Helpless to stop their print world from being pulped, newspapers are blowing a golden opportunity to use the Web to recapture relevance and audience. The occasion is a story that affects every man, woman and child in America – health care and how to universalize quality without busting the entire U.S. economy.
News about health-care reform is, obviously, all over the media, including newspaper websites, 24/7, but too much of it has a Washington dateline when, in fact, the issue is basically local. People seek care where they live, not on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue NW or on K Street NW in Washington. Most of the $2.2 trillion-plus in health spending is rung up within mostly compact triangles of doctor offices, hospitals and outpatient centers in thousands of communities.
In June and July, when Congress was grappling with five reform bills at the committee level, attention had to be on what was happening in Washington. But with Congress going on summer recess, the focus is shiftingto kitchen tables and town halls all over America.
Newspapers, with their still formidable local resources, should own this story as the locus shifts to their backyards. At a time when 63 percent of Americans say the overall health care issue is “hard to understand,” newspapers could make their websites the authoritative place for people to go for the A-B-C’s – how they would be affected personally, not as part of a statistical mashup that may or may not be accurate. Newspaper sites could become not only locally tailored information centers, but also help influence how reform will be shaped when Congress returns from recess. After all, Congress is made up of lawmakers who depend on votes from people who live in thousands of communities, all of which are covered – at least in theory – by local newspaper websites. But papers aren’t planting their flag in their own territory.
Yes, newspaper sites do features about local individuals and families that can’t get care they need because they’re not insured or are under-insured, or who have gone bankrupt because of catastrophic illnesses. But these publish-and-run stories amount to scattered, quickly fading pixels that don’t let users see the whole picture.
To cover a story that has such major and pervasive effect on every household, and which will be around for months, if not years, to come, newspaper sites should have a strategically developed, attractively designed and well-promoted special section on health care – and the emphasis should be local, local and again local.
Every newspaper site, no matter how modest, could be health care central for its community. A starting point could be comparing the cost of care at local hospitals. There is a wealth of published local data that newspapers could access free. One major source is the Health Care Intensity Index, produced by the Dartmouth (University) Atlas of Health Care, which compares Medicare-related costs – 22 percent of all health-care costs – among local hospitals and against the national median.
The Dartmouth Atlas offers Excel versions of its data, which means a newspaper site editor can, with just a few minutes’ work, show how local hospitals’ costs compare with other hospitals’. Here’s a chart I quickly produced comparing a selection of hospitals in Houston – which is in the high-cost range nationally – with the low-cost Mayo Clinic’s St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, MN:
The obvious question is why does the Mayo Clinic – whose health-care quality is rated among the highest in the country – spend far less per patient than most hospitals in metro Houston?
Editors at any local newspaper site could do any comparison – within the metro area, statewide or nationally, all within minutes.
More spending on care, especially in the form of expensive testing and elective surgery, doesn’t produce better outcomes, data shows. It would take a bit of shoe-leather reporting, but newspapers could find out why costs vary so widely within their metro area. Instead of just being passive platforms for rants, newspaper sites could invite (or, if necessary, arm-twist), local doctors, hospitals and outpatient centers to participate in live forums where they would explain and justify the disparities and answer user questions. The sites would provide the same platform for local small businesses and labor unions, insurers whose plans cover local residents, advocacy groups and – especially important – local members of Congress. Of course, community residents – insured, under-insured and un-insured – would be able to tell their stories and ask questions about contradictory claims.
Multiply all this content generated from the more than 3,400 hospital service areas in the country, and you’d have a powerful, instructive mosaic of health care as it is delivered and priced. You’d also have, very likely, hundreds of thousands of opinions – leavened by now easily accessed, locally driven facts and figures – on how much reform Americans want.
No longer would there be a vacuum that is now filled by the demagogues and naysayers who often make things up and get away with it because there’s so much confusion about the issue.
You’d have more – much more – than another Internet “conversation.” You’d have grassroots America, with the assistance of local newspapers, helping to shape the legislation that will ultimately emerge from Congress probably by the end of the year. But newspapers have to use their still-considerable local resources to exploit the untapped potential of the Web to turn talk into action.
Newspapers’ print world will probably be a quaint media niche by the end of the next decade. What will happen to newspaper websites – will they fade into the empty quarter of cyberspace?