J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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A News Work Challenge For Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer

Posted by chanders on December 2, 2008

[UPDATE: Scott Rosenberg writes in the comments section: “the question facing us is not, how would such a story “get constructed”, or how would you organize the work to produce such a story, in some future where we didn’t have a newspaper to produce it. The question is, how would readers become as well informed about the events surrounding the nursing home settlement as they were in the universe that included the newspaper story?” I agree that this is the real, or ultimate question– i.e., it’s the whole point of all the other conversations, right? I think it’s a fair rephrasing. Blame my own grapple with it– even now– on problems inherent to the academic bracketing of big questions. These are the kind of things that new professors or grad. students save for their “last chapter” where they are temporarily allowed to “think big.” That’s a whole other post, though … and that’s why I’m grateful for the blogosphere, too.]

Finally, an intelligent debate in the blogosphere about the future of news work.

After the sad parody of a 1950’s Shachtmanite debate that was the Jarvis-Rosenbaum smackdown a few weeks ago, we’ve actually got a meaningful discussion about who, or what, will do the work needed to “make journalism,” or the 21st century equivalent of it … in a world where newspapers and existing news institutions are disappearing daily.

I’ve always had a problem with the way that most discussions about the future of journalism tend to get framed online: first, they refuse to break journalism, reporting, editing, etc. down to their basic functions. Second, they refuse to discuss the way that this work will get done in the future, and are often content to wax philosophical. Fortunately, both Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer do both those things in their recent back and forth about news work: in a nutshell, Winer seems to be arguing that we can dispense with the middle man (currently, journalists and formal news institutions) between “news facts” and audiences, while Jarvis argues a more complicated architecture is needed in order to make the news. The fact that both of them come to such different conclusions is a testament to just how much is at stake in this particular  debate.

One thing I still have a problem with, though, is that the discussion is still too abstract. If there’s anything useful I did this summer during my dissertation fieldwork, I feel it was taking the daily work needed to report, edit, and produce news seriously. I then described that work in some detail– perhaps even to the point of absurdity (as you’ll see below).  So I want to issue a friendly challenge to Dave and Jeff; in fact, I want to turn Dave’s case study idea around and ask him and Jeff to take the first stab at it. In short, one of the things I did this summer was document extensively how a news story actually gets constructed: where the facts exist, who did the work to “get” them, and how they actually got put together.

Below, you’ll see an incredibly banal story broken down this way– where the facts came from and how they got put together. You’ll see that it was an actual story that got reported by the Philadelphia Daily News; though I’ve changed the names of the reporters for the sake of anonymity (if such a thing exists on the web). In any case, Dave, Jeff, and anyone else who wants to play along, the challenge is this: take the following story, and decide how it would get constructed using the news model you’ve proposed. What would you leave in and take out, and how would you organize the work needed to get what you want? What follows is an actual excerpt from a very rough draft of my dissertation, and the break down of the story is below the digital fold. I apologize for the awkward way thus is laid out, but I couldn’t figure out how to insert a table into the latest version of WordPress.

A few more notes: first of al, I think this is a pretty easy case. I also don’t think it’s very profound, but I do think it’s the bread and butter of what most news orgs. do every day. When you’re completing the challenge at home, please consider the trade-offs that are involved in your decision; for example, it’s an easy argument that the D.A. in the below story should just post the settlement agreement online, but what do you give up, if anything, if that’s the only way you propose news could be disseminated in the future. Finally, I’ll weigh in with my own thoughts on this in a later post.

OK, here we go. Remember to click below the fold for the acutal story:

