Consider the Outsource
What happens when a paper of record hires a consultant to do its work?
|POWER TO THE PRESS: The News says the proposed buyout of TXU forced it to act quickly.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin
On Sunday, June 24, Dallas Morning News
editor Bob Mong reinvented journalism as we know it today. For the fourth time. But this time, he gave it a name: “consultative journalism.”
If you missed the momentous occasion, you can be forgiven. It probably slipped by you, as there were few clues that the story on the proposed TXU Corp. buyout by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. would set media junkies’ tongues wagging. It was clearly an important, eat-your-broccoli story, as phrases like “exclusive report” and “first of three parts” always suggest vitamin-rich, fibrous journalism. But nothing about the story, which said the buyout could not promise better rates or service for TXU customers, would lead you to think that day’s paper was special.
The first sense you would have had of the report’s uniqueness came from the letter to readers found deep within the story. In this, Mong not only told you why the story took up three full inside pages (“the proposed purchase of TXU represents an epochal moment in our region’s history”) but that the paper’s report, that day and for the following two, was based largely on a study conducted by an energy consultant hired by the paper. It was in this letter that he first unveiled the phrase that caused several News reporters to say, “I have no idea what that means.”
So how can a term that confused so many be so controversial? Because journalists (and the stories they write) are supposed to have at least the appearance of objectivity. And that’s hard to achieve when you know the reporters have been asked to report on a report paid for by their employer. Even if everyone operates aboveboard and with the best intentions, it’s easy to see how such an arrangement could force all participants—consultants, reporters, editors—into an ethical game of Twister if, say, the report on the report comes back and the reporters suggest the first report was hogwash.
“You give me 100 consultants, and I’ll give you 150 different positions,” says an agitated TXU official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t directly involved. “You can tell right away [the report] is agenda-driven. We got caught in a Bob Mong journalism experiment, because we’re the wounded wildebeest calf on the Serengeti. Everyone hates the electric company. We’re an easy target.”
But although the thesis of the report and the subsequent stories can fairly be argued, what is important here is not what the stories said—basically, that the future is unsure—as much as how and why the stories were put together. Because the idea of commissioning an outside consultant to do your reporting for you, and then writing a summary of that report and slapping it across the front page, is fairly radical stuff. Despite Mong’s reasoned protestations, it’s really the opposite of what journalism has traditionally been.
But does that necessarily mean, as one rival reporter groused, that the TXU story is “proof the Morning News
won’t let its own reporters, you know, report”? Or is it, as Mong suggests, an example of how the paper will find inventive ways and spare no expense to offer its readers analysis no other local media can provide (or afford)?
Unfortunately and boringly as is the case when you look carefully at an issue, the answer to both questions is “sorta.”
If you want to get Bob Mong excited, there’s one unusual way to do so. You don’t mention “Pulitzer Prize” or “six-month investigation” or even “increase in readers age 18 to 35” (although those would surely work). You simply mention “benchmarks.”
Mong loves the wonkish part of journalism as much as he does the storytelling part. So much so that when you ask him why he thinks it’s necessary for his newspaper to commission consultants to write expensive reports that his newspaper will then write splashy front-page stories about, his voice rises as he talks about benchmarks.
“Look, if no one else does this, we’ll step into the void,” Mong says. He’s talking in general about the four times his paper has commissioned a big report on an important city issue: in 1990, 2000, 2004, and in June. He says that the first three such stories, which were broad, sweeping looks at what Dallas was doing with its resources and what it needed to focus on in the future, were necessary because the city wasn’t establishing benchmarks to compare itself with like cities. In effect, the paper had to play city manager.
“We reserve the right to do that,” Mong says, “because we need to tell readers what these sorts of deals mean to them. And, let’s not forget, it’s important for institutions to know we’re watching them.”
This time, though, he needed to analyze the possible outcomes of one transaction. But the TXU buyout would be the largest private equity deal in history if it goes through, and the energy business itself is tremendously complex, so such a report required an expertise and independence that wasn’t easy to find. Quickly, the News eliminated all Texas analysts, because the paper couldn’t find any who didn’t have some tie to TXU.
Roger Gale, a longtime and respected energy analyst from Washington, D.C., was given one overarching instruction: find out if this is a good deal for the person paying his electric bill. Other than that, whatever conclusion he found, the paper would report. Each side was adamant about that fact.
Gale concluded that the buyout offered no net gain to Texas consumers, as such a deal must to gain approval from state regulators. Well, it sort
of said that. Actually, it said that there would probably
be no net gain to Texas consumers. And that we may pay more for energy in two years. And that all that might
not happen just as easily as it could
Which leads to one of the easiest criticisms of this report and analysts in general: they love to hedge their bets.
