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The News Frontier

05:45 PM - November 10, 2009

Trash Compactor

The NYT’s “Pacific garbage patch” story: a Spot.us “deliverable” that doesn’t quite deliver

By Megan Garber

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Today’s New York Times features an article about a patch of garbage, estimated to be two times the area of Texas, swirling in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The piece was written by freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw, and the travel expenses for her reporting trip were covered by donations from several hundred people—a crowd-funding model—via Spot.us, a site that facilitates such funding.

The article is the first piece Spot.us has sponsored that has gone on to and into The Paper of Record, and is thus big news—a milestone for a model of news funding that has been the subject of much optimism since Spot.us announced itself, and its Knight Foundation financial assistance, last year. And today’s news-about-news headlines reflect that bigness: “New York Times publishes community-funded journalism,” notes CyberJournalist. “Spot.Us Delivers Crowdfunding to The New York Times,” declares Poynter.

In a Spot.us blog post—entitled “We did it! NYT article out today!”—Hoshaw announces the article as the culmination of her reporting trip, thanking the people who made the financial contributions that enabled her voyage:

After weeks reporting and interviewing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the New York Times article appears online today (Mon Nov. 9) and in print tomorrow! Also view the accompnaying [sic] photo slide show.

This is such an exciting moment since this idea started a year ago when I decided I wanted to write about the garbage patch first hand. I wasn’t sure how I’d pay for the trip or even how I’d get there. Little did I know that hundreds of people would rally to support this pitch.

Thank you to everyone who made this project possible. The video below recaps the trip and sends out a heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported me, Spot.us and my interest in the garbage patch. This story isn’t mine but ours.

Your reporter,

Lindsey Hoshaw

This is a nice sentiment—and certainly in line with the “community” element and ethos that Spot.us stresses. But—a question that seems to have been asked all too infrequently today—what about the substance of the reporting, the content of the Times article in question? Stripping away the context and the back-story…was the journalism any good?

The answer, unfortunately, is: it could have been much, much better. [Addition, 11/11, 7 p.m. (see comments section for more on the addition): And that is particularly so when compared to the personal blog Hoshaw kept during her month at sea—which was compelling and personal and picture-filled and information-packed in a way that the Times piece wasn’t.] Much of the information contained in the Times piece, after all, is already (and readily) available on the Wikipedia page for the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”—only with more detail, more nuance, more context. Particularly since the garbage patch story has already gotten plenty of press coverage—perhaps much more coverage than it merits, given the volume of other stories that are under-covered in an age of shrinking science-news budgets—a $10,000 article funded by hundreds of different people (among them: Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibarguen, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt) needs to do more to justify itself than simply restate what is already known about the garbage patch.

In the summary of her Spot.us pitch, Hoshaw wrote: “I will focus on the human connection to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” And she does—in the broadest sense of the term—emphasizing the general ties between ourselves and the trash patch (we create the trash; this is a human mess; and so on).

What we get less of is the “human connection” in the narrower sense of the term: the compelling little details that tie readers to a story and make it immediate, and emotional, and real to them. Which is not to say that the story is devoid of all detail. We do, after all, get this illustrative description of the trash in question:

Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.

But such put-you-there depictions—the kind of from-her-senses-to-ours reporting that was, ostensibly, the purpose of Hoshaw’s journey—are rare in the piece. Much more common is reporting of the more could-be-done-from-anywhere variety: reporting, in other words, that could have been done over the phone or via email, and that therefore didn’t require participation in a month-long voyage to and through the garbage patch. The piece is heavy on expert testimony of varying strains—contributions from oceanographers and research foundations, etc.—that put the garbage patch in context. Which is, on the one hand, illuminating and helpful (the piece’s stated goal, after all, being to “educate the public about marine debris”), but on the other…disappointing.

“Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash” is less a compelling new take on a widely reported story…and more a dryly summative one. A “newspaper article” in the most caricatured sense. As Times science editor Laura Chang told me in an e-mail, emphasizing that the publication of the story was contingent on whether “the material met our standards”: “Both the article and photos went through our normal editing process. Aside from financing her travel, Spot.Us had nothing to do with the actual editorial content.”

The article, to be fair, does accomplish the basic goals Hoshaw articulated in her pitch to potential Spot.us funders back in July:

How Will This Reporting Help?
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.

