measure the good that was done by this project.

    Best

    • David, thanks for stopping by. First of all, no apologies necessary. Building the future of journalism is hard work :-)

      To clarify, when I talked about some of the backlash being oversensitivity to criticism of anything new media, I did not mean to include you in that (even if your comments on the CJR piece did come off as defensive at times), since I've seen you talk candidly in the past about things you feel Spot.us needs to do better, including better quality. The comments on the CJR piece that spurred my remark about oversensitivity were the ones by others who resorted to tactics such as trying to turn the issue into an MSM/old media vs. new media thing. Of course I can't prove that those are results of thin-skinness, but when you see those symptoms repeatedly in many other different venues, you at least begin to suspect.

      As for the credit/blame issue, as much as I want to believe Spot.us won't take credit for award-winning work, I think Chris Anderson's comment (which I didn't see until after I wrote this post) is still valid: You may not proactively claim credit for producing the work, but surely you will hold it up as examples of good work enabled by your platform — in short, as good PR for Spot.us. When a Spot.us piece receives such positive attention, every time that piece is mentioned on your site or by others as an accomplishment by Spot.us, will you be voluntarily adding, "Remember, Spot.us is only the platform that funded it and had nothing to do with the quality of the content", as you did in the comments on the CJR thread? If you will, then I'll apologize for having doubts. And I sincerely hope you get the chance to prove it.

  4. (part 2 of my reply)
    As for the quality of this project, yes, you're right that it can be hard to please journalists critiquing journalism. However, in part b/c I recognize the subjective nature of "good journalism", in my overall evaluation of the project, I tried to look at it from the standpoint of how does the end product match up with the goals laid out in the pitch, which I think is a less subjective standard than just "Is it good journalism?" and also is more fair since it's judging the project on its own promises, on grounds of its own choosing.

    My feeling on that front is that, as a donor (and a paying customer in what is essentially a financial transaction), one would feel like they didn't get what was promised in the proposal, not in the sense that they were promised good journalism and this wasn't good enough, but in the sense that the end product didn't do the things the proposal said it'll do. To draw a parallel, this isn't someone telling me, "I'll design a web site for you" and then me being unhappy with the quality of their work. Rather, this is like someone telling me they'll create a database-driven site with a CMS but then delivering a site that's all static HTML. The delivered product may be great, but it's not what I thought I was paying for.

    The pitch for this project specifically said it'll focus on the human connection, but there's relatively little about that in the blog or the NYT story. And this is something that's quantifiable, not a matter of opinion. In my view, that is a problem because the human connection focus was pitched as the unique value this project would deliver — something that distinguished it from previous coverage of the patch and a reason why it's worth funding even though there were already many other garbage patch stories. Yet the end result is something that's far closer to what had been done previously in terms of how much (or little) it deals with the human connection. If I thought that was done intentionally (which I don't), I would be calling this a bait-and-switch.

    To me, a more appropriate pitch for what ended up being produced would be: A first-person travel blog chronicling an expedition to the garbage patch, a slideshow, and an NYT story giving a general overview about the patch. Such a proposal offers something with much less unique value than the human connection angle — in essence, it's proposing a travel blog on top of rehashed existing information. If she got $6k to fund that proposal, I'd give her a pad on the back and say "Good job!" and have no issues with this. Or maybe I'm wrong here and most of the 116 people who helped fund this project were expecting pretty much what they got. If I see donor feedback data that demonstrates that, then I'll also be ok with it.

    And yes, I recognize that her reporting on this may not be over, and that's great. As I said in one of my comments above, I hope she'll keep digging. However, as you yourself said, Spot.us is done funding her trip. If the delivery of all the proposed deliverables and the conclusion of funding cannot be used as a point at which to evaluate a project, then how would you ever be able to actually measure the effectiveness of your platform? As a former journalist myself, I'm no stranger to the concept of something possessing unquantifiable value, but I think we both also know that you do need something more concrete than that in performance evaluation. Besides, along that same vein, if the piece had drawn rave reviews, can we not say, "Well, let's wait 10 years and see if any of the stuff she reported is proven incorrect and then judge the project's merit"?

    Thanks again for the discussion. If you have more thoughts to share on this later once you've had a chance to catch your breath, I'm here with open ears and open mind. And keep up the good work.

    • Since I said in my comment above that "The pitch for this project specifically said it'll focus on the human connection, but there's relatively little about that in the blog or the NYT story. And this is something that's quantifiable, not a matter of opinion", I did just that, quantify how much of the project was about the human connection. See my update at the end of the post.

      • John
        There is a lot in here – and alas it is 3:30am and I am flying out tomorrow from NY (ie: I'm apologizing once again for being semi-brain dead).

        To the first comment:

        "When a Spot.us piece receives such positive attention, every time that piece is mentioned on your site or by others as an accomplishment by Spot.us, will you be voluntarily adding, "Remember, Spot.us is only the platform that funded it and had nothing to do with the quality of the content", as you did in the comments on the CJR thread? If you will, then I'll apologize for having doubts. And I sincerely hope you get the chance to prove it."

