A story 12 years in the telling

By John Hill/Fair Warning

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Reporter John Hill explains how he got the story about spinal decompression devices.

In almost three decades as a reporter, I’ve written only two stories that were never published. In the language of the newsroom, they got spiked.

The term, from what I understand, comes from the days when editors who read a story that displeased them would impale the offending paper on a spike mounted on a wooden base, like the ones waiters use for orders.

My first spiked story came early in my career, in the late 1980s. I was working at a weekly in Palo Alto, Calif. The editor assigned the reporters to each find a local worker — it could be anyone — and write a profile. I thought the assignment a tad banal, and resolved to profile someone who would scandalize the tasteful liberals of Palo Alto — a stripper.

John Hill
John Hill.

I had fun spending the day with Brandi, a wholesome New Ager serious about dance, and writing her story. But my editor saw it for what it was — an act of insubordination. Spike Number One.

The second came two decades later, when I was working as an investigative reporter at The Sacramento Bee, and this one had much more troubling implications for the state of the news business.

It all started one day when I got a tip that would launch me on a new project — a long email about a state agency, the Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

It seemed too juicy to be true. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had appointed a couple of old pals from bodybuilding days to this board, which was supposed to protect the public from quackery, ineptitude and thievery in the chiropractic ranks, the tipster wrote. And now these appointees were running amok, trying to make the board more friendly to their brand of chiropractic. The new chairman held that adjusting the spine in combination with alternative therapies could not only relieve back pain, but also cure everything from cancer to multiple sclerosis.

The editors at The Bee loved it. How could you not?

As a follow-up, one of my new sources suggested that I look into a medical device called the DRX9000 that claimed to cure back pain by stretching out the spinal disks. The board had tried to crack down on chiropractors making baseless claims about the device, the source said, but in the internet age, it was almost impossible to police bogus advertising that spread at the speed of light. My editor gave me the OK to pursue the story, and I was off.

I looked into the claims made for the DRX9000, and in a nutshell found that people were being enticed to pay thousands of dollars for a treatment that, despite a claimed 86 percent success rate, had never been scientifically proven.

I turned in the story, but soon found out that the top editors had problems with it. The objections seemed odd. After a couple of decades in the business, a reporter kind of knows when a story is not up to snuff. When an editor points it out, you think, “Well, yeah … ”

But the criticisms of the DRX9000 story seemed vague, hard to answer. One of the editors wanted the story written “more like a Time magazine article.” That left me scratching my head. I had made a reference in my first draft to the “placebo effect” – the tendency of patients to improve when they believe they are getting treatment, even if the supposed medication is a sugar pill. One editor was adamant that the term had no place in the story because “placebo effect” was medical jargon that no one would understand.

They did raise one valid point. I had not spoken to anyone who had undergone treatment with the DRX9000. I knew that chiropractors who offered DRX9000 treatment advertised in The Bee. I’d noted the frequent full-page ads. So I grabbed a recent issue and found one.

It included testimonials from satisfied customers. I managed to locate about a half dozen of them. A few confirmed that, indeed, the DRX9000 had relieved their back pain. A woman in Rocklin, a town east of Sacramento, told me that she had been forced to sell her daycare business and her home after she injured her neck and back picking up children. After six weeks on the DRX9000, she was off pain medication and able to pursue hobbies such as panning for gold.

The others told much different stories. One man said he paid about $12,000 for a series of treatments, felt better and agreed to write a testimonial. But after a few weeks, the pain came back as excruciating as ever. The 62-year-old eventually had surgery. He called the DRX9000 “witchcraft.”

A 23-year-old woman said in her testimonial that after DRX9000 treatments, “I feel I have been given a chance at a new life.” But the new life didn’t last, she told me. A year later, the beneficial effects had evaporated. She was taking pain medication around the clock. And she was still trying to pay off the $5,200 cost of the treatments. She was “a little shocked” to hear that her testimonial was part of the ad, and planned to ask the chiropractor to remove it.

“I don’t want other people to read it thinking it will cure them as well,” she said.

I added all of this to the story. But it didn’t help win over the editors – quite the contrary. They showered me with new criticisms. I rewrote the story two or three more times, and it moved up and down the chain of command. Finally, one last try met with…silence. The story sat for weeks, then months. I asked my boss about it periodically, and then less often. No one told me my story had been spiked — but it was hard to conclude otherwise.

As naive as it may seem, it had not occurred to me that it might be a problem for me to go after one of The Bee’s advertisers. I had been raised in a newspaper culture in which there was supposed to be an impenetrable wall between the business side and the newsroom. It was verboten for journalists to even think about the newspaper’s financial interests, and in those days many journalists were oblivious to the company’s balance sheet, surprising for people who were in the business of gathering information.

Certainly, there had been lapses over the years when newspapers caved in to pressure from advertisers. But we knew about these cases because they turned into scandals. They were considered anomalies, counterbalanced by the many tales of editors who proudly printed stories knowing full well that they would cut into the newspaper’s profits.

In “Knightfall,” a book about the decline of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, Davis Merritt recalls how in the 1960s the president of Knight newspapers assured the staff of The Charlotte Observer that they had “done the right thing” by running columns critical of a car salesman, despite the fact that it led to an advertising boycott that cost the chain several hundred thousand dollars.

