By Steve Outing
Some of the most popular content of the New York Times is (shocker) opinionated and biased. Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, Paul Krugman … As op-ed columnists they get to report AND express opinions that influence readers. The Times felt that their content was so important that a few years ago it put up a pay wall around the op-ed columns (and some other stuff in a web initiative called TimesSelect), thinking that its star columnists’ work was so important that people would pay for it online. (Didn’t really work out so well.)
Not as popular: newspaper editorials and candidate endorsements. Yet they’re been with us for decades, and no doubt influenced many people who read them looking for guidance. Alas, some newspapers are getting out of the business of expressing opinions on such controversial issues as which candidates most deserve citizens’ votes. As Alan Mutter notes on his Newsosaur blog, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has decided not to endorse political candidates from now on. Mutter terms the AJC action “wimping out,” and I agree.
And I noticed some more wimpish behavior by a solid, quality old-media institution today, thanks to the non-wimpish Huffington Post.
Check out this significant and powerful story published by the St. Petersburg Times (which is owned by the Poynter Institute; disclaimer: a former employer of mine): “Nearly blind woman’s world grows darker as the medical bills pile higher.” Published September 28, it’s the story of a family going broke from medical bills despite having health insurance, and their insurance company denying further claims because the family has cost the company too much already (due to a rare genetic disorder that’s making the mother and her daughters go blind).
Great story; important. Reading it makes you want to help this unfortunate family. Alas, the St. Pete Times website, TampaBay.com, offers no way for readers to take action and directly help out with the family’s massive pile of unpaid medical bills. I know, as a long-time journalist, that putting up a widget on the website alongside the story, allowing sympathetic readers to directly donate online to the family, would be unseemly, under traditional journalistic thinking. “Heavens! Then everyone will be bugging us to raise money for their personal catastrophe! We’ll be seen as bleeding-heart liberals pushing the case for the public option on health care reform!”
Now take a look at what the Huffington Post did with this story. It summarized the St. Pete Times piece, embedded the video piece from TampaBay.com (as is allowed, and as I’ve done at the bottom of this item), and then added to its package a widget allowing anyone to donate money to the family’s PayPal account to help pay the medical bills. (This is part of a new initiative, introduced today, called HuffPost Impact.)
Hmmm. Well-respected Florida newspaper does dynamite article about a family’s miseries under our current health-care system. But it takes an Internet up-start to “break the old rules” and with a phone call and a few lines of code allow readers to help the family.
Is it just me, or is there something wrong with this picture? Newspapers are struggling, losing readers, losing advertisers to newer forms of media, losing relevance. Yet they stick to the old ways of doing things. And in this case, the local news institution that brought this family’s story to public light will not get the credit when caring members of the public help pay off their medical debt. The Huffington Post will get that credit, because it’s not afraid to take action to support a worthy cause.
What a sad story for the newspaper. It’s sad for the family involved, too, of course, but at least a new-media news entity decided that it didn’t need to live by the old rules, and asked its readers to take action.
“Tradition” lives on in the newspaper industry. Sigh.