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Pulling it Together: About Kaiser Health News

There is lots of apocalyptic talk these days about the collapse of the newspaper industry and the challenges facing news organizations.  There is even talk of the unimaginable, my hometown paper The Boston Globe shutting down. Surely they know that Red Sox Nation cannot exist without the Globe Sports pages.

All kinds of solutions have been proposed, from micro-payments for news stories like songs on iTunes to foundation-endowed daily newspapers.  There is growing talk of newspapers charging for their content on the web. Health journalists are worried too, as our recent survey of health journalists and forum on this topic showed.

Against this background, Kaiser is launching a new nonprofit health policy news service this June, Kaiser Health News (KHN), with the mission of providing in-depth coverage of today’s ever more complex health issues and developments.

Will KHN improve coverage of complex health policy issues and give policymakers, business and health leaders, and the public better access to information about what’s happening in Washington and around the country?  That is our goal so I certainly hope so.  In the midst of the biggest U.S. debate about health care in 15 years — if not ever — insightful coverage will be critical to an informed debate and good policy.

Will KHN be the model for nonprofit journalism?  I’m not so sure.  That’s not our goal, and that in fact is the wrong question, from our perspective at Kaiser.

To appreciate our motivation for creating KHN, it’s important to understand our longstanding commitment to health journalism, our role as an operating foundation and our mission as an information organization. In fact, KHN itself has been long in development; I first brought the idea to our board and made it our top priority for new program development in March 2007, and only then after about a year of internal development.

One of the first operating programs we started after I arrived at Kaiser in 1990 and began remaking the organization was our media fellows program .  Run by Penny Duckham from our Menlo Park headquarters, the program provides journalists with the time and resources to delve into complicated health policy issues, access to experts, and an understanding of what’s happening on the ground in the health system through regular site visits.  Over the last 15 years, many of the nation’s top health policy reporters have come through the program.  We followed the fellows program up with internships for young journalists interested in covering health issues affecting diverse communities.  And we’ve provided similar opportunities for journalists covering global health issues.

But that is hardly our only involvement with journalists and news organizations.  Through our in-house polling operation, we have entered into formal partnerships with many of the nation’s top news organizations, including The Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, and ABC News.  These partnerships are based on surveys and stories resulting from them that go beyond the usual who’s up/who’s down polls and have produced some extraordinary analysis and journalism.  Take a look, for example, at the Being a Black Man series we did with the Washington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health. We have now done eighteen surveys with the Post and Harvard. We pick the topics and analyze the results together (with Molly Brodie’s public opinion research team at Kaiser playing a lead analytic role) and, of course, the Post or our other news partners have final say over what they publish or broadcast.

I’ve always believed that good journalism is a key to informed debate and good public policy, since it’s through news coverage that most people understand policy. And frankly, as an ex-public official, I have a keen sense of how news coverage influences the public agenda and public officials — almost like a daily umpire of a never ending game — much as we like to deny it when we are in office.

But, to fully understand the genesis of KHN, you have to see it as part of our larger role as an information organization.   People see the word “Foundation” in our name and they think we give out grants. But that’s not what we do.  We are a nonprofit, private operating foundation whose product is information — from the most sophisticated policy analysis, to basic facts and numbers, to daily summaries of developments in the news, to up-to-the-minute expert commentary and analysis from our broadcast studio, to information young people can use to improve their health or elderly people can use to understand their Medicare benefits.  One Kaiser audience knows us mainly for our policy work and knows little if anything about the Emmy and Peabody award-winning media campaigns we operate in partnership with media companies on issues like HIV in the U.S. and around the world.  On the other hand, our more than one hundred media partners across Africa and the Caribbean, or the many partners we have worked with so closely in South Africa since before apartheid fell, probably don’t even know we work on Medicare and Medicaid or health reform in the U.S., much less have a substantial Washington D.C. building and conference center.  But it’s all tied together by a commitment to producing the best possible information, whether for policy or people.

The in-depth news coverage that KHN will provide — along with the kind of daily news summaries, interviews, and webcasts previously produced by kaisernetwork.org that will now be integrated into KHN — is one part of a spectrum of all that we do to better inform the health community and mainstream news coverage, and to equip the public to participate in the policymaking process.  We hope that KHN will help explain the complex policy issues being debated inside the beltway to audiences outside Washington.  As important are the time and resources KHN journalists will have to cover stories where they are happening in the marketplace, the delivery system and in the states, to report on and explain what is happening in health care in the country.

A few specific aspects of KHN are important to mention. KHN will have editorial independence, with control over news content resting with our outstanding executive editors — Laurie McGinley, who came from the Wall Street Journal, and Peggy Girshman, formerly of CQ and NPR, and the Foundation acting as publisher.  Our longtime Senior VP who oversees all our media initiatives, Matt James, will oversee KHN.  KHN will also enable us to build upon our partnerships with news organizations.  We have no desire to supplant what news organizations do; our goal is to support them by producing high-quality, in-depth news reports about health issues that newspapers and other media organizations can use and often don’t have the resources now to produce themselves.  KHN content will appear on a new website we are developing and will be published or broadcast by other news organizations with whom KHN enters into partnership arrangements.  (KHN has already published stories in the Washington Post and  Philadelphia Inquirer and in its “soft launch phase.”)

Fundamental to our underlying philanthropic purpose, all KHN content will be made available for free.  And much of the content previously provided by kaisernetwork.org is being integrated into KHN, from our daily reports to our studio programming and more, with many improvements made.  By integrating kaisernetwork into KHN, we hope to produce a unique home for health news information ranging from original in depth journalism to news synthesis reports to newsmaker interviews and original studio programming.

KHN is in the process of building out its fulltime reporting staff.  In addition to Laurie McGinley and Peggy Girshman we have been fortunate enough to have been able to attract a number of outstanding journalists: John Fairhall, formerly of the Baltimore Sun; Julie Appleby, formerly of USA Today; Mary Agnes Carey, formerly of CQ; Jordan Rau, most recently with the LA Times Sacramento Bureau, with more to come. But KHN will also make wide use of independent journalists, to provide a resource and distribution vehicle for freelance journalists and the many excellent journalists who have lost their jobs in recent downsizings and reorganizations.

To be honest, we are in some ways going against the grain here.  Our aim is not investigative reports, snarky opinion or blogs, or breaking news headlines that can fit on a cable news ticker or Twitter feed, though we have no problem if KHN sometimes “breaks news.”  Nor do we want to cover regular daily health news, a job which will get done without us.  Unlike some others, we do not seek to achieve policy change; indeed, I view that as antithetical to our purpose — excellent in-depth news coverage.  Nor are we putting ourselves forward as a model for the future of nonprofit journalism.  Indeed it is what is most different and un-replicable about us that is probably most striking.

KHN’s objective is simply to report, inform and explain.  And unlike other nonprofit “models,” we are not dependent on the largesse of outside benefactors whose interests may change over time, if for no other reason than a leadership change at the funding organization.  KHN’s core costs are built into our ongoing operating budget funded from our own endowment and KHN itself is integral to our long-term strategic plan as an information organization.

Despite our differences, what is common to all nonprofit models is that we have the luxury to fill a need — in our case for in-depth health policy journalism — in creative and effective ways without needing to worry about ad revenue, rating points, or how our stock is faring on Wall Street.  If we follow that opportunity — our essential difference from the commercial news media and comparative advantage — there is a chance to make a tremendous difference for journalism and the public.