On June 10, 2008, a local district attorney held a press conference announcing a settlement in a case against Rosalind Lavin, the wealthy manager of area nursing homes repeatedly cited for substandard conditions and the abusive treatment of patients. Under the terms of the settlement, all the “managed care” homes owned by Lavin were immediately shut down except for one (and this home’s closure was pending.) Although stories about the nursing home patients– “deranged and sick looking people wandering the streets”– had appeared earlier in a weekly neighborhood paper, the press conference initiated the first reporting by the Philadelphia Daily News on the story. A city editor, in fact, was convinced the managed care homes story “was a page one contender.” (fieldnotes, 6/10/2008). Along with R1 (the reporter who originally attended the press conference announcing the settlement, called a “presser” by members of the Daily News staff), a second and eventually a third reporter were added in an attempt to fully report the news. Documents—either stories in the local paper that had already reported the story, or the settlement agreement– might detail the charges and provide names of nursing home victims who could be interviewed. The direct observation of the one nursing home that remained open could add descriptive details. Additional and extensive information about the nursing home owner was available from an online database, called Autotracker, which a Daily News editor had access to. Over the course of June 10, R1’s initial information was supplemented by the work of R2, who traveled to the location of one of the managed care homes, R3, who worked the phones in an attempt to contact victims, and a city editor who used Autotracker to uncover additional facts. By the evening deadline, the story was complete and would lead the next days Daily News.
The following chart is a breakdown of the “fact objects” gathered together in the managed care homes story, along with the reporters involved in collecting them:

By Reporter 1, Reporter 2 & Reporter 3

NEVER AGAIN, said the feds, and they meant it.

Never again will owner Rosalind Lavin nor the managers of her four personal-care centers [1] in Philadelphia and Media allow more than 210 residents  [2] to live in what U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan called “appalling” conditions.[3]

Never again will Lavin or her managers allow residents to lie in vomit or feces for days, unattended.[4]

Never again will Lavin or her managers serve insufficient food to residents, like a slice of bologna and a piece of cheese between bread, and call it nutritious.[5]

Never again will Lavin or her managers be allowed to ignore the handing out of medications, [6] or fail to seek medical care when it’s needed for the disabled, mentally handicapped and elderly.[7]

Never again will she or her managers allow residents to wear inadequate or soiled clothing, or lie on filthy bed linens.[8]

Never again will she or her managers allow the physically disabled, the mentally handicapped or the elderly to live in grossly inadequate, structurally unsafe and dangerous firetraps that she called housing[9] .

And never again will Lavin be able to stuff her pockets and bank accounts with residents’ Social Security and disability payments to fund her luxurious lifestyle [10] – with a multimillion-dollar portfolio of fabulous homes in Villanova, Florida and New Jersey, and an aircraft [11]  – as alleged in her settlement agreement with the feds.

Even as Lavin – a licensed pilot [12] – denied wrongdoing of the above listed infractions in her civil settlement yesterday [13] , workers were painting the exterior of her posh 14-room mansion beige and pinkish- tan [14] , near the swimming pool and tennis court in her gated Villanova estate, called “Lionsgate,” [15] adorned with benches, sculptures and a babbling brook.

There, workers are about to take on the massive task of painting the gutted interior of a first floor wing of the mansion, turning the walls into an elegant shade of beige and cream for her about-to-be renovated master-bedroom suite [16] .

For more than eight years, Lavin, 65, and her late husband, Robert, denied to city, state and federalMeehan called the “appalling” treatment of residents at her four personal-care homes, even after three homes were closed [17] .

The last facility, Ivy Ridge Personal Care Center, on Ridge Avenue near Kingsley Street in Roxborough, which had two residents last month [18] , must close on Aug. 10 [19] .

But now, the long-blond-haired Lavin [20] must pay the feds $700,000 [21]  – a drop in the bucket to this multimillionaire [22] – as part of the settlement.

Yesterday, she signed the settlement agreement to never again own or operate a patient-, personal- or residential-care facility, or run a program or facility that receives federal health-care funds.[23]

Lavin owned three personal- care homes – or assisted-living facilities – in Philadelphia and one in Media, and Health Horizons, a management corporation that ran them, of which she and her late husband were the dominant shareholders.[24]

Besides Ivy Ridge, the other facilities included: Conlyn, 16th and Conlyn streets, Fern Rock, and Thoroughgood, at 40th and Pine streets, West Philadelphia, both closed in September 2002; and Brookwood, 1027 Ridley Creek Road, Media, Delaware County, closed in September 2000.[25]

Neither Lavin nor her attorney, Larry Besnoff, could be reached for comment.

