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A Questionable Enterprise



Mention the words "focus group" to most reporters and they'll groan. That's because for years, the focus groups whose opinions publishers sought wanted articles short and sweet; happy stories about dogs and babies that would fit easily on one page.

That was before the Internet siphoned off readers with more timely and customized news. Fearing extinction, newspapers are turning to the Readership Institute, a think tank out of Northwestern University supported by newspaper publishers. It's telling them that to attract and keep readers, focus on substance rather than speed.

If you've been reading the Times-Standard, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times, the new trend is obvious: long, multi-part front page stories. The Chronicle came out with multi-parters on San Francisco General Hospital and homicides in Oakland. The New York Times spent a week with three sisters in a Mexican family split by the U.S. border. The Times-Standard put two of its reporters on the street to give us a look at homelessness in Eureka. In journalese, this is called "enterprise reporting." Enterprise stories are in-depth and proactive rather than reactive. That means that the news organization sought out a story rather than responded to a press release or event.

New Times-Standard Managing Editor Rich Somerville is a former research associate of the Readership Institute and a true believer in enterprise reporting. It's great news for Humboldt County readers that MediaNews owner Dean Singleton thinks he can fight his newspaper battle against Rob Arkley on substance.

This represents a major change. Over the past two decades, most newsrooms, especially in Singleton-owned papers, became workshops where reporters were expected to turn out as many as four stories a day. When at Gannett in the early '90s, I was once given two days to do one story. I considered that a great luxury.

I cheer on all enterprise reporting initiatives. But if you have any real respect for your readers, enterprise reporting requires time and resources. If a newspaper isn't willing to give it and reporters aren't willing to do the hard work, they shouldn't take on the project.

So let's get back to the Times-Standard's story on homelessness.

We need more in-depth reporting on this issue. In 2005 I sent 24 students out into Humboldt County to report on poverty. They conducted more than 100 interviews and we barely scratched the surface on what it means to be poor in this area. We did discover that poor people want their stories told, if only someone would seek them out and listen.

That's not what the T-S's self-described "Fat Guys" did. In their story, they talked to few people. You learn from the articles how being on the streets affected James Faulk and Chris Durant, but little to nothing about how actual homeless people think or feel.

In a good first-person story, the "I" is never the story. That the Fat Guys told us more about themselves than about street people is a result of the second problem with the series. They spent only two days on the street. How can any reporter expect to earn the trust and respect of people on the street in only two days?

But it is the third problem that's the most egregious. The Times-Standard began its investigation with a lie. If the Jason Blair scandal at the New York Times taught us anything, it's that honesty is everything. It's the first rule of journalism -- above accuracy, above clarity. I tell my students that honesty comes before all other journalistic rules, because you can't earn credibility without it. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says this: "Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty." It also says, "Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information."

This is what the Fat Guys said: "We concocted a story to fit in as best we could. We understood that Eureka's homeless population was small, and the community tight-knit, so we decided to be from out of town, and headed to Alaska to fish. ... Conversations with people at various locales told us that if we had claimed to be from here, we would have stuck out as interlopers."

How could they have gotten around the problem honestly? They could have flown down to San Francisco and hopped the bus north. If anyone asked where they were from, they'd have been able to say without lying, that they were just off the bus from the Bay Area. Or they could have done that from Crescent City. Or more effectively, they could have driven north or south and thumbed their way back. That would also have given them some good stories to trade with the people they met.

I don't think I'd have the guts to do that story, but if I did and someone asked me who I was, I think I'd have to say that I was a journalist spending some time on the streets to see what it is like being homeless. As a journalist, I've found repeatedly that only when you fess up do people offer you their own honest take on a situation. You can't expect people to be honest and open with you if you aren't honest and open with them.

In 2005, the Spokesman-Review in Washington hired a private detective to adopt an online persona as a homosexual minor to see if the mayor would try to entice him into having sex. The newspaper industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher then asked 10 respected newspaper editors across the country about that tactic, and not one of them approved. Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of theStar-Tribune in Minneapolis, said this: "Fundamentally, you don't misrepresent who you are. That is a problem." And Amanda Bennett, then editor of thePhiladelphia Inquirer said this at the time: "I don't permit deception; I would not allow it. We go into reporting in a straighter way. We are not private investigators, we are journalists. Undercover is a method of the past."

Still, I would like to see more enterprise reporting from the Times-Standard. I'd like to see more from the Reporter, the North Coast Journal, the Arcata Eye and the Lumberjack as well. But the stories have to be done right. That requires time, effort and guts.

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