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Case Study: Time's "Bitter Pill" Is a Hit, But Still Leaves Money on the Table

[ 0 ] March 22, 2013 |

Time Magazine’s health care expose “Bitter Pill” has journalists excited over the prospect that there is still a place for long-form, but it needs to be handled differently online…

By Paul Marszalek
BBG Office of Strategy and Development

When The New Republic passed on author Steven Brill’s Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us, it had plenty of conventional reasons for doing so.

For example, the 24,000 word, 36-page expose on America’s health care system does not exactly fit the criteria for the light, tight, and bright content currently served up to today’s info-snacking consumer.

As the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism has just pointed out, the trend for deep, investigative journalism seems to be stuck in reverse.

In something of a rebuke to journalism at large, Brill notes that while everyone seems to know that health care costs are too high in the U.S., nobody had ever really asked why.

In answering that question, at length for Time, Brill may make The New Republic regret passing on this possible Pulitzer.

The March 4 expose starts off with the exploration of “why,” but by the end, the reader wonders if he or she has been the victim of racketeering by the health care industry.

For journalism, it’s an increasingly rare combination of two things: 1) long-form print, and 2) a hit.

While the hard numbers are hard to come by, Time told the New York TimesMedia Decoder blog that the newsstand version sold at twice the average (usually about 60,000); and online, it sold at 16 times the average week. It was the magazine’s best showing in two years.

The buzz sent Brill on the interview circuit, with stops at ABC News, Charlie Rose, and The Daily Show, among others – each stop expanding the reach of the story, introducing or re-inforcing the Time brand, and possibly ringing the cash register of Time’s paywall.

If a news organization, or any media, is going to have a pay model, it had better go beyond commodity-level content and deliver something worth paying for. And enterprise pieces such as this do.

Yet with all this buzz, Time leaves money on the table, falling victim to the short-attention-span-theater mentality that plagues newsrooms hooked on news cycles.

I learned of this story three weeks after publication, when a co-worker verbally hit me with a “you gotta read this” in the hallway (old-school viral).

Heading directly to the website, I found nothing. Nothing above the fold in a everything-but-the-kitchen-sink web layout that has become typical of many news organizations. Displaying the best content has come second to a “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” strategy of analytics-obsessed web editors.

Finding nothing at first glance, I went to my iPhone news stand, fully expecting to have a digital copy for a couple of bucks in seconds. No such luck.

Back at the website, scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the page, there is a small feature box on the story. Note, the best-selling cover in two years, and one that sold at 16 times normal in terms of digital, is relegated to the bottom of the page three weeks after publication.

Time has already moved on from this gem, and it’s the wrong move. Bitter Pill‘s evergreen and viral nature gives it a shelf life that goes well beyond a couple of weeks. This piece of enterprise journalism could be a hit for more than a year as word continues to spread and Charlie Rose and Daily Show re-runs air.

The magazine’s webmasters should already know that most of their visitors are not daily or even weekly, suggesting that they’d do well to create better ways of displaying their greatest hits – the pieces worth paying for. The hits deserve prime positioning such as an “editor’s picks” widget or something akin to the New York Times’ “most read/emailed.”

The good news is, long-form seems to have a place so long as the story resonates. But we still need better ways of displaying and maximizing that content.

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Category: Ideas and Innovation, Think Pieces

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