McClatchy Washington bureau shines as bright example for online journalism

The past decade has brought the journalism industry some of its darkest moments. On the business side, management teams that grew used to local monopolies could not react swiftly enough to protect their market share as thousands of online competitors emerged. Revenue tanked, readership declined and layoffs became a seasonal task at many newspapers.

On the editorial side, many newsrooms blew or missed one major story after another, from the Whitewater “scandal,” hitting the snooze button on the global warming alarm, the emergence of al Qaeda before 9/11, the Bush administration’s phony case for war in Iraq, to the abandonment of mortgage lending standards that inflated a housing bubble.

But not every news organization blew it. Indeed, as journalism has suffered some of its darkest moments over the past decade, a few news organizations stand apart for their bright triumphs. On the Washington beat, perhaps no single news organization so often has gotten the story right as the McClatchy Washington bureau.

From providing one of the few domestic voices to consistently challenge the Bush administration’s bogus claims before the Iraq War (The New Yorker being another), to dogging the administration over the politicalization of the U.S. Justice Department, the bureau, and its website, have become the must-click destination for readers thirsty for clear, accurate, spin-free reporting. The bureau will publish this weekend an in-depth investigation of the situation at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States has been holding alleged terrorists, in violation of due process rights, according to a Supreme Court ruling this week.

I spoke with McClatchy Washington Bureau Web editor Jim Van Nostrand by phone this week, and asked him why McClatchy’s had such success, and why the bureau took the unusual step of launching its own, stand-alone website. An edited transcript of our conversations follows:

Robert Niles: Why a standalone website for the bureau? Why not just stick with the traditional role of providing copy for member papers and their websites?

Jim Van Nostrand: I launched the bureau’s first website back in 2000, back when it was Knight Ridder. They never had a website before that. It started out in that they had a dilemma that their content had no home. Let’s say you were a national reporter and you interviewed Colin Powell, and Colin Powell turned around and said, “Well where can I read this story tomorrow?” You had to say, “Well, you might try the Philadelphia Inquirer or you might try the San Jose Mercury News. You never could predict where or how your stories were gonna land, so you really were in a conundrum.

The first goal was just to give their stuff a home so that you could hand Colin Powell a business card that had KR Washington on it, and say, “Hey, read it here tomorrow.”

The reporters here are competing in the national space against the New York Times and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times, and CNN and MSNBC. For a news organization such as ours, they found out very quickly that the Web helped them extend their brand beyond their local markets. Even if you were, say, a reader in Aberdeen, South Dakota or in Miami, Florida, where we had newspapers, and they may know that their newspaper is a McClatchy paper, all of a sudden with the Web, they’re reaching readers who don’t read their newspapers. We were finding, with columnists like Joe Galloway, and with the reporting team on the Iraq war and the lead-up to the Iraq war and that sort of thing, that they found the Web was a very powerful tool for building the brand.

Niles: How has having the standalone site affected the work done by reporters in the bureau?

Van Nostrand: The bureau’s reporting and the things that it’s known for ā€“ the pre-war Iraq reporting and that sort of thing, the whole truth-to-power stuff ā€“ aligns very well with McClatchy’s commitment to public service journalism. The two mesh pretty well. The ideals are the same.

Frankly, what you saw during the pre-war reporting leading up to that, some of our [Knight Ridder] newspapers didn’t run our reporting. It varied widely in the play that it got. Not only were you competing with the big brands of the New York Times and the Washington Post and trying to get noticed, quite frankly, you had editors that wouldn’t run some of these stories because they were too hard-hitting.

We’re a small bureau. We can’t tackle everything. The places where we’ve planted our flag or where we stake our claim, they’re finding that this national platform helps increase [the bureau’s] visibility, because our traffic is growing.

We’re now getting a million unique visitors a month, up from just more than half a million in January. With that growth in traffic and attention means that they’re getting noticed more than they used to be.

Niles: Which websites do you see reporters at the bureau reading on a regular basis?