Jadwiga Ruta, a Polish immigrant, still gets angry when she thinks about her mentally handicapped daughter’s three-day stay in the early ’90s at Ivy Ridge Personal Care Center, and about Rosalind Lavin.[26]

“The people who live under her roof, they suffer,” the elder Ruta, who now lives in Florida with her daughter, said of Lavin[27] . “What she did was a crime, crime, crime, crime.[28]

Ruta said Lavin and her late husband were “making themselves rich from the poor people and the handicapped people.”[29]

Her daughter had her to help her, Ruta said, but many of the elderly residents of the homes had no family.[30]

Ruta said that she had paid the Lavins $1,000 for her daughter’s care and that Lavin had refused to give it back. “I borrowed the money,” Ruta said. “I really, really, really couldn’t afford it. But I thought it would be good for her.”[31]

According to a lawsuit filed on the Rutas’ behalf, Ruta placed her daughter, whom she declined to identify, at Ivy Ridge because Ruta, a now-retired teacher, had to work[32] .

Her daughter, then 33, was at the personal-care center just three days when Ruta received a call saying that her daughter – who was incompetent – was either sick or “faking it,” according to a lawsuit filed in August, 1992.[33]

When Ruta rushed to the home, she found her daughter screaming and crying, with a diaper full of feces. The area around her was also covered with feces.[34]

Mrs. Ruta stayed with her daughter for several hours, trying to clean her up, and no one from the home assisted her. She told the Ivy Ridge staff that her daughter was ill, but none of the staff responded or even called for medical assistance, according to the suit. They didn’t even provide hot water for a cup of tea, she said [35].

After several hours, the mother drove her daughter to a nearby hospital, where she was diagnosed with viral gastroenteritis, a fecal impaction and dehydration.[36]

Common Pleas Court upheld a jury verdict that Ivy Ridge was guilty of neglect. The young woman was hospitalized for three days, and then her mother took her home.[37]

Personal-care homes are assisted-living facilities where residents are helped with bathing and dressing, and the taking of medications, but don’t need the kind of round-the-clock, skilled care provided in nursing homes.[38[

State regulators notified Lavin in October 2006 that they intended to close Ivy Ridge because she had failed to address repeated violations.[39]

In August and October 2006, for example, Ivy Ridge was cited for not having enough staff to provide at least one hour of personal care per day to its mobile residents.[40]

Some residents did not have adequate mattresses to sleep on, or lacked blinds in their rooms.[41]

Staff were not trained in first aid or CPR, and the home did not have a system in place to identify and document medication errors, the state said.[42]

Karen Kroh, the state’s chief regulator of personal-care homes, said in an e-mail yesterday that Ivy Ridge is no longer operating as a personal-care home, but as of last month two personal-care residents still lived there, as did two or three “independent occupants.”[43]

Meehan said that residents of many personal-care homes throughout Pennsylvania are “uniquely vulnerable” because of their mental and physical disabilities and because they are dependent on others to care for them.[44]

He pointed out that personal-care homes are not as tightly regulated as nursing homes by the state Department of Public Welfare[45] .

According to Meehan, there were 1,500 personal-care homes in the state last year and only 37 state inspectors. He said that 1,200 homes were at one time or another operating without a license.[46]

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare said yesterday that the department has since hired five more inspectors and that all of the state’s personal-care homes are operating with either a license or a conditional one.[47]

About 50,000 Pennsylvanians live in personal-care homes. [48]