“Oh, there’s a lot of hedging” in it, Mong says, chuckling. Which is why, if you actually read all three stories on the report, you, too, may have chuckled while considering blaring no-duh headlines like “TXU Deal May Lead to Higher Rates.”
But let’s not get too hung up on this, easily mockable as it may be. Hedging is part of what a newspaper has to do, at least outside of its columns and opinion pages. It can’t write that a bridge will collapse, but if it finds that a bridge could collapse, it is supposed to print that. In this case, the hedging doesn’t undermine the report—in fact, it makes it sound more reasoned, less sensational.
Which leads to a more valid criticism: if such hedging is what a newspaper usually does—because its reporters are supposed to be objective and canvass a wide variety of opinions on a topic—then what is the value of hiring the consultant in the first place?
Gale sees tremendous value in this approach. A former reporter, Gale says journalists aren’t ever good at this sort of independent analysis. And, as the newspaper industry contracts, he says the complexity of the issues makes it so that outside help is needed.
But there are plenty of folks who argue that analyzing a complex issue is exactly what reporters are paid to do. Dallas Observer
city columnist Jim Schutze, who is critical of the approach, says if a reporter doesn’t understand a topic, he just keeps saying, “I’m sorry, I’m stupid, explain it to me again,” over and over until he understands. “That’s what makes a good reporter!” he says. “Because then if you’re pretty dumb, like me, but you can ask questions until you figure it out, think how much more clear your explanation will be to the reader than some guy who already knows this stuff. That’s Journalism 101.”
It’s not just outsiders who complain that this approach does as much harm as good. Because “consultative journalism” (a term which, if a Google search is an indication, has not caught fire) gives the appearance that the paper can’t do its job, that the paper doesn’t trust its own reporters, and that it is, as one reporter told Mong, “simply outsourcing journalism.” It can demoralize reporters who got into the business in the hopes of doing Big Important Journalism stories.
Mong says the unique circumstances of the TXU buyout offer made hiring the consultant necessary. Surprisingly, the reporters who wrote the stories, environmental reporter Randy Lee Loftis and energy reporter Elizabeth Souder, agree.
Sipping coffee in the West Village, Loftis and Souder want to set the record straight on several things. First, Souder says, shaking a finger, D Magazine
reported on its blog, FrontBurner, that, according to a TXU insider, the company was only given two days to read the report and respond. The company was given a week. Correction noted and deserved.
Second—and this conclusion is read into their responses and glances more than it was explicitly said—they, too, were concerned with the “consultative journalism” approach at first. But now they clearly believe it was the right thing to do.
“Look, there are very legitimate concerns with this approach,” Loftis says. “Are we abdicating our role as analysts? Very legitimate. But in this case, no. We were not running and hiding behind an analyst because we were too scared to make a stand.”
Loftis’ take has special weight. He has covered environmental issues for 25 years. His stories are often accused of crossing the line from reporting to advocacy, and he seems almost proud of that accusation. “They call it advocacy,” he says. “I just call it being aggressive.”
This case, he and Souder say, was different. Some of the problems, as Souder points out, were technical—regulations that make it harder for analysts to go on record, the fact KKR is a private company. But they say the overriding problem was time. Once they began looking at this story in the spring, Loftis and Souder felt they had only a few months to produce a thorough look at the deal before it could have gone through and become moot.
“I could find some analysts who thought this was a great deal for customers, some who thought this was a bad deal for customers, you know, put a quarter in their slots and got some quotes from both sides—boom—there’s your ‘analysis,’” Loftis says. “But that doesn’t help anyone. And if Elizabeth and I had two years, maybe we could have done the level of analysis that Roger Gale did. But we didn’t have that time.”
The final question to be answered, he says, is whether it would have been better for the readers if the paper hadn’t hired the consultant. He and Souder say of course not.
And they’re right. Despite all the worries, it shined a light at a crucial public concern. Do that every so often, when it’s appropriate, and the arguments about reporters reporting on reports seem silly.
But what you have to do if you’ve just invented a new form of reporting is make sure people care about it. And you can’t do that unless you follow up your “consultative journalism” with good old-fashioned muckraking, fire and brimstone stuff. Column after column on why, say, TXU is evil. It’s why people read Jim Schutze of the Observer
or Mitchell Schnurman of the Star-Telegram
. It’s why the paper needs a strong business columnist to advocate change and express outrage. It needs to see such projects as the first step, not the last, in handling Big Important Journalism stories. Because no one goes back to a restaurant for its broccoli, and no one subscribes to a newspaper because of benchmarks.
Eric Celeste (email@example.com) is the managing editor of D Magazine.