Van Nostrand: Well they have to read the Times and the Post because those are their big competitors. We run into the same thing here that, say, Salon did on the Walter Reed story. We will break news, but until it gets reported in the other outlets, nobody notices it. Salon had the Walter Reed story two years before the Post did, but the Post reports it and all of a sudden things start happening.

In the new media world, there are new competitors. For example, on the U.S. Attorney story, Marisa Taylor led the pack all the way through that reporting. Neck-and-neck with her was Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. Depending on the story, it’s not who you think it might be anymore. You have the usual suspects, but there’s a whole new crop of competitors on these beats.

Niles: What do you see as being the biggest challenge facing Washington beat reporters these days?

Van Nostrand: The biggest challenge from my perspective is the polarization of the audience. You have an audience that’s used to now listening to only those news organizations that cater to their points of view. The whole Fox News thing, the whole right-wing blogosphere, the whole left-wing blogosphere. When you do hard-hitting reporting like we like to do, you have a large set of your audience that’s either going to dismiss what you’re going to say or agree with it out of hand based on their own personal belief sets. If you raise tough questions, regardless of orientation, people are assuming that you’re bias one way or the other. That’s not unique to us. That’s unique to everybody. That’s probably the biggest challenge we have at the moment, especially involved in a two-and-a-half-year long presidential campaign. We’ve spent a good deal of our resources planting our flag in the political coverage for the size bureau that we are.

Niles: How can, or do, you address that challenge?

Van Nostrand: You sort of have to be deaf to it almost, because if you think about it too much it will almost consume you, and you just can’t let it. You just have to trust your sense of smell, and go where the story is, and just sort of disregard the consequences. This Guantanamo package coming out Sunday is an excellent example of that. You’re going to have a segment of your audience that’s going to look at pictures of people with beards and turbans and say, “They’re all terrorists.” They’re not gonna read past the third graph, you know? You’re gonna have others that are gonna read every word of it. I fully expect a very heated response to this series, but it’s the kind of thing that you just have to pursue no matter where it takes you.

Niles: Tell me a little bit about what you would like to be able to do to address or provide a forum for that heated response.

Van Nostrand: We moderate after the fact. We let comments go live, and we have somebody looking at them. The time spent on that is significant for a small operation. There are things we’d like to be doing with crowdsourcing, with wikis. Putting those into practice has been problematic because you’ve still got to be able to produce multimedia and push breaking news to the Web.

One of our biggest pushes has been to incorporate good stories from around the McClatchy network of newspapers onto our site. You know the old argument between national and local sites is they want to keep the traffic, because local sites have their own traffic and revenue goals. We did a small experiment to work around that, where we will pick up a story from one of our sites. We’ll run the headline in the first three graphs on our site, and then link to a local site for the remainder.

It’s worked out fine as a compromise because we tend to get good traffic on the good stories from our local sites, and they get more traffic that they never would have had.

Niles: What if anything do you think that the McClatchy Bureau is doing, or Knight Ridder in the past has done, differently from others in covering this particular administration in Washington?

Van Nostrand: I can tell you from working with these folks that what they do differently is based on necessity. The term that John Walcott, our bureau chief, likes to use is that we’re the “skunk at the garden party.” We don’t have the access that the big shots from the Times or the Post have. We’re not on the first-call list. We’re not invited to some of the inner-circle type of things. When the Bush administration came in, that got even worse. We just didn’t have access to the high level.

So what happened in the pre-war reporting, for example, is that folks like Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay and John Walcott, they were talking to the rank-and-file folks at the respective agencies, the folks who actually did the work; the folks who were actually preparing the reports and reviewing the intelligence. They weren’t talking to the political hacks at the highest level. Those folks were telling them, giving them a different picture than was being fed to the national outlets. By virtue of having to do their reporting at the grassroots level, they weren’t getting the sanitized picture that other folks were getting. That made a big difference. We were consistently saying that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the intelligence was saying that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But yet our competitors were saying breathlessly, taking the administration line, that there were. It’s a matter of perspective; who were you talking to.

Niles: I’m gonna wrap up by asking what are the lessons, from your perspective, that online journalists need to know in order to cover Washington truthfully, based on your experience with the bureau?