Deliverables
Deliverable: Online photo slideshow and an article that is under consideration by the NY Times. I will also provide separate photos, blog posts and a debriefing for the Spot.Us community that will be made available via Creative Commons. Time frame: The reporting will take three weeks (on site); background reporting is ongoing from June-August. Hours: This story will take 150+ hours.

But, then, “deliverables” and “compelling journalism” aren’t instantly compatible; educating people and telling a good story aren’t necessarily the same thing. Though ideally, of course, the two goals are realized in combination—seamlessly—in a particular journalistic narrative, when one has only 900 words to tell a story, choices must be made.

As the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit put it: “This piece is illustration of the ferment in news delivery – a story in a traditional, big paper by a freelancer reliant in part on grants to do the reporting. The article is not particularly long or sweeping. One suspects Hoshaw will be writing more on the expedition.”

The ‘more’ in question comes into play in the Times article’s supplementary components: the slideshow featuring pictures of the trash in the patch—including disintegrated, toxic plastic shards, which “look like confetti in the water”—and, more significantly, the personal blog Hoshaw kept during her month at sea. I followed the blog as Hoshaw updated it in, pretty much, real time—she connected to the Web via satellite phone—and found it at once educational and enthralling. And now that Hoshaw has returned from her trip, the blog offers a new focus on contextualizing her on-the-sea reporting (November 3: “The Garbage Patch Starts Here”). It’s good stuff. It’s what the Spot.us funders paid for. It would have been nice if the Times article—the principal “deliverable” in the Spot.us pitch—had resembled it more.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.

Comments Post a Comment

It might have been nice if the article author could acquaint the audience with the new design techniques that are trying to solve the problem:
video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3058533428492266222
and some of the photography that is trying to contextualize the problem:
www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?id=11
It's not enough to say there's are state size oceans of trash somewhere in the sea, one has to define what that means.
And what that mean is waste we make becomes the waste we eat. It behooves us to try and make that waste edible.

In fact, it's in our self interest, which is what environmentalism is all about in the end.

#1 Posted by Thimbles, CJR on Tue 10 Nov 2009 at 11:29 PM

David Cohn here from Spot.Us.

I appreciate the critique - but I also think it's a bit misplaces.

1. Sorry we didn't win a Pulitzer. How many do you have?

2. You obviously didn't follow or read any of her blog posts along the way. Lindsey sent back numerous photos, blog posts and more while on the ship and since she has gotten back. A lot of the depth and human connection you are looking for are probably there. The NY Times limited the amount of space allocated for her reporting. She probably could have (and wanted to) write a 2,000 long form article. But that was for the Times to determine. But Lindsey did MORE reporting than what was shown on the Times piece. Did you check out the links we published on Spot.Us? Or did you even bother to email me to find out if there was more content?

3. The editorial was handeled by the Times not Spot.Us. We actually aren't responsible for that. So if you are trying to pick a specific Times article and say that it sucked - that's fine. But that itself is also not newsworthy. I'm sure there are 100 or so blog posts like this every day.

Best

#2 Posted by David Cohn, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 04:16 PM

Page Two of your article.

Sorry - I finally got to page two of your article where you do note that Lindsey did some reporting on her blog.

As you note: "It’s good stuff. It’s what the Spot.us funders paid for. It would have been nice if the Times article—the principal “deliverable” in the Spot.us pitch—had resembled it more."

I'm glad that you think Lindsey did deliver. That the Times wanted a more traditional sounding piece was there call. Spot.Us obviously can't force anything on them.

#3 Posted by David Cohn, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 04:20 PM

Final comment: Apologies for all the typos - yeesh. Multi-tasking is a pain in the behind sometimes.

#4 Posted by David Cohn, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 04:23 PM

So your real lead here Id:: NYT butchers solid reporting from Spot.us. Would've been nice to see that in the lead, and not literally buried at the very end of a long piece that implied the Reporter, and Spot.us, didn't do their job. And behind the jump, at that.

And why, exactly, did this story jump at all, when the jump pg contained only a few paragraphs that completely turned the story around? Is CJR that desperate to boost its pageview stats? Or was CJR just being sloppy?

Amy Gahran

#5 Posted by Amy Gahran, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 05:13 PM

Hi, David,

Thanks for writing. The concerns you mention here are, as you note, addressed within the article.

But I wanted to respond to your comments regardless, both because 1). I appreciate that you took the time to respond, and 2). I want to make clear: I didn't say -- nor do I believe -- that the Times article "sucked." I said that "it doesn't quite deliver," that it was "disappointing," and that "it could have been much, much better." And the way I know that the piece could have been better -- and the reason I found it disappointing -- is that, as I said, I followed Lindsey's blog -- eagerly -- during her trip. I know how compelling her reporting and commentary were in that other, more personalized, context. And I know, therefore, what Times readers missed out on yesterday.

