The '$400,000' Hurricane Katrina Story: Expensive, EpicS

The NYT Magazine's cover story about a euthanizing, beleaguered hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans dropped today. It's estimated to have cost around $400,000. What kind of reporting does that buy? The expensive, endangered type.

That $400,000 number comes straight from Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati estimating what it would've cost...had the Times paid for it in its entirety. But the bill for it was heavily footed by ProPublica, a independent non-profit "newsroom" doing investigative journalism.

The story's being published and can be read at both ProPublica and in The New York Times Magazine, and can be reprinted by anyone, anywhere beginning September 29th. Sheri Fink, the reporter, began working on the story in 2007, for four months, with her own money. ProPublica started picking up the tab, Fink stayed with the story full-time, and two years later, we have it in our hands. And what is it?

"The Deadly Choices at Memorial" details, in 13,000 words, the goings on at Memorial Medical center in New Orleans during and after Katrina's hit. Some of the major points:

  • The Doctors' Perspective: Much of the story focuses around Dr. Anna Pou, who made the call to euthanize patients, resulting in her subsequent arrest and grand jury investigation. Fink interviewed Pou extensively. "Pou would later say she was trying to do the most good with a limited pool of resources. The decision that certain sicker patients should go last has its risks."

  • Triage: It's a system of categorizing patients according to health in situations like this, where patients outnumber resources. Apparently, nine recognized systems of Triage exist. Not one of them were well understood by Pou and her staff. "Pou and her colleagues had little if any training in triage systems and were not guided by any particular triage protocol." Things that weren't known that are now: the number of patients, and what they went through/were injected with.

  • The Patients' Perspective: Vera LeBlanc was one of the DNR patient at Lifecare, the hospital-within-a-hospital at memorial. Her son, Mark, wanted to save her when a staffer at Memorial stopped her. "Several doctors told them they couldn't leave with Vera. 'The hell we can't,' Sandra said. The couple ignored the doctors, and Vera smiled and chatted as Mark and several others picked her up and carried her onto an airboat."

  • Dr. Frank Minyard, The Orleans Parish Coroner: Minyard investigated Pou. After Pou went on TV to defend herself, Minyard—a devout Catholic—met with Pou to suss out her character: "They talked for about an hour. She told him that she had been trying to alleviate pain and suffering. Given that Pou's lawyer was there, Minyard was careful not to put her on the spot with direct questions about what she had done. The conditions she described at Memorial took him back to the days he spent trapped in the courthouse after Katrina. How precious food and water had seemed. How impossible it was to sleep at night with gunshots echoing all around. Minyard told me that his feelings were less sympathetic than he let Pou know."

  • Photojournalism: The Times sent photographers down there to get a photo essay on what it's like at Memorial now. And it still looks like the war zone it became. The pictures are, while unsurprising, pretty stunning.

And then there's the kicker: the shill for laws protecting health care workers in disasters from Pou. And the conversation about the lines of communication between patients and doctors, when obscured, becoming third-rail ordeals.

Much of the discussion that's going to dominate this article in the media, sadly, is that it maybe costs $400,000 to produce a piece of thorough, lengthy investigative journalism, the kind that sites like this one are going to maybe kill one bullet point at a time by summarizing them, as I did above. The fact that a non-profit had to foot the bill's only going to fan the flames even further.

What's going to happen to investigative journalism because of blogs? Important question with hard answers nobody's sure of yet (except for blogs doing their own investigative journalism, maybe). Just as important, however, are the number of readers who are going to click through to Fink's story. Bringing into question a $400,000 story's costs misses the larger point of how much the actual information contained within the story's worth to readers, and who's going to capitalize on it. Again: it took a non-profit to get a story of this size out there. Who's going to pay for the next Watergate? Or the next Torture Memos? And what kind of models are going to emerge from it?

Whoever foots the bill, if it comes out anything like this, good on 'em.