How ‘The Toppling’ Became Reality

Freelancer Peter Maass wrote a piece for last week’s New Yorker that Nieman Labs is saying is a candidate for any magazine award that it might be submitted to. It’s “equal parts war report, personal narrative, historical correctionism, literary journalism, and media criticism — detailing how, ultimately, the press distorted the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square” in 2003.

But how it came about is an interesting—and telling—story, says Nieman.

First, Maass was present for the toppling of the statue. Based on that and an idea for a larger story, he shopped the piece around, but nobody wanted to commission a possibly very expensive story based on just an idea and one eyewitness account.

So he applied for a $30,000 fellowship from Harvard, and got it. That let him spend an entire semester doing research without having to worry about how to pay the bills. Armed with the research, he pitched the story again–and it was rejected again.

ProPublica stepped in with a “significantly” smaller but “not insignificant” amount for Maass to write the piece, and provided editorial guidance as he did so.

Then, finally, ProPublica asked the New Yorker if they’d publish it. The magazine said yes, and paid a portion of Maass’s fee back to ProPublica.

What does this mean?

“The Toppling” came about through a funding model that in some ways mimics the funding goals of journalism outfits more broadly: diversifying — which is to say, hedging — by way of multiple financial streams. The article’s initial reporting — Maass’s 2003 Baghdad trip, during which he witnessed the statue-felling that would provide the kernel of the story — was paid for by a for-profit outfit (The New York Times magazine); its research and editing were funded by nonprofits (Shorenstein and ProPublica); and its publication was paid for by The New Yorker.

It’s a model of financial cross-pollination that … throws a potential lifeline to the (in)famously endangered species that is the long-form investigation.

Of course, Maass, a veteran journalist with years of experience, is not used to receiving $30,000 plus the much smaller ProPublica grant for what worked out to be a year of work. “If you’re 25 or 30 years old, then it’s okay to get that kind of money for a year’s work,” Maass told Nieman Lab. “But I’m not.” But the multiple funding streams definitely are a step in the right direction. Maass says: “It would be nice if one could assemble enough financing for a story like this and be able to support a family. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But at least we’re somewhere.”