        Actually: The NYT piece received lots of positive attention as well and our response is the same. We didn't use that exact quote "Spot.Us is only the platform etc etc etc" – but it is very clearly written at the bottom of the NYT piece: "Travel expenses were paid in part by readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit Web project that supports freelance journalists." — that is the credit Spot.Us deserves and that is the credit we got. We funded the trip. We never claimed more. So all the folks that did like it – we deserve positive attention for making it happen, yes. But Lindsey and the Times deserve credit for anything about the editorial that people appreciated blog, photos, etc.

        As for the journalism – I think you lay out a lot of good points. I wonder however if any of this discussion about the quality of the reporting would have come up had this been a traditional freelance or staff Times article. Probably not.

        That the piece has been held under a microscope because of how transparent the process has been from start to finish is very interesting. I think there is this assumption that somehow a journalist is to create a definitive piece on a subject. That there is going to be a "tada" moment and the world will know some objective truth.

        That isn't how the world works. That isn't how journalism works.

        Journalism is a process and all the critiques are just adding to that process. So the more we talk about this – the more valuable those original donations actually become. Discussion about topics is healthy. That is how communities get informed. Lindsey championed this topic and as a result that many more people are talking, debating, questioning, etc. That actually pushes the story forward more than any single article ever could IMHO because the more people engaged – the more actual change happens.

        Not sure if that is making 100% sense right now in my semi-sleep state: But a fundamental theory of my journalism career is that "journalism is a process, not a product." That has been the tagline to my personal blog for…. maybe 2-3 years now. Some of the truth of that has come out in all of this, at least for me….. Even if Spot.Us' funding of Lindsey's trip is done – the discussion and hopefully her future career will result. Should Spot.Us take credit for the quality of the discussion or the quality of Lindsey's future career? Of course not: But we were platform from which all this could jump. For that – I consider it a HUGE success.

        • Hi David. Thanks for checking in again despite you busy schedule.

          — On the credit/blame issue, I still feel like Spot.us passively not taking credit for the quality (as in the "Travel expenses were paid by … " credit line on the NYT story) is not the same as Spot.us proactively denying credit for quality when others heap praise on Spot.us for a good piece, and therefore not on the same level as proactively denying blame for the quality. However, I'm content to leave this argument behind. That was always only a minor point for me anyway.

          — I do, however, have issue with the assertion that the quality of the piece won't have been held under a microscope as much had it been a traditional freelance or staff NYT article. Has the piece received more scrutiny than your typical NYT article? Yes, because it was high profile, just as any article that has a lot of buzz and anticipating surrounding it, for whatever reason, invariably receives more attention. Was the piece held to a higher standard than your typical NYT piece? I can't speak for others, but for myself, that answer is no. Everything I've written on here, I would've written regardless of who wrote it or how it was funded. The standards by which I judge a work of journalism did not shoot up because of those factors. I did not hold Lindsey to a higher standard than I would an NYT staff writer or traditionally funded freelancer. As for the transparency of the project adding to the scrutiny, I would say it added to the scrutiny in that we knew how much money was spent on it, putting the cost-benefit of the project in context. It has nothing to do with the fact that it was a non-traditionally funded piece. If the NYT had sent its own staff writer to produce the same deliverables and told us that so-and-so spent $10k and 3 weeks on a boat reporting on the patch, with the focus supposedly being the human connection, I would have the exact same critique.

          — You wrote, "I think there is this assumption that somehow a journalist is to create a definitive piece on a subject. That there is going to be a "tada" moment and the world will know some objective truth." But I wasn't expecting a definitive piece. I wasn't expecting her to provide a "tada" moment, because I agree with you that journalism is a process. I judged this project based on whether it furthered that process. I asked only, "Did it add something new to the discussion?" But so far, the process of her reporting has only basically caught us up to where we already were in the discussion. The NYT story is basically the same overview that has already been written before. The slideshow is nice, but as I pointed out in my updates, we already have pictures from the patch, so how much would a few more, however beautiful, add to the discussion and our understanding of the patch? The blog is a good read, and you can argue that it added a first-person perspective to the discussion. But if that first-person, travel-blog-type perspective was all that your project was going to add to the discussion, it would seem like there are considerably less expensive ways to go about getting that (like getting a research expedition to blog about their experiences, as I said in one of my updates), and use the $10,000 for her to produce something that cannot be as easily had (like finding out more details about the human connection).

          I understand your point about the future impact the funding for this project may have, and if Lindsey goes on to do more great reporting about the patch, then yes, Spot.us absolutely deserves some of the credit for enabling a project at the beginning of that process. However, the possibility of more future returns should not prevent one from evaluating the process so far. And so far, I would say the process has not YET yielded enough return to justify the financial investment. If Lindsey produces more and better path-related reporting in the coming months, that assessment will obviously change. Also, consider this point: If the money had gone to pay for Lindsey to investigate the science behind the patch rather than to fund her trip to the patch, will that preclude her from doing more future reporting about the patch? I would say not. And if that's the case, then you could have gotten more out of your process so far and still have the same potential for future benefits.

  5. I've blogged about this, and some of the stats/science involved here: http://www.layscience.net/node/767 . It's a bit scrappy as I've not had much time, but hope it's informative.

  6. Pingback: ScienceOnline2010 – introducing the participants [A Blog Around The Clock] « Technology Blogs

  7. Pingback: ScienceOnline2010 – introducing the participants « Science in the Triangle

Comments are closed