Iraq Memo Project Could Inspire More Collaborative Efforts by Members
Earlier this spring, seasoned investigative reporter Jason Vest talked with Richard Karpel, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, about writing a series of stories on national security issues for the organization and its member papers.
Shortly after those casual conversations, Vest, currently senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a former staffer at U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post and several AAN papers, was given a memo written by a U.S. government official with the Coalition Provisional Authority. That memo details a bleak future for Iraq, describing it as a country mired in corruption and possibly headed for civil war. The memo also claims the CPA had become distanced from the Iraqis after a “year’s worth of serious errors.”
The details of the memo and the possibility that AAN-member papers would get an exclusive story was too good a deal for AAN to pass up. While working as a news bureau of sorts isn’t in AAN’s normal protocol, the decision to retain Vest to write a piece was an easy one.
AAN made the choice to give the story free of charge to its member papers. Papers were given the piece, “Fables of the Reconstruction,” and allowed to publish it on their Web sites on April 20. The entire process from acceptance of the story to publication took about 10 days, Karpel says.
The article received immediate attention, according to Roxanne Cooper, AAN director of sales and marketing, including a preview story the day prior to publication on Editor & Publisher’s Web site, a pick-up on the Drudge Report, a mention by Washington Post Columnist Richard Leiby and blog posts on The Washington Monthly and the Daily Kos. The full redacted memo Vest used for the story was also posted on the AAN Web site.
The piece was edited by AAN President Clif Garboden, who is senior managing editor of The Boston Phoenix, and the Phoenix’s copy desk.
AAN promoted the piece with a link to all of the papers that carried it. Forty-six of AAN’s 122 member papers reported they published the piece in their print edition (two in abbreviated form), and 62 said they posted it to their Web site.
The day the Vest story appeared, Cooper says she was deluged with phone calls seeking interviews for Vest, who appeared on C-Span and Democracy Now!, among others. There were also attempts by mainstream news outlets to purchase the rights to the story. Those offers were not considered, however, because of the direct competition with AAN papers.
“The response to the story by our papers was overwhelming,” Karpel says. “The story was picked up by more than 60 members, a bigger response than I thought it would get.”
Matt Haber, online managing editor for The Village Voice, says the story received “a few hundred thousand hits” when it was first published. The Voice seemed to be the main port of call for most Web surfers looking for the story.
Haber says the buzz around the story, as well as its inclusion on the Drudge Report and the massive promotion by AAN, is what spurred the traffic.
“The best part of the whole process,” Haber explains, “was watching all of the papers get behind and push this thing.
“It was a smart move on AAN’s part to get everyone on board and ready to go at once. By doing that, we got the story out farther and to more people than we ever would have normally.”
The story was not only picked up by larger papers, like The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix and Seattle Weekly, but also smaller papers in Jackson Miss., Greenville, S.C., and Missoula, Mont.
Chris Haire, editor of Greenville’s MetroBeat, says the opportunity to run a major national story was too good to pass up. The paper ran it as a cover story that week and on the Web site. Haire acknowledges it took a leap of faith to decide to go forward.
“We were told there was a worthwhile story coming, and we had to decide if we wanted to pick it up,” Haire says. “But that was pretty much all we had. We have a lot of faith in Richard and AAN and decided to move forward.”
Haire put the piece on the cover and was pleased with the story and the results, although he would have liked to have seen the story’s hype run a bit longer than a few days.
Brad Tyer, editor of the Missoula Independent, agrees it was a bit of a “crap shoot,” especially when the story was released on the paper’s deadline day. But it turned out to be a gamble worth taking.
“With the time that we had to deal with it,” Tyer explains, “we really held our breath and hoped that it was as worthwhile as promised.
“In retrospect, it was. It was an important story that we wouldn’t have ordinarily had the chance to carry.”
There’s seldom an opportunity for papers like the Independent to run a story of national significance. Its identity, like that of most AAN papers, is in its local news and entertainment coverage.
So does that mean AAN will be commissioning more national stories in the future? Karpel says that’s likely, but next time it won’t be a top-down process.
If a system for AAN-commissioned editorial content is put in place, the model will be different from the one adopted for the Vest story. Story subjects would be disseminated early enough so papers could supplement each piece with local reporting that could be incorporated into the primary version of the story or published as supplemental material, Karpel says.
“We’re not going to be reporting on confidential memos every week,” Karpel says, explaining that the stories commissioned by AAN would most likely focus not on breaking news, but on the kind of in-depth analysis that is a hallmark of alternative weeklies. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t publish breaking news if the opportunity presented itself, but the long-term plan needs to be papers working together and sharing.”
AAN’s editorial committee has been holding ongoing discussions on story sharing, and the association will soon debut a Web site that allows members to buy articles from each other, particularly items editors might need at the last minute, like book and movie reviews.
But right now it’s tough to undertake more ambitious collaborative reporting projects because AAN doesn’t have the staff to handle it, AAN President Garboden says. Although The Boston Phoenix pitched in to edit the Jason Vest story, “that can’t be the norm because we all have our own papers to put out,” he says.
“But I think that the success we had with the Jason Vest story shows that there is a want out there for this kind of sharing, and I think this was a good experiment to learn and grow from.”
Charlie Deitch is a freelance writer living near Pittsburgh, Pa.