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One Foundation’s Remedy for Ailing Health Policy Journalism


One of the hallmarks of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) communications strategy is its reliance on the news media to inform opinion leaders and decision-makers about issues relating to health policy concerns in the United States.

Yet, in an ironic twist, as health policy is becoming an increasingly major agenda item for policymakers across the nation, reporting on the subject is rapidly shrinking as newsrooms fall victim to budget cuts and fewer and fewer reporters are covering this story.

To help fill this widening gap between what policy audiences need to know and what’s being reported, KFF recently announced plans to create an independent nonprofit news service to produce what it says will be “gold standard” journalism about health policy issues.

Matt James, KFF’s senior vice president for media and public education, described this undertaking as “the most risky thing we have ever done.” He also says it is a natural progression of KFF’s mission to be a credible and nonpartisan health policy resource.

“The cutbacks in the news business have severely affected coverage of national policy debates,” says James. “The non-profit sector can play a unique role in making sure that the public has continued access to in-depth reporting on complex policy issues. And it is our hope to do just that in the area of health care, an issue that affects everyone.”

James characterizes the service as a home for explanatory journalism that can inform opinion leaders. “The deeper explanatory pieces don’t necessarily generate the kind of eyeballs and readers that the flashier stuff does. But if you can attract the right numbers of those readers, you can have impact.”

Scheduled to launch in early 2009, the Kaiser Health News will be a fully independent news organization with about 10 staff, supplemented by freelance journalists. Coverage will focus on daily news in health policy as well as in-depth, explanatory articles on federal and state issues in health and health care.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) will be headquartered at Kaiser’s Washington, D.C. offices and be headed by two veteran journalists who have spent years covering health care. Laurie McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor, is the former deputy bureau chief for global economics and national health care policy correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. Peggy Girshman, an Emmy-winning editor and producer, is a former managing editor of National Public Radio and an executive editor at Congressional Quarterly.

KHN will publish stories, online video and storytelling slideshows in a partnership with major news organizations and also post on its own Web site, which will launch in 2009 as well. All content produced by KHN will be available free of charge, to the public and to the news organizations who syndicate it. Kaisernetwork.org, home of KFF’s current daily health policy headlines and event Webcasts and which already has 70,000 daily e-mail subscribers, will be folded into the new service.

To ensure editorial independence and credibility, KHN will maintain a firewall between the news service and the rest of the foundation. Foundation staff will not review or edit KHN’s content.

Such independence is critical, James says. As the service publishes high quality journalism and makes strong hires, it will establish itself as a trusted news source.

James notes that the current news environment is not friendly to in-depth health reporting. Major papers such as the Baltimore Sun and San Jose Mercury News do not have health reporters. “When you hold a press conference, there are no health reporters,” James says. “The same thing is happening in state capitals.”

James says the response from major news organizations to Kaiser’s announcement has been uniformly positive. A few years ago, many journalists resisted these kinds of partnerships. Given the crisis in most newsrooms, news organizations are far more willing to talk, he adds.

“We have been welcomed and are overwhelmed with partnership possibilities,” James says. “Our challenge now is to think smartly about which ones we take advantage of in the short term so we can effectively reach the opinion leader audience that will value this information.”

The news service will have an annual budget of $3 to $4 million when fully implemented (within two years) and will likely grow to as much as $6 million. In addition support from KFF, other foundations have expressed interest in supporting the news service (one such foundation, the SCAN Foundation, has already committed $600,000 over three years to support coverage of health policy issues relating to America’s seniors).

James joked that “to show their editorial freedom, I would not be surprised to see very few Kaiser policy staff quoted.”

What will constitute success for this effort? The first assessment, says James, will be the quality of the stories: “Are they good?” Additional focus will be on who is reading these stories and how they inform the policy environment. He emphasized that Kaiser’s commitment to the news service will be ongoing and expects this to be a major initiative of the Foundation.

–Emily Culbertson

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