Not long before I embarked on my DRX9000 project, The Bee had run stories critical of the safety record of Humvees that led to some advertising losses.

But times were changing in the news business. For decades, we had fretted about the loss of readers, but the profits kept pouring in. Now the internet was changing everything. First, Craigslist decimated classified ad revenue. Then the longtime stalwarts in display ads — department stores, car dealerships, supermarkets — started pulling out in favor of cheaper alternatives on the internet. Facebook and Google vacuumed up almost all the digital ad revenue, leaving newspapers with the crumbs, yoked to the unwieldy printing press because print ads still fetched higher prices. But even that source of revenue was drying up.

Where once you might have seen a full-page ad from Macy’s, you now got appeals to sell your gold coins, take control of your toenail fungus – or heal your back with the DRX9000. The Bee, in a desperate attempt to maintain revenue, was selling display ads at a discount. The DRX9000 chiropractors and curers of toenail fungus were the types of businesses that were taking advantage of the newly affordable rates.

It wasn’t just the Bee. I recently found several lawsuits filed by newspapers against spinal decompression clinics around the same time the Bee was running ads, from Buffalo to Phoenix. Apparently the clinics had failed to pay their advertising bills. In a complaint to the Food and Drug Administration alleging injuries from DRX9000 treatments, one patient wrote, “I was duped by a local chiropractor that had advertised in our local newspaper.”

In the newspaper business as a whole, the squeeze on revenue was endangering the wall between the newsroom and the ad side. Still, I went on as if nothing had changed. But by the time my DRX9000 story was spiked, I was forced to consider the possibility that the advertising had something to do with it. Do I know this for sure? No. Maybe the story just sucked, filled with incomprehensible medical gobbledygook and lacking that magical Time magazine touch considered de rigueur at The Sacramento Bee.

And I never confronted the editors. It was a very bad time for newspapers, the beginning of a tailspin that would remake the industry over three or four years and leave many journalists out of work. With two kids to support, I would have been naïve, I thought, not to weigh the consequences of an ugly showdown with the bosses.

A confrontation also would be embarrassing — like having to tell a coworker that you suspected them of doing something unsavory, like filching your pens.

Just as all of this was happening in the spring of 2008, I was chosen to be a journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. I would be heading off to Ann Arbor that fall, where the Knight-Wallace fellowship would pay me more than I made at The Bee to take whatever courses struck my fancy, drink wine and eat sumptuous meals twice a week with a dozen other fellows, and travel to Argentina and Russia. With a prospect like that on the horizon, why did I need to be picking fights with the newspaper that had granted me leave to go and whoop it up for a year?

I did go off to Ann Arbor, and it was everything I imagined it would be and more. Despite the many diversions, though, I found myself from time to time dwelling on my DRX9000 story. I told people about it until even I got sick of hearing it. As my year off wound to a close in the spring of 2009, I found myself dreading a return to The Bee. Part of it was that I felt transformed by the fellowship and couldn’t imagine going back to doing the exact same thing. But the killing of DRX9000 story played a part.

Around that time, a former colleague got in touch. She had taken a buyout from The Bee shortly after I left for the fellowship and gone to work for a newly formed office in the California Senate that did investigations of state operations. The office was hiring a third staff member, and she wondered if I would be interested.

It seemed a momentous decision to leave behind a job that had been so much more than that. It pained me deeply to leave a profession that had felt to me like putting on clothes that fit for the first time. I routinely got weepy over black-and-white movies that depicted frenetic, wise-cracking newsrooms of yore. They were romanticized, no doubt, but they captured the spirit of the places I had worked. My family forbade me from watching “His Girl Friday” one more time. But from an objective standpoint, staying at a newspaper was about as sensible as my great-grandfather’s decision in the 1890s to start a buggy business.

And so I went to work for the Senate. It was a satisfying job — our investigative reports often resulted in new laws or administrative reforms. My boss was an admirable public servant. But I knew in my heart that I was not truly independent, not the way I had been when I worked in a newsroom. And then, five years in, my boss was termed out and his successor apparently decided he didn’t like the idea of a bunch of ex-reporters snooping around the halls of government. And so he spiked our entire office.

Eventually, the lure of the newsroom proved irresistible, and in 2016 I left behind family and friends to work as investigations editor at a nonprofit news outlet in Honolulu. I was overjoyed to be back in a newsroom. When the pandemic hit, though, I realized I needed to be home in California and was lucky to find a good job here, at FairWarning.

One of our core coverage areas is consumer issues. And one day, while mulling over possible stories, the name popped into my head unbidden. “DRX9000.”

FairWarning published the story today, focusing not just on the DRX9000 but on the spinal decompression industry as a whole.

In the 12 years it took me to get it published, things have gone from bad to worse for newspapers. The fat financial cushion that allowed the media to take financial hits for reporting facts is threadbare at best. A host of nonprofits like FairWarning have blossomed, helping to fill the void left by a decade-and-a-half of layoffs. But most of them are not rolling in the dough, either.

Some day, I believe, someone will figure out how to make journalism profitable again, and publishers and editors will once more brag about losing money by pissing off advertisers. In the meantime, bleeding money and beat up by much of the public, we have to find some way to hold onto our independence. So it won’t take 12 years to tell the story of the next DRX9000.