A New York Times home run, piggyback journalism, and hospital TV ads

By Steven Brill
April 16, 2013

1.   The Times hits a home run in the Bronx:

This item comes under the category of stories I loved seeing. On Sunday the New York Times did a front pager (continued on two full pages inside) by veteran reporter William Glaberson on the collapse of the criminal courts in the Bronx that was about as close to perfection in execution and impact as journalism can get.

Glaberson’s chronicle of epic incompetence and sheer laziness among the judges, prosecutors and just about everyone else mixed mountains of impressive data (endless delays, startlingly low conviction rates) with the kind of personal stories that give the data indelible meaning: A murder defendant who was held in jail for nearly four years before being acquitted recounts how court officers, lawyers and prosecutors would be “laughing and giggling” while they scheduled postponement after postponement, ignoring him so completely that he “felt almost invisible inside the courtroom.” There’s a running narrative, artfully sprinkled in italics throughout the piece, of the agony of the family of a murdered bodega proprietor that is forced to wait five years for the accused killer to come to trial, only to have to face a new trial later this year because stale evidence and the witnesses’ foggy memories resulted in a hung jury.

When a reporter uncovers almost unbelievable data about a system failing, he’s doing a terrific job. When he then ties it this way to real people, he creates a reading experience that is unforgettable. Imagine igniting water cooler conversation about the Bronx criminal justice system rather than Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. Glaberson did that.

Everything about the piece shows the Times running on all cylinders. The front page photo – of crowds of frustrated witnesses, family members, and prospective jurors waiting to go through under-manned security checkpoints at the entrance to the courthouse – is emblematic of what goes on inside. The chart on the jump page that uses Glaberson’s stopwatch record of how long court was actually in session versus how much time was lost to the judge or lawyers being late or taking breaks or going to lunch or leaving early was a home run, too. The sub-headlines – “Routine Lateness,” “Delay As A Strategy,” “Trouble On The Bench” – all pack the right punch.

The only element missing was how Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose multi-dimensional incompetence is demonstrated in almost every other paragraph, has kept getting reelected to the point where, at 24 years, he’s the longest serving of New York’s five county prosecutors. I hope Glaberson will get to that. His Sunday story was introduced as the first in a series; yesterday’s second part zeroed in on another key player – a defense lawyer – who has perfected the art of delaying trials while the judges and the prosecutors DA Johnson supervises do nothing to stop him.

2. Keeping score on derivative journalism:

The Times’s Bronx story was quickly picked up and parroted by New York’s local television news stations, which reminds me of a story I’ve wanted to see for a while: It seems that on almost any day one could take the enterprise stories (that is, stories not naturally emanating from obvious news events such as presidential announcements) in the Times and just a few other top news gathering organizations, such as the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and pretty much come up with the list of most of what passes for enterprise news stories that we see on television later that day. (A program like “60 Minutes” would be an obvious exception.) Similarly, it seems that local television news organizations, to the extent they continue to report on anything other than the weather, sports and crime, increasingly crib off their local newspapers.

I’d love to see the Columbia Journalism Review or Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer keep a log for a week and identify not only the biggest copy cats but also give us a sense of what we might lose on the air (as well as online) as these sources of real reporting in print continue to suffer budget cuts. There should be one log for, say, a week’s worth of national television news stories, and another targeting local television news in maybe a half a dozen cities of different sizes.

3. Vanderbilt Hospital’s national media campaign: How come?

Lately I’ve been seeing ads on national cable networks advertising the expert care available at the Nashville-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Why? As health care costs continue to soar, is this the way hospitals should be spending their money?

The ads, according to the hospital’s website, are meant to convey “the theme of physician-scientists discussing their innovative work in personalized medicine and add first-person vignettes to illustrate how patients and families benefit from the care they have received at VUMC.”

Fair enough, but why spend this money to reach a national audience when the hospital already appears to be booming with patients? According to financial reports filed with the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the IRS, the Nashville hospital’s patient revenue has jumped steadily in the last five years (up 46 percent from $1.2 billion to $1.76 billion) culminating in an operating profit for the last year on file with the IRS of $182.6 million.

An NPR report last year on hospital marketing around the country that mentioned Vanderbilt hinted at one reason. It quoted the hospital’s chief marketing officer as explaining that “Ultimately, it helps us attract students to Vanderbilt [as well as] faculty and staff.”

But the marketing director added this: “We ourselves are proud of the work that we do, so it’s really focused in that direction.” So, is the hospital, flush with cash, spending millions to boost the egos of those who work there? Who decided to launch the ad campaign? How much does it cost? And who’s measuring whether it’s worth the money that otherwise might go to lowering patient bills or providing more aid to those who can’t pay the bills?

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