Spot.Us, the Times, the Garbage Patch and the Critics
Update: Lindsey Hoshaw has published a wise and gracious blog post about her Spot.Us story, the blog vs. the Times, and the CJR criticism. Recommended. Regarding the Times story, she writes that “I wrote what I believed the Times wanted though they never specified the type of article they expected.”
If so, that takes the Times off the hook somewhat, though I still think a potentially rich story was made very flat. Whatever the reason, that’s a shame.
Original post is below.
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I’m late to this party, and something tells me I’m going to regret weighing in, but the furor over Megan Garber’s Columbia Journalism Review critique of the New York Times/Spot.Us garbage-patch story keeps bothering me, and maybe getting some thoughts about it down here will help with that.
To briefly review, on Tuesday the Times ran a story about the Pacific garbage patch written by Lindsey Hoshaw and funded in part through the Spot.Us model. That afternoon, CJR’s Garber offered a critique of the Times story, which she found disappointing. Garber’s chief criticism was that other than some color and some nice photography by Hoshaw, the Times story leveraged little of Hoshaw’s experience spending a month at sea. The idea of a garbage patch that may be twice the size of Texas is a difficult one to get your arms around, and the Times story doesn’t capture that — Garber notes that much of the reporting is of the “could-be-done-from-anywhere variety: reporting, in other words, that could have been done over the phone or via email”.
Part of Garber’s frustration is that there’s a vehicle that delivers that: Hoshaw’s own blog (linked above) delves into the trip, the garbage patch and more. It does a better job of giving you a sense of the problem, and the dropoff from it to the stolid, by-the-numbers Times take is unfortunate.
Garber offered her criticism and promptly got pilloried for it. Spot.Us founder David Cohn didn’t even read the entire article (it’s only 1,300 words) before ripping into Garber and asking how many Pulitzers she’d won. Others piled on, criticizing Garber for burying her lead, for using a “standard journalistic frame,” and all but demanding that she do a wholesale rewrite, complete with a condescending lesson about the use of strikethrough and italics. The tone of the early criticism ranged from thin-skinned and defensive to bullying and insulting.
Cooler heads have since prevailed, and as most involved have noted, the conversation is well worth having even with some bumps and bruises. But as it unfolded, it sure left a nasty taste in the mouth.
I did agree with a couple of criticisms of Garber’s critique. Her take was improved by adding a note about Hoshaw’s blog higher in the piece, though griping that it originally came “after the jump” was an oddly printy criticism — my brain doesn’t shut down if I have to click on 2 or “single page.” And her summary — “The NYT’s ‘Pacific garbage patch’ story: a Spot.us ‘deliverable’ that doesn’t quite deliver” — puts the onus on Spot.Us in a way that the critique itself does not. It’s often thus — in my columnist career I suffered far more agita as a result of headlines, summaries and subheds that were slightly off the mark than I did because of missteps in the actual reporting or writing. This stuff gets left for last and done when you’re tired, and it can undermine everything else you’ve tried to do.
But Spot.Us and its partisans seemed to want to have it both ways, starting out by claiming the story for the group (Cohn first referred to it as “our NYT story” in tweets) and then backing away from it (later it’s “the NYT piece”) in favor of Hoshaw’s blog and the overall effort. Cohn emphasized that Spot.Us is a platform, not a news organization, but that emphasis came after criticisms of the Times story — as Chris Anderson notes lower in the comments, if Hoshaw’s story won a Pulitzer the group would certainly take credit for it as if it were a news organization.
The excitement and the muddied message is understandable given the circumstances — a Spot.Us story in the New York Times is big news for the model, and it’s great to find the Times as part of an innovative experiment in funding and producing stories. I think it’s safe to say that everybody wants Cohn and Spot.Us to succeed. Certainly I do. But excitement can’t lead to closing ranks against anybody who dares to be critical about the final product, and interest in experimentation can’t harden into dogma about the outcome.
And now I’m going to risk getting told that I buried my own lead. (I’m not writing this as an inverted pyramid, but whatever.) The real problem here seems to lie with the New York Times — and it feels like nobody wants to talk about that.
It’s great that the Times worked with Spot.Us. But reading Hoshaw’s blog and looking at her photographs, you get the feeling that the Paper of Record took an interesting square peg of a story and made it fit into a rather dull round hole. The only interactive component is the slideshow, and it’s lame — as Times slideshows too often are. (I want to throw things every time I find captions that are just bits plucked from the story.) The paper’s interactive wizards do wonderful things, but none of them are visible here. The sheer scope of the garbage-patch problem cries out for a different way of approaching the narrative, for the personality and shifting point of view evident on Hoshaw’s blog. The Times story doesn’t even offer a link to that blog, which would at least help readers unacquainted with the inside baseball of new media uncover this rich material. That’s not the fault of Hoshaw or Cohn or Garber.
The Times gets well-deserved credit for an enormous amount of Web innovation, from its open APIs to its rich, addicting interactives. But it doesn’t get a free ride either. Hoshaw’s final product shows that the basics of how stories are produced and executed could really use an infusion of that same spirit of Web innovation.
This isn’t to say that the Times should have approached the garbage-patch story differently just because Spot.Us was involved. That would be a different way to make the mistake of conflating the journalism with the business model. Rather, it’s to wish that the Times had taken a different approach, because a journalist had a richer story to tell. From what I can see, Hoshaw gave the paper a lot, and fairly little was made of it.