When we talk about "journalism-as-process" what we usually talk about is following a news story as it unfolds in real time, usually heavily involving social media and reader interaction. Think of the Mets-Carlos Gomez story last week.
But there's more to journalism-as-process - a new understanding of what journalism in the digital age is - than just following a story on Twitter. And there's a really interesting example going on on Deadpspin.
Over the weekend, Tom Ley published a story about the site's examination of the St. Louis Cardinals' charity - Cardinals Care. Specifically, Ley and Deadspin are looking at several hundreds of thousands of dollars the charity is paying back to the club with no explanation. Ley found the payments by examining the charity's IRS 990 form - a publicly available document that is an essential resource for any journalist.
Every MLB team has an analogue to Cardinals Care—a charity that is headquartered in the team’s stadium offices—so we went looking for the most recent 990s of as many MLB charities as we could get our hands on. Out of the 21 990s we looked at, not a single one listed an expense similar to Cardinals Care’s yearly payment to the team that operates it.
What's telling about this story is that the central question - what is that money used for? - is left unanswered. Deliberately so.
Over the last few weeks, we have sent nine emails to the Cardinals Community Fund inquiring about this subject. We have also left multiple phone messages with the charity. The one time we were able to actually speak to someone in the office, we were told that someone would call back with an answer. Nobody ever called back. Without further explanation—the sort that might be laid out in the written agreement mentioned on the 990—this looks like the Cardinals using their official charity to redirect money back into their own pockets. That may not be what’s happening at all, though! This could be something totally innocuous, but we won’t know that until the charity gets back to us. That’s why we’ve sent so many emails to and left so many voice mails with Cardinals Care. Seriously, you guys, just email us!
This runs counter to traditional journalism. You'd never see a newspaper story in which the central question of "where did the money go?" is left unanswered. The traditional journalism model requires a sense of finality, of answers. This is the kind of story that would sit in a reporter's notebook until the charity responded, or you found a source(s) who would tell you what's really going on.
Journalism-as-process runs this story as Deadspin did.
On one hand, the traditional model is rested in a lot of ways on fairness. Running a story the way Deadspin does can be seen as implicates the Cardinals in an implicit way. It says "hey, we're not saying they're doing anything wrong, we're just asking questions," but by doing so it tacitly implicates that something isn't right. The fact that this comes from a site that routinely pokes at the Cardinals is notable too.
There's something to publishing this story the way Deadspin does. In the traditional model, a charity can stonewall a journalist, not respond to questions and a story just sits in the notebook. Writing the story like this - and Ley is very careful to never outwardly implicate the Cardinals in any wrongdoing - puts the journalists' work in the marketplace of ideas. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and it's better to have more information than less.
Also, there was a fabulous comment left by a "tax guy" with a possible explanation - basically, it's an accounting move involving rent. That's another part of journalism-as-process - involving the readers, using their expertise.
If it's indeed an accounting move and Deadspin confirms that, as long as the story is properly updated, this is an excellent example of journalism-as-process.
It looks different than the journalism we're used to. But that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, there's good in it.