Investigating the Pharmaceutical Industry on a Blog
‘… evidence itself often emerged as the centerpiece, which has a strong impact on the audience when they see for themselves the incriminating paper trail.’
Two years ago, I began a grand experiment on the Internet—I launched a blog called Pharmalot to focus on the pharmaceutical industry, which I had been following for more than a decade for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. There were several reasons I did so: The newspaper was looking for ways to embrace and exploit the Internet, and I was interested in getting ahead of the curve by finding new ways to cover my beat.
The gambit worked. Nowadays, reporters meet some of their best sources online. Take the case of the disgusted sales representative. I encountered this person after posting an item on Pharmalot, which I ran full time with up to 10 newsy posts every day. Some were grabbed from other media, providing links to the original story; other stories, I generated myself. The blog’s audience was diverse, although they were drawn to it by an interest in news about the pharmaceutical industry. Comments often developed into informative discussions and heated debates among people both in and out of the business.
One day, a person commented about a Pfizer item. These remarks clearly demonstrated that this person had inside information about sales practices, so I asked this anonymous commenter to send me a private e-mail in hopes of learning more. A few days later, an e-mail arrived, and we began a correspondence that led, in time, to telephone conversations. Still, for weeks I didn’t know this person’s true identity, and for a while I was unable to verify many details I was being told about allegedly illegal marketing activities for an HIV medicine.
Eventually, I gained this person’s trust. And that’s when the documents began to arrive in my e-mail box—dozens of them. Some were internal e-mails and memos, others were company manuals and presentations from meetings. More time was spent on the phone digesting all this material and then placing it in chronological order to tell a complicated story about employees who stretched rules that appeared to violate Pfizer policy and, more importantly, a corporate integrity agreement with federal authorities.
In some ways, this approach to investigating a story was similar to what I’d done when I reported on these same topics for The Star-Ledger—meet sources, gain their trust, research information received, then flesh out the story. What made this different was not so much how I reported the story but how I was able to tell it. On my blog, once I had verified that the documents were authentic, I used them—in their entirety—to illustrate the marketing violations, which Pfizer acknowledged were being investigated.
Each post in my three-part series contained a few introductory paragraphs that offered a brief, narrative setup explaining the background and significance. After that, I let the reproduced documents do the rest; their mere presence was powerful enough to convince visitors to my blog of the problems my story highlighted.
The Value of Quick Hits
This story describes just one way that Pharmalot altered my approach to investigating and disseminating news. I was no longer confined to the conventional structure of a news story that relied heavily on narrative, despite the importance it has in explaining context and fleshing out an interesting tale. Instead, evidence itself often emerged as the centerpiece, which has a strong impact on the audience when they see for themselves the incriminating paper trail.
I also tried to write stories in a way that they can be told over the radio. By doing this I returned to a more conversational style that connects with people in a way that the dispassionate newspaper tone often fails to do.
Most of the stories on Pharmalot were 300 to 500 words in length, and they rarely appeared as part of a longer series, as the piece about Pfizer did. I did examine other issues and spent days, even weeks, compiling substantive posts (exceeding 1,000 words) that have resembled the sort of in-depth piece that would appear in a Sunday newspaper. But most of time I investigated topics on a piecemeal basis.
Let me explain. When I wrote for the newspaper, a major story might later yield some interesting follow-ups. But often, what I might consider equally interesting tidbits rarely merited additional stories. The exception was a big event being closely followed by a huge audience. Most subjects, though, rarely warranted such an approach. Instead, those new pieces of information were destined to remain lodged in a notebook, just as colorful anecdotes sometimes get left on the cutting-room floor.
It turns out that Pharmalot was a natural home for stories that one might not find in a newspaper. During 2008, for example, I spent a great deal of time closely following an ongoing investigation by the Senate Finance Committee into undisclosed conflicts of interest by academic researchers who simultaneously receive sought-after National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and payments from drug makers for consulting, speaking or research. More than 30 professors, many at prominent universities, are targets of this investigation. Not surprisingly, this has been a long-running, national story in the mainstream media.
Through old-fashioned digging and sourcing, I broke the story of how one high-profile professor, Brown University’s Martin Keller, is being investigated by the Senate Finance Committee. [See RELATED LINK at right.] I was also able to get other scoops by looking for sources who would provide information about other professors; these blog posts shared with readers my reporting on important developments. For instance, after one national newspaper broke the story about the committee investigation into a Stanford University psychiatry professor, I continued to post more items that raised questions about his grant, specifically about how Stanford and the NIH handled the alleged conflict of interest being probed by the Senate committee.
By posting a few relatively short items—each given prominent space—I was able to convince additional sources to cooperate with me. Meanwhile, despite the initial widespread attention paid to this story about this Stanford professor, most in mainstream media largely stepped back from continuing coverage. And just one other blog spent any time doing investigative reporting. As a result, I broke the story that, under pressure from the NIH, Stanford reassigned the grant to another professor.
To an extent, I have to confess that I relied on my tabloid instincts in such situations. A quick hit can satisfy enough appetites for those hungry for more information about a juicy story. Having this flexibility to post about an e-mail here or a medical study there made it possible for me to stay in the game and attract readers and sources who cared about the topic.
Pharmalot, however, closed earlier this year, after I reluctantly took a buyout. Like other newspapers, The Star-Ledger was experiencing such severe financial conditions that at one point the owners said closing down was a possibility. It was a difficult decision, in part, because the blog had grown so popular—more than 11,000 daily visitors and 330,000 monthly page views. The size of the audience made it clear that there is tremendous interest in my approach to coverage. And in case you are wondering, I accomplished this without having to leave the house very often.
Ed Silverman was editor of Pharmalot (www.pharmalot.com) which was owned by The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. He covered the pharmaceutical industry for the newspaper for more than 11 years before launching Pharmalot and now works for Elsevier Business Intelligence.