I am the first to admit that I’m not one for online journalism. Call me old fashioned, but there is something about information from a venerable media outlet whose primary medium is not web-based that makes it seem more legitimate. As a writer, I choose to publish primarily in print. As a reader — when I read online — I stubbornly stick to the sites that belong to major media outlets like The New York Times, BBC and National Public Radio. After all, anybody can start a blog or Web site, and such sites often tend more toward gossip and speculation than in-depth coverage.
Yet on Monday, Sheri Fink, a reporter for the web-based media outlet ProPublica, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. All of the other finalists (and the other winners) are reporters for print outlets. Although her piece, an article examining controversial deaths at a hospital in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina, was published in conjunction with The New York Times Magazine, Fink’s Pulitzer demonstrates a new, more reputable online journalism.
ProPublica is an non-profit organization dedicated to preserving investigative journalism. Founded by award-winning journalist Paul Steiger ’64, a former editor of the News, it is trying to fill the vacuum that has been created by the publishing crisis. And if this article, which pushed officials to launch an investigation into emergency medical practices, is any indication, ProPublica is doing pretty well.
The Internet has changed the way we look at the news. With newspapers, and to a lesser degree, radio and television, the public must wait hours, or even overnight, to hear a story. Internet news has stepped in as a medium to quench our society’s thirst for quick, concise information. As citizens of a news-hungry nation, we have come to anticipate e-mail updates about breaking stories rather than the arrival of newspapers on our doorsteps.
In our quest to be the first to hear the news, however, we end up knowing a little about a lot; Internet media outlets race to publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. While this strategy allows us to follow the progression of a breaking news story as it develops, those that favor speed over depth often fail to give readers an understanding of an event’s causes and repercussions, which usually prove most important in the long run. This is the reason I have resisted the Internet as a news source for so long. Web sites can easily change the headlines on their homepage, picking up and dropping stories depending on what is new at any given moment. When they put ink to paper, however, newspapers must believe that when readers pick up their morning coffee and sit down with their paper, the stories that went to press the night before will still be relevant.
Fink’s prize-winning article represents a change in this Internet age paradigm. Her piece is 13,000 words, requiring two years of reporting and more than 140 interviews. In many ways, it is the antithesis of all the things in which Internet news outlets take pride. There is no condensed version available, à la The Huffington Post and its “quick read” feature. It was published four years after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans, well after most news outlets had finished discussing the mismanagement of hurricane relief. It is not meant to be entertaining, like the snarky articles and blog posts many Web sites favor. Instead, it is an investigative piece, confident in its own importance and lasting relevance, which did not rush to publication or provide shortcuts for readers.
Fink’s article demonstrates that web-based news outlets can not only publish stories faster (and, I admit, more creatively) than print media, but they can also beat traditional news sources at their own game.
Her win, and the finalist nod for ProPublica’s series on incompetent nurses in California, marks the true coming of age of web-based news outlets.
There will always be those readers who seek out articles like Fink’s — long form, in depth and controversial. Until now, traditional media enjoyed a monopoly over those stories. Yet Fink’s Pulitzer Prize shows that Web sites are gaining ground against traditional media in this area.
And that prompts even me, a steadfast supporter of print media, to rethink my prejudice against Internet news. After all, it’s hard to argue with a Pulitzer.
Jessica Shor is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.