Van Nostrand: Well, the lessons are the same as they would be for any non-online journalist. If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Move quickly. Look for what is unique and interesting about a particular story. One advantage we have online is that we cam move quickly on a story without getting bogged down in background, like in other media, because we can link to that background information.

Ultimately, the same intellectual curiosity that drove us into journalism in the first place applies. We don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing everyday.

Taking a closer look at gender gaps in education

Richard Whitmire is an editorial writer for USA Today.

As the President of the National Education Writers Association, I have the annual privilege of handing over top awards won by education reporters from around the country. Now I’m thinking that privilege bears some responsibility, such as fessing up about times when education coverage dips below award-winning levels.

That happened Tuesday morning when I opened The New York Times and saw an article that did little more than regurgitate the American Association of University Women report making the dubious case that the “boy troubles,” as in boys falling behind in school and graduating from college at lower rates than girls, are a myth. Odd, I thought, a rare fumble by the Times.

Then I picked up The Washington Post, and there on page one was an article that did the same. At least this article had a dissenting view, but that’s not the point. Somehow, the AAUW had managed to pass off its advocacy report as research, not just to the Times and Post but the Wall Street Journal and other publications as well. (E-mail queries to the Times and Post reporters sent Thursday were unanswered as of this posting on Friday.)

When the surprise wore off, I had to smile: kudos to the public relations geniuses at the AAUW. Consider the odds behind their achievement. To succeed, the AAUW had to convince reporters that:

  • Gender gaps lie only between white and black, poor and non-poor and not within those groups. AAUW researchers had to know that with a simple check reporters would find huge gender differences, for example, among African Americans. How hard is it discover that black women graduate from college at twice the rate of black men? The gaps even extend to upper-class whites. Check out the research done by the Wilmette schools [2.6 MB PDF file] outside Chicago, one of the wealthiest and highest performing districts in the country.
  • Tests show that boys and girls score roughly the same. That conclusion is possible only by cherry-picking national survey data, which risks the possibility reporters might check state testing data where all students are tested. Those tests often show stark gender gaps, in many cases with girls swamping boys in verbal skills and at times edging them in math.
  • There are virtually no gender differences in the rate high school graduates enroll in college. Wow, so the boy troubles must truly be a myth! In that case, those pesky campus gender gaps must arise from benign causes such as older women more likely to return to college than older men. Truly a heart-warming story. Who doesn’t know of someone’s mom returning to college for a survey course in world culture? Problem is, a simple check of National Center for Education Statistics data reveals a 400,000-student gender gap among 18-19 year-old students. So much for the little-old-lady theory. (Even the professional education publications fell for that one.)
  • The AAUW provides unbiased research in the area of how boys perform in school. (Wait, does their mission statement even say anything about boys? Why are they dabbling in this?) Here, the group had to count on reporters being unable to recall the shaky “call out” research from its 1992 report, where girls were supposedly being shortchanged in school in part because teachers paid more attention to aggressive boys calling out in the classroom. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that entire report was riddled with problems. Here’s an interesting analysis of the AAUW’s track record as neutral researchers. (Full disclosure: At the time, I gave that report a full ride absent a single critical perspective. Hey, I thought I was doing my young daughters a favor).

    So, the AAUW pulled it off again. Reporters had forgotten about that 1992 report. No data were offered to dispute the notion that the boy troubles are really a race issue. No challenge to the college-going data. Everything, a clean sweep. I hadn’t planned on writing about the report, but when my editors saw the blowout coverage the report received they asked me to blog a debate editorial on the issue.

    At this point I have to declare my own bias. I’ve been writing about the boy troubles for years and I’m convinced they’re real, not only in the United States but in scores of countries around the world. You can view this as either making me prejudiced or informed enough to acknowledge a reporting fumble. Your call. From my perspective, this matters because the ideological chaff thrown up by groups such as the AAUW stands in the way of educators taking a serious at what’s happening to boys. Economists say the changing economy means men and women today (unlike in the past) get exactly the same benefits from a college degree and therefore should be graduating at the same rate. Only they aren’t. By 2015 women will earn, on average, 60% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. Something’s not right here; that’s a lot of men not even getting to the economic starting line with that all-important diploma.

    My final take the AAUW’s coup: short-term victory, long term repercussions.

  • Readers really will check everything

    Medill senior David Spett, 22, has rocketed to the center of journalism ethics discussions at j-schools nationwide following his column on Medill Dean John Levine’s use of three anonymous student quotes complimenting an advertising course in last Spring’s Northwestern University alumni magazine. Spett, writing that “Nearly every guide to journalism ethics says anonymous quotes should be avoided,” went ahead and did some digging. He called all 29 students in the 2007 course and asked if the quotation Levine attributed to an unnamed classmember was theirs. Despite being promised total privacy by Spett, none claimed the words as their own.

    Since Spett’s column, the story has enjoyed retellings by on the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune websites, as well as coverage in Editor&Publisher, Poynter’s Romanesko blog and more. Spett was later interviewed by Michele Norris on NPR. The story and its popularity among media professionals was derided on a post as “inane,” and Spett was called “a cockstrong young j-school student,” though most of the criticism was directed at the journalism community for not letting the issue die.

    Since then, 18 Medill faculty have signed a letter asking for Dean Levine to be held accountable and produce his notes. Many did not. A week ago, the Dean issued a mea culpa to faculty and students apologizing for his lack of transparency.

    On February 27th, Eric Zorn on the Chicago Tribune’s web edition reported that Spett’s investigative reporting professor David Protess phoned all 29 students and confirmed Spett’s reporting. It took more than two weeks for anyone to do the followup vetting. “It takes initiative,” said Spett on a phone call with OJR. “If you’re on my side and it turns out I made a mistake, you’re in a tough position. If you support the dean and my reporting checks out, what position are you in then?”

    As the media response to his story unfolded, Spett has been posting clippings from newspaper websites and blogs on his Facebook page mini feed, to provide his Facebook friends “a place where they can find it all. I don’t mean to be self-aggrandizing. They don’t have to click on it.”

    [Disclosure: I worked with David Spett in South Africa when we were both interns at the Cape Times. When the dust settled, I decided to contact Spett and ask him about his experiences as a young reporter experiencing his first media circus.]

    “Most people talking about me are journalists talking about me as a journalist,” he said. “A lot of people do think that this is relevant beyond Medill. Medill is where we are training the future people who will be talking about issues of incredible importance.”

    Spett is ambivalent about seeing his name in print–as a subject of a story rather than a byline. “It’s exciting, it’s scary, I’m glad people care about the issues. Part of me is shy wants to be an ordinary person that’s not in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.” He said the affair has boosted his interest in doing investigative journalism in the future.

    “It feels really strange. I’m not really used to it. My feelings are very complicated. Proud, also shy. I’m a little awkward socially, so it’s kinda scary when people recognize my face and say “You’re the kid that wrote that story’. If I ever break a story this big again–Gawker said I wouldn’t–I have a taste of what the follow-up might be.”

    He has not responded to the many blog posts about his story but said that some of the more personal attacks against him were hurtful. “One professor attacked me and said that I have a history of publishing my dislikes of professors. In fact, I criticized a class once as a Freshman. Part of me is a little bit hurt, I am angered by that. These are the things that happen when you break a story like this. Iā€™m not going to start attacking these people.”

    Spett, who writes for the Daily Northwestern as an opinion columnist, has been careful to avoid appearing biased about the dean’s use of the unnamed sources and has stated several times in interviews that it is his goal to present the facts and let readers decide for themselves. “I’m a very opinionated guy,” he said. “This has been very good practice in keeping my opinions away from the facts. It’s my first real experience writing a story that has gotten this big.”

    Despite getting the kind of attention most journalism students lust after, Spett is unsure whether it has helped his career. While some professors at Medill have urged him to pursue investigative reporting as a career, he stated simply, “I hope I get a job in journalism. I hope this helps.”