One more clarification: I wrote this critique not to pick on Hoshaw -- who deserves admiration for taking on such a project in the first place -- or on the Times or on Spot.Us...but because I think, in our desperation to find business models to support public-interest reporting -- the kind of reporting that Hoshaw pitched, and that the Spot.Us community funded in this instance -- we occasionally prioritize the business model above the journalism. We start to frame the issue as "did the business model work?" rather than "was the journalism the business model supported of high quality?" The framing of the story yesterday was generally "Spot.Us Story Gets to the Times," full-stop. Which is a story, yes, but not a complete one. As important as it is to find the business models that will sustain the kind of reporting Lindsey undertook...we can't forget the journalism. And that journalism has to speak for itself.

#6 Posted by Megan Garber, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 05:26 PM

I agree strongly with Amy's criticism that the tenor of this piece turned dramatically after the unnecessary jump. Whatever the weaknesses of the NYT piece, they pale in comparison to the weaknesses of this CJR piece. This could just as easily be a piece on how lame newspaper journalism is compared to digital journalism. With the exception of scoops, of which the Times has achieved a few, aren't a lot of takeouts in the Times and other newspapers summaries of more extensive work that reporter and others in local media and/or specialty media and blogs have already done?

#7 Posted by Steve Buttry, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 05:41 PM

Applying the same standard to your criticism, Megan, I'd say that this piece is disappointing because it buries the lede (mainstream packaging fails to capture the value of the material provided by community-funded journalist) in favor of a frame that I would summarize as "New idea is really another form of hype."

Yes, you parsed it, but I believe you framed this story as a "Yes, but" debunking reaction to the full-stop milestone news for Spot.Us, and that's a standard journalistic frame. It has its place. But it probably isn't the proper frame given the way you ended the story.

And yes, some of us are probably particularly alert to this trend. Perhaps for good reason.

#8 Posted by Dan Conover, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 06:03 PM

Hi, Amy, Steve, and Dan,

You're right -- the general idea in the back of my mind as I wrote the critique was how much more effective the blog, as a platform, was for conveying this kind of in-depth, over-time, observation-focused reporting than was the newspaper article. I should have made that point more clearly, and higher up in the piece.

But, then, there's the other layer of context here, which is that the Times story was treated -- by Hoshaw, by Spot.us, by many who wrote about it yesterday -- as the culmination of Hoshaw's reporting, and the principal "deliverable" in her pitch. That's what I was responding to in my piece, and why I framed my own story the way I did. You can say, 'Well, the article was nothing compared to her blog' -- and I agree -- but, then, that's a change in story from the "The Article Is Finally Here!" treatment we saw yesterday. It can't go both ways.

And though I know Hoshaw's reporting underwent Times editing -- which is why I included the commentary to that effect from the Times's science editor -- still, the article presented, at the end of the day, has to speak for itself. And that story, if you'll pardon the pun, only skimmed the surface.

ps -- Amy: no cravenness at play in the story's page-breaking, just the vagaries of an automated-and-occasionally-fickle breaking system.

#9 Posted by Megan Garber, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 06:14 PM

I'm not sure you were able to effectively make your point(s). After hundreds of words critiquing details of the published NY Times article, we get a nice conclusion that says "the total story is richer than what was published in the Times", which is followed by your comment about journalism business models and the definition of 'success' when applied to community-funded models.

You might have been more successful (and attracted less negative attention from those of us who helped to fund the story and are curious about the path our 'baby' is taking) if you had led with your main point instead of your disappointment.


#10 Posted by Anca, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 06:26 PM

Megan -- If indeed you didn't mean to impugn the Spot.us reporting, but rather the NYT's handling of the work which ending up diluting its value, then here's an idea: Correct your article. Right now. Visibly. In the story. Right here on this very web page.

Just go into the HTML editor and use the tags to mark as strikethrough text your original lead which misrepresents the story, write a new lead, and add a note (maybe in italics) explaining the change.

Oh, and change the subhead too. Based on what you commented above, "The NYT’s 'Pacific garbage patch' story: a Spot.us 'deliverable' that doesn’t quite deliver" clearly implies that Spot.us is at fault for your "disappointment."

This practice is called transparency. It's supposed to be important, even in traditional journalism. The good news for you is: It's especially easy in online media.

