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19Mar 2013

Steven Brill talks about "The Bitter Pill," his masterful article in Time about American health care.

Steven Brill

If you were as impressed and enlightened as I was by Steven Brill's article on American healthcare in Time magazine, you should take a look at the conversation he had on March 7th with reporters and editors at ProPublica about the origins of the story, how he put it together, and how it came to be published in Time. It's a short course in the practice of journalism at the highest level.

The conversation--which you can listen to or read a transcript of--begins with ProPublica spokesman Mike Webb complaining, mildly, that Brill got a story that ProPublica would dearly like to have had. "We were a little jealous," he said. "After all, longform journalism is our bread and butter at ProPublica." As ProPublica's editors and reporters read through the piece, "we knew we had to bring him in for a brown bag lunch conversation with our staff." I can't help but note that we're in the journalistic stratosphere here; the air is thin. Not many websites could expect to have Brill attend a brown bag lunch to chat, but such is ProPublica's reputation that it can--and he accepted.

Brill has broad experience as an editor and entrepreneur, but when he talks, you can hear the voice of a reporter. Unlike so many others who have climbed the heights after starting out on the beat, he seems to remember what it means to be a reporter. And he describes it not in glorified terms, but as it is--plain hard work which, if you're lucky, gets a response:

I've gotten people saying, "You should testify in Congress," and stuff like that. Well, that's not my job. I'm not on any side of anything. I just wrote a story and a lot of people have read it and responded to it. That's great. That's what all of us here want to do. You don't want to end up leading a cause or anything, but you want to contribute to the debate.

He explains that he knew nothing about healthcare or insurance when he started reporting, and how that naiveté led him to reframe the central question:

I just always was baffled by the debates over health care which always started with the premise that everything costs a zillion dollars and it's super expensive. If you have cancer, it's a million dollars. If you slip and fall and you go to the emergency room, it's $25,000. The debate was over who should pay for it instead of, "How come it's $25,000?"

There is much more like this from Brill; I can't quote it all. I've heard a lot of people talk about how they got a story, and sometimes it's interesting, and often it's not. I found this one fascinating.

And I found this particularly gratifying: It turns out, at least in this case, that good journalism is good business. The Brill issue is on track to become Time's best-selling cover in two years, according to Christine Haughney of the Media Decoder blog at The New York Times. Additionally, she writes, "It also broke online records, selling 16 times more than an average week for digital single copy sales and digital subscriptions and becoming the most viewed magazine cover article on Time.com."

Maybe what the legacy media need to survive in the digital era is not better digital marketing strategies, but better journalism.

It's worth a try.

-Paul Raeburn

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