There are plenty of reasons to despair that it was a hit-and-run. Advertising and readers fled print media to go online. Traditional newrooms emptying or shutting down completely. PR people now outnumber reporters 5 to 1 and make 40% more.
Worse, most of what runs on the leading "news" websites are repurposed stories from the remaining legacy media. Endless "listicles" seem to be the web's most signifiant contribution to the trade. Otherwise, partisanship reigns in online echo chambers of conspiracy hounds and smear mongers. Elsewhere the newsweb exhbits a weird fascination with cute pets, ordinary people being stupid, and celebrities behaving badly.
But now a ray of hope has emerged from that dark cloud -- a one-man story factory named Steven Brill partnered with Huffington Post on invesigative journalism worthy of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh at their best.
"America's Most Admired Lawbreaker" is a 15-part narrative about Johnson & Johnson's marketing of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for "off-label" ailments like dementia in the elderly and autism in children.
Brill is a lawyer-turned journalist-turned entrepreneur who founded American Lawyer magazine in 1979 and Court TV in 1989. After that, he turned his attention to other ventures, some of which failed (e.g., Brill's Content) and some of which succeeded (e.g., Journalism Online, sold to R. R. Donnelly for $45 million in 2011). Inbetween, he has written book-length invesigations into everything from America's public schools to its healthcare system.
Brill can type faster than most of us can write. His output is prodigious and its quality is first-rate. When he dives into a subject, he descends to the depths of an unmanned submarine and he turns over rocks embedded in the seabed for millennia.
I should add here that I have no idea if the accusations he makes about J&J are accurate. But I should also note that the company has settled federal, state, and private suits over its marketing of Risperdal to the tune of more than $2.5 billion.
But what's remarkable about Brill's story is not only its length, but the way it exploits all the capabilities of the web. This story was carefully constructed with sidebar links to videos, trial transcripts, depositions, and other primary source material that expands on the narrative and gives readers an opportunity to make their own judgments.
It's a devestating chronicle, exactly the opposite of shoveling content online. And an example of what web journalism may one day be. It also represents both a challenge and an opportunity for public relations practitioners.
The opportunity of course is to use the same techniques to tell an organization's own story. The challenge is what to do when someone else uses them to tell a story about you.
J&J alas may be a case study of the latter. And every public relations practitioner should read and view "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker," not for schandenfreud's sake but as an object lesson in the power of new media.