[1] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[2] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[3] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[4] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[5] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[6] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[7] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[8] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[9] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[10] Settlement Agreement or presser / R1
[11] Autotracker / City editor
[12] Autotracker / City editor
[13] Settlement Agreement / R1
[14[Painter Outside the House /  R2
[15] Direct Observation / R2
[16] Painter Outside the House /  R2
[17] Previous ,media coverage / Settlement Agreement / R1
[18] Press conference / R1
[19] Settlement Agreement / R1
[20] Photograph / Previous Inquirer Story
[21] Settlement Agreement / R1
[22] Autotracker / City editor
[23] Settlement Agreement / R1
[24] Settlement Agreement / R1
[25] Settlement Agreement / R1
[26] Ruta / Was featured in previous stories / Phone conversation / R3
[27] Ruta / Phone conversation / R3
[28] Ruta / Phone conversation / R3
[29] Ruta / Phone conversation / R3
[30] Ruta / Phone conversation / R3
[31] Ruta / Phone conversation / R3
[32] Ruta / Reported in previous story (Inq.) / R3
[33] Ruta  / Reported in previous story (Inq.) / R3
[34] Ruta  / Reported in previous story (Inq.) / R3
[35] Ruta  / Reported in previous story (Inq.) / R3
[36] Ruta  / Reported in previous story (Inq.) / R3
[37] Ruta  / Reported in previous story (Inq.) / R3
[38] City editor – personal knowledge
[39] Settlement Agreement / Other stories (Inq.) / R1
[40] Settlement Agreement / Other stories (Inq.) / R1
[41] Settlement Agreement / Other stories (Inq.) / R1
[42] Settlement Agreement / Other stories (Inq.) / R1
[43] City editor (who runs PC Homes) / Kroh / Email to R1
[44] Presser  / R1
[45] Presser / R1
[46] Presser / R1
[47] City editor (talk to public welfare) / Public Welfare Spokeswoman  / Phone Call / R1
[48] Public Welfare Spokeswoman  / Phone Call / R1

The above chart unpacks the series of fact-objects collected  by the Daily News in order to tell readers “the news” about the scandal in Philadelphia nursing care homes. Most of the information early on in the story, including some of the most salacious details (“never again will Lavin or her managers allow residents to lie in vomit or feces for days, unattended”) were gathered through that traditional venue of news dissemination, the news conference. The use of Autotracker, which helped uncover facts about Lavin’s personal finances and net worth (“a multimillion-dollar portfolio of fabulous homes in Villanova, Florida and New Jersey, and an aircraft”) was a seen as a slightly “higher-level” reporting skill by members of the Daily News. “There are lots of people at the Daily News who don’t know how to use this” online program, the city editor told me. Despite the technical proficiency required by Autotracker, however, finding human sources to interview was by far the most complicated and difficult aspect of the reporting process, a situation I found throughout the course of both my Philadelphia fieldwork and my journalism school observations.  At 2:47 on June 10th, as reporting on managed care homes story was running at full steam, my field notes read “someone at the one remaining Ridge Road nursing home came to the door and said ‘go away.’ No one at Lavin’s mansion in Villanova was home or came to the door.  The problem here is finding people. People are still hard to find, although technology makes it easier to find everything else”  (interview, 6/11/2008). In the end, through a combination of luck and persistence, one of the reporters managed to secure an interview with a house painter that had done work on the Lavin mansion, garnering information eventually used to dramatically highlight some of the stark class differences between the wealthy Lavin and her patients.

3 Responses to “A News Work Challenge For Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer”

  1. This is a provocative challenge. May I suggest a more constructive rephrasing, however: the question facing us is not, how would such a story “get constructed”, or how would you organize the work to produce such a story, in some future where we didn’t have a newspaper to produce it. The question is, how would readers become as well informed about the events surrounding the nursing home settlement as they were in the universe that included the newspaper story?

    We could all live just fine without newspaper stories (much as I love a fine lead). What we are concerned with is having an informed public and a variety of functioning mechanisms for confronting wrongdoing, exposing scandals, and so forth. Newspapers have served us well, but it looks like they’re not going to much longer. How else can we achieve these goals?

    Wondering “how will we get the stories written” conceives the problem too narrowly. It’s like saying, “We’ve lived on potatoes for centuries and now there’s a blight! We must get the potato crop growing again.” You may not ever get your potatoes; it’s still important that you eat, and, gee, there are other foods.

  2. Karl said

    A “me too” to Scott’s comment. Jeff, Dave and almost everyone else that has concentrated on this subject has talked at length about how stories will get written (expect them both to answer that question – in their own way – yes – but there are good answers there – here’s one for me: what happens when everyone in a nursing home has a social network profile – and a digital camera with video capability?).

    The question Scott brings up is the far more difficult. Because its effects are already being felt:

    There *were* people reporting about the housing crisis before it happened.

    Yet we ALL act amazed a the news.

  3. […] question, the size and nature of the set of resources and projects, and the problem of integration. Given all this, I wanted to look at some of the kinds of newswork I encountered during my Philadelph… and see what qualities they possessed rendered them more or less amenable to a peer-based model of […]

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