In a story that has taken two years, 13,000 words and possibly $US400,000 to come to fruition, the New York Times Magazine published an investigative report on Sunday about hospital patients who were allegedly euthanised in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The story is available online at The New York Times and ProPublica. Set aside some time to read it, since it took up 18 pages in the NYT magazine.

But while the story is worthy in its own right, the manner in which the article was created is equally interesting — especially for all those meaningful discussions about the future of journalism.

Written by journalist Sheri Fink, the article was co-published by ProPublica, a not-for-profit focused on public interest journalism, with additional financing from the Kaiser Family Foundation. For the four months before ProPublica stepped in, Fink footed the bill herself.

ProPublica usually makes its in-depth stories available, free of charge, for exclusive use by a mainstream news outlet (from 29 September, any news outlet will be able to reprint the story). So what was the actual cost of the story to The New York Times? Possibly nothing (the financial details of the deal haven’t been made public).

What we do know is that had the Hurricane Katrina report been created entirely in-house at The NYT it would have cost about $US400,000. That’s the price tag according to New York Times editor Gerald Marzorati who did a “back-of-the-envelop” calculation that accounted for “several years of reporting and nearly a year of editing”.

Even for The New York Times that is an enormous sum — in fact, almost ten times the cost of a typical cover story. Back in March, Marzorati spoke about feature article costs:

…when you add up what we pay the author and what the expenses for travel  are — and this leaves out the editing and fact-checking costs, the photography, and so on — the tally is north of US$40,000, and often, if a war zone is involved, considerably more.

So it’s hardly a stretch to say that for an ailing media organisation like The New York Times, publishing a (relatively) exclusive, in-depth investigative article like this — with apparently minimal cost to their own organisation — must have been a godsend.

As for the cost to ProPublica for the Katrina article, according to editor Steve Engelberg it was a total of around $US210,000. This seems to include Fink getting $US43,000 plus editing, lawyering and photography. The cost breakdown is slightly confusing but regardless, the sum total is significantly cheaper than the Times‘ estimates.

All of which raises the question: could this be the way forward? Crowd funding journalism is becoming more common, with an Australian version of Spot.Us currently in the works, as discussed by Crikey regular Margaret Simons.

Perhaps, though they’ll have to start getting more bang for their buck. Joshua Benton thinks that for such an expensive and explosive story, it was seriously underplayed by both the Times and ProPublica.

On its website, The New York Times has an eerie post-Katrina photo gallery of the hospital in question but Fink’s article is hidden amongst a slew of Katrina four-year anniversary articles. Fink’s story also has no excerpt or summary to help readers come to grips with the report before attempting to read the 18 pages. Perhaps The NYT was simply more focused on making the magazine version palatable.

ProPublica is also hosting a variety of extra content on the article, like an interactive guide to the inside of the Memorial Medical Center, a timeline of events and a who’s who photo gallery of the main characters. Plus, there’s an interview with Fink on her investigation.

So what is Fink’s article about? In short, it’s about medical staff at the Memorial Medical Center choosing who got to live or die in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Staff assessed the health and medical needs of each patient. Then, they decided who was too sick to be transported to safety and those deemed too ill were allegedly euthanised.

The hospital had 45 corpses following Hurricane Katrina, more than any similarly sized hospital in the city. A year later, surgeon Anna Pou was arrested, along with other nurses, over the deaths of four patients. They were cleared of murder charges.

However, investigations by Fink show that at least 17 patients were injected with euthanising drugs. While several patients were probably too ill to survive an evacuation, others were not near death when they were injected with drugs and died.

Pou meanwhile has been campaigning for medical practitioners to be immune from prosecution for decisions made during disasters; she’s also argued that the sickest patients shouldn’t necessarily be evacuated first (as is current disaster policy).

Fink’s article raises critical issues about medical ethics in times of disaster. It’s a vast topic which, in light of the many bungles that occurred in the official handling of the Katrina aftermath, demands further examination.

It’s a story that contributes significantly to the public knowledge bank. It’s also one that could  have easily remained untold. After all, The New York Times will make advertising money from the article but it’s unlikely to be anywhere near the $US400,000 it would have needed to get the article up in the first place.

The death of investigative journalism has been called for a while now. It’s expensive, it takes a long time, it doesn’t always make any money. As Gawker asks, “who’s going to pay for the next Watergate?” Perhaps the Fink-ProPublica-Kaiser-New York Times investigation suggests a way forward…

Peter Fray

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