Since you've acknowledged that the way you framed your story misrepresents a key point in a basic and important way, doesn't that obligate you to correct it immediately in a way that's as easily findable and obvious as the original piece? Especially since here you're publishing in a medium that makes exactly that kind of transparent correction easy?

Not doing so sends a message: "Yeah, I admit this piece is significantly messed up, but I'm (a) not willing or skilled enough to fix it, (b) My real point here was to sling mud, so I'd rather let my aspersions remain intact where they'll be most visible, and I'll only fess up to it way down in a comment thread where most people will never read it.

Earlier today, Ethan Zuckerman pointed out (bit.ly/3a3XMi) how another bit of sloppy CRJ publishing (it's been a banner day for CJR, hasn't it?) warranted only a e-mail correction, not actually correcting the published web piece in a transparent way.

He's right. It's a problem of mindset, not of technology. And it can be fixed right this minute. Even if you're working with a typical MSM byzantine outdated rigid CMS that doesn't let you *not* jump a story (which is ridiculous, but plausible), I'd find it hard to believe there's no way for you to get into the HTML, use strikethrough text, and make a transparent correction.

Give it a try. Please.

- Amy Gahran

#11 Posted by Amy Gahran, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 06:35 PM

Hmmm, your commenting system deleted my example of how the HTML strikethrough tags look. So if you're not sure how to use HTML tags, here's a short tutorial explaining how to create strikethrough text in HTML:

bit.ly/1py74O

- Amy Gahran

#12 Posted by Amy Gahran, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 06:52 PM

Megan:
You made a poor choice of a headline and a lede in your piece. I'd say it was not that it sucked, but that it was disappointing. After all, I have followed your writing during your career, so I know this piece could have been so much better than it was.
Of course, I am not going to treat this story as the "culmination" of your writing career, or proof that old school professional journalists are eager to pick apart anything new or different because posing as a cynic implies an authority they lack,
So the fact your journalism failed to speak for itself as a fair and accurate piece of work is not something I will hold against you, because I can see, from your posts in the comments, that whether you meant to attack Spot.us directly or not, now that you're being challenged you'll hurry to qualify every nit you pick.
Oh, and by the way, everything I just said?
I take it all back.
It's just the blog software getting carried away.

#13 Posted by Susan Mernit, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 06:54 PM

Amy,

I'm not going to strike out any part of the piece, or write a new lede. I've explained the reason I framed the story as I did, and I stand behind that. Nor am I going to change the piece's subhead, because the story was a Spot.us deliverable, and it seems that the one thing we all agree on here is that, indeed, the piece "doesn't quite deliver."

But you're right: I should have mentioned Lindsey's blog higher up in the piece, and it's not enough to acknowledge that in the comments section. I've added a sentence into the fourth graf to make that acknowledgement.

A side note: I'm happy to have a discussion about all this, but to do so, I'd appreciate some fairness on your end. I did not "admit this piece is significantly messed up." I did not do a "backflip," as you claim in your Twitter post on the matter. My intent was not to "sling mud." The breaking of pages in longer articles is not a callow ploy for traffic, but rather our standard practice given the type of articles that CJR generally writes. These conversations would be much more productive if we'd at least first give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Megan

#14 Posted by Megan Garber, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 07:11 PM

What Dan Conover said and then some. Knee jerk skeptcism is one of the reasons mainstream reporting, no matter how polished and self-congratulatory, is losing traction -- relevance, credbility, engagement -- with the public. I learned a lot from the garbage patch story, thank you very much. I learned very little new or valuable from your post. Hope your next story is better. I'm sure Spot.Us will continue to improve.

#15 Posted by Michele McLellan, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 07:15 PM

Megan,

See David's comment above. The NYT handled the editing of the content that appeared in the NYT. Did you see the actual content that Spot.us delivered to the NYT, before they edited it? You might want to check into that before you say they "didn't quite deliver." Doesn't seem like you did that here.

Also, your plea for fairness & respect would be far more effective had you not opted to publish a blatant slam job capped with a fig leaf of plausible deniability literally in the very last sentence.

There's a great passage from an Ani DiFranco song that seems appropriate to your tactics here: "We don't say everything that we could / So we can say later "Oh, you misunderstood"

At least when I cast aspersions, I have the guts to state them clearly and not try to weasel out of them.

- Amy Gahran

#16 Posted by Amy Gahran, CJR on Wed 11 Nov 2009 at 